Monday, April 11, 2011

Cities for People - towards sustainable cities

What to build?

What would you build, if you could build whatever you wanted in the city? What would you build today to make your city better for people?

Complexity in the city

On one hand the problem is complex. Every city is unique with different resources, problems and opportunities. Every city has a unique set of people with their own fears, hopes and dreams. Every city has its own unique culture.
So how can you say what to build in the city?

Simplicity in the city

On the other hand many answers are simple and apply to every city anywhere in the world. Here are some suggestions to make your city for people:

More parks

Lester R Brown from the Earth Policy Institute believes that the ratio of parks to parking lots may be the best single indicator of liveability of a city. Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogota, perhaps summed up the situation best:
“Roads, the public space for cars, receive infinitely more resources and less budget cuts than parks, the public space for children. Why are the public spaces for cars deemed more important than the public spaces for children?"
Makes you think, doesn’t it?

More pedestrianised areas and cycle paths

Like Jan Gehl did when he Copenhagenized Copenhagen. Why can’t there be more Nyhavns in the world, where a road and car park is turned into one of the most beautiful areas in the city? Or Portland, an American city with the surprising fact of having more kilometres of cycle paths than Copenhagen?

Inspiring new developments...

...that show a brighter future, a vision of sustainability and source of pride for the residents. Like the Western Harbour in Malmö, the prime area of the city and one of the most sustainable developments in the world. Or the Commerzbank tower in Frankfurt, the tallest building in Europe when it was built in 1997 and 30% more energy efficient than a typical skyscraper.

Fantastic public transport facilities...

...that put the need of people above the need of cars. And we should do it profitably. Who could not fail to be inspired by the phenomenal transformations of Curitiba and Bogota? And it a large part of it was due to a humble bus system.

Facilities that treat our waste as a resource...

...not as waste. The garbage that is not garbage campaign in Curitiba showed how a simple idea can make a big difference – Curitiba claims to have the highest recycling rate in the World . It all started with the children, who then convinced the adults.

More local renewable energy...

...and technology to use energy more effectively. The Western Harbour in Malmö has 100% locally produced renewable energy, thanks to an intelligent combination of wind, solar and geothermal energy production, as well as some of the most energy efficient buildings money can buy.

A culture of sustainability

Involve people to determine their own futures. Like in Toronto where people who use the public transport system formed a group and are now helping the city build a system they want. Like when Curitiba planted a million trees and asked their people to look after them, watering them as necessary. And they did because they wanted to. They shared the vision of new Curitiba. A city for people, not for cars.

How to make Cities for People?

I've come to believe three things about making cities for people:
  1. It is a good idea to make cities for people
  2. Many cities aren't built for people (maybe for cars, though?)
  3. Therefore, it must be hard to build cities for people
This section is about ideas of how you can make cities for people happen, based upon success stories from other cities:

7 steps for success

1. Lead. And lead by example. Anders Rubin is deputy mayor of Malmö and is at the heart of the city's revolution. He does not have a driver's licence, so he has an extra reason to care about having great cycle paths and public transport.
Wouldn't it be interesting if every politician did not drive? What do you think our transport systems would look like then?
2. Action. As Nike say, Just Do It. This extract from the New York Times is one of the great cities for people stories:
On Saturday mornings, children gather to paint and draw in the main downtown shