#FLthecity: Re-enchanting the city (1)

Time for another city MOOC…Re-enchanting the city: designing the human habitat from the UNSW Built Environment team kicked off on 2 May for six weeks. Over 5k registered.

Most people now live in cities. With populations growing, how do we make these dense future cities green, liveable and poetic?

The city is humanity’s most complex and extraordinary artefact. As the world population grows and becomes ever more urban, the making of future cities is no longer just about aesthetics or convenience. Questions of sustainability and culture are more and more crucial. In fact, it can be said that the future of the city is the future of the species.

Uses an interdisciplinary approach, exploring the interdependencies of assorted professions (aka urbanists) via an investigation of the development process behind Sydney’s Central Park, a “a cutting-edge, high-density urban infill project”, “zooming in and out from the human scale to the broader context of human activities”.

Of most interest for answers to the question of what it takes to make a great city, not least “how we keep our heritage while creating a green and sustainable future”. Perhaps less so for “how we engage local democracy to make urban density both sustainable and poetic” and (the “core question”): “how do we design our way into an ultra-green, ultra-urban future?”.

Defining terms (see the nine page glossary):

  • built environment – a spatial product of culture, history, technology and materials; all man-designed and man-made environments that provide a platform for human activities
  • built environment professions – about the public interest; their primary goal is to make more liveable and sustainable cities, well-designed, efficient, effective, enjoyable, beautiful – also serving everybody (if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, how can you serve everybody?)
  • enchantment –  captivation, fascination, intense attraction, with an element of surprise, something beautiful and of magical quality, together resulting in feelings of wonder and delight
  • gentrification – not in the glossary; “an often violent process by which a complex and diverse urban environment becomes more homogeneous and exclusionary. It does to neighborhoods and cities what climate change is doing to the earth” (Rebecca Solnit)
  • heritage – a building of great historical or artistic value that has official protection to prevent it from being changed or destroyed
  • liveability – in the context of dense cities refers to them being fit for people of all ages and levels of abilities, providing all the necessary amenities for a healthy and balanced lifestyle, including walkability and accessibility, attractive public places, affordability and effective transport systems (defining liveability | Liveable City)
  • living green – a sustainable way of life reducing our negative impact on the environment
  • poetic – what appeals to the imagination and something that has a sensitive, evocative style of expression that will speak to the human emotions
  • resililence – vs sustainability qv
  • suburban – not in glossary
  • urban – settlements are usually designated as urban once they have grown large enough to support industries which are not rural in nature
  • walkability – a measure of how accessible and easy an area is for walking; generally calculated as a composite of factors which includes at least net residential density, street connectivity and land use mix

I fear we are in trouble here, with Lisbon’s dancing traffic light manikin making an early appearance, plus music-making swings in Montreal. My enchanting cites at the moment: Ghent, Rotterdam and, always, Milton Keynes. Rowan Moore on Little Atoms was a reminder of the complete London, the truly global city.

Cue padlet exercise: “identify some part of your city or hometown that you find enchanting”, hmm. Post a pic/vid and write a 100-150 word justification, like and comment on three and then select the three most important elements of a city that contribute to enchantment from a Gehl-like list of nice things. In my current context it is diversity, variety of scale and the iconic (which may also be the historic) that mean the most.

Central Park Sydney (Twitter | YouTube), our case study, sits on the historic site of the former Carlton United Brewery, and includes Jean Nouvel’s Twin Tower, declared best tall building in the world by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat in 2014, equipped with vertical gardens. (Lots on this, largely skipped.) It looks quite err…enchanting, as I commented:

On one level I like the look of Central Park. The mixed use element has a definite appeal and the reuse of heritage elements looks successful. The “dare to think big” approach appeals.

But it does all look rather shiny, and as mentioned by others below I’d like to know how much of it is quasi-public space, how affordable the housing is, etc.

Reminiscent of Finlayson in Tampere, but not really of what’s going on down at Carlsberg. And how about Rotterdam’s Timmerhuis? There is an issue however with eg the ‘curated’ (nashes teeth) Brewery Yard Markets, which don’t sound gentrified at all, honest: “a Sunday market in which stallholders offer produce, fashion, flora, wares and other products”).

Interesting binary observation:

Many of us have a love/hate relationship with our cities. On the one hand, cities can seem crowded, dirty, and noisy. On the other, they could be rich in history, vibrant, and energising. The upside– the magic– is often more apparent in older, historic cities, while modern cities can seem like a concrete jungle…we need to recreate that magic.

The beauty of historical cities usually derives from qualities like human scale, ornament, composition, and architectural articulation, from relationships between outside and inside, from the poetic use of technology, and the elegance of sustainable, or nature-sensitive design

Small is beautiful? Birthday girl Jane Jacobs got a shout-out for being “one of the first to recognise that good cities comprise not only the big, the fast and the shiny, but also the slow, the small, the old, the local, and the communal”, but at the moment it’s eggs: basket.

Hyperdensity, civic delight – and the suburbs

Hyperdensity seems to be the MOOC’s big thing. My civic delight is somewhat limited, but FWIW Vishaan Chakrabarti defines hyperdensity, ie density sufficient to support intensive public transportation systems, typically 75 dwelling units per hectare or 30 units per acre, as good urban design, contributing to the health, prosperity and sustainability of cities. The #FLthecity team goes further: “density can be positive for cities in terms of beauty, joy, public health, economy and the environment”. And if people don’t like it, they can be nudged into it *hackles raise* (is this MOOC designed as a nudge??).

Density is a measure of the number of dwellings or population size in a given land area, often visualised in terms of the building height/number of storeys in relation to the amount of open space – see the visualising density infographicUrban Density Simulator and Measuring density, NYC vs London, Tokyo and San Francisco in maps, plus Chakrabarti’s Building hyperdensity and civic delight and vid,

Some density figures from my collection (200+/km = urban):

  • 1800: 83/ha, 1945: 53/ha, 1988: 30/ha, 2010: 24/ha (dunno!)
  • London: relatively low density: 5K/km2 (lots of terraces; extremes); see London’s high life?, a London Society event on 5 April; a Gdn piece shows English city density ranging from 15% (Leicester) to 5.2% (Leeds, Bradford), with London at 13.3%
  • Barcelona: 103 road intersections per sq km, compared to Brasilia’s 41 or Shanghai’s Pudong area with only 17; Barcelona: 15,685 people per sq km, compared to London’s 5,491 or Copenhagen’s 1,850 (WTF?; the most dense city in Europe until it burst through the voldene)
  • Ghent: 7703/km2 (centre), 1109/m2 (suburbs)
  • Paris: 21,500/km2

Whose density is it anyway? As reflected above, there are many ways to measure it. How can we increase the density of London’s West End? Here’s how Australian cities have grown over the last 30 years (good diagrams). Update: another dense article.

See Peter Rees on density: “The idea that to increase density you have to build high is, frankly, bollocks. To achieve high density, you build around the edges of a site, put a nice garden with trees in the middle, five to seven storeys tall. Cities from Helsinki to Naples have developed like that over 100s of years. When you build a high-rise block in the middle of a site, the open space is in the wrong place, it’s around the outside of the site where the traffic is. It doesn’t feel private. You don’t want to sit in your deck chair looking out on Vauxhall Cross.” Build up or move out? Let’s hear it for medium density.

But see also Joel Kotkin on urbanism for the rest of us (The Urbanist, 28 April | Urban Review | New America | New Geography), who argues for a dispersed and less homogeneous city: when asked, the vast majority of people want space when they reach their 30s and 40s. Not everyone wants to be hip and glamorous. Could density (tæthed) turn out to be the new concrete – public responses to several developments locally have been resistant to the number of houses being crammed in.

The density and other characteristics of the suburbs also popped up in Victor Enrich’s exhibition Stad van morgen: over de rand in Ghent’s STAM: “Cities are a mixture of various elements, and so are their suburbs…the distinct identity of suburbs is precisely what offers possibilities for the future and the standard of living in our cities”. His series of images aimed to demonstrate the “undiscovered potential of the suburbs as players of an important role in formulating valuable answers to some of the needs of the contemporary city”.

Centre or suburb? was the title of a Royal Academy event aimed at “locating the soul of 21st century London” and taking place on the day Tooting’s Sadiq Khan was elected Mayor of London. Exclusive hyperdense city centres are well and good in Monocle’s lifestyle cities, targeting hipsters (aspiring and otherwise) and to be consumed out of hours and by the city break crowd, but is it not the suburbs where we should be looking for solutions to the problems of the city?

Uses the end of week wrap-up model (which really ought to be mandatory or it’s all too easy to ignore the social – it needs proper curation!), posted on a Saturday. Key points from week 1:

  • Does enchantment fade over time? While examples like the dancing traffic light are fun and engaging the first time people see and interact with it, its captivation and magic may not be as significant after seeing it over an extended period. How do we maintain enchantment over an extended period? Ideas shared included:
    • When a story becomes embedded into the experience
    • When public places become platforms for inhabitants to share ideas
    • When an object/the environment responds in an ‘intelligent’ way to users
    • Is moving on an emotional level
    • Art integrated with participation
    • …which you might be tempted to call the ‘whimsical unfolding of civic life’ rather than the ‘living culture of a city’
  • Issues around hyperdensity:
    • affordability and cost of services
    • backyards and their value to families
    • busyness/crowding nature of high density, lack of areas for solitude
    • crime
    • economic constraints of some cities/countries
    • geographic issues
    • privacy
    • size of apartments – liveability on inside
    • social problems of isolation
    • plus applicability to eg developing countries

After all that week 2 was a bit meh, centred around the development process which led to Central Park, a pretty classic property development saga with a hyperdense layer. Long series of vids from stakeholders – the timeline is enough for me. Of most interest is the response from local residents, more akin to Hvidovre Bymidte than the picture painted elsewhere. Note also that the Valby Grønttorvet development was made less dense during the planning process. (But more often it’s a case of if you can’t get the residents you want, just decant ’em.)

We are invited to comment on a local controversial development, but of course DK doesn’t really do controversy. Ørestad? Papirøen? and to pen 150 words, Like three comments, etc, as a Central Park stakeholder.

Also to identify who ‘owns’ your city, ie “the extent to which individuals or groups influence and implement decisions around the design and workings of the city”, from a pick list, but heavens, I don’t know, is it meant to be an opinion or fact based? Like new followee Duncan Mackay I could not proceed. Government won, followed by community/local residents, built environment professionals, activitists and other. Still doesn’t make much sense to me.

Key points from the week were the role of women in the built environment, including the need to increase their presence and representation, the nature of healthy cities, the challenge between planners and planning authorities, and the affordability of housing with increasing density.

New post calls – see the #FLthecity tag.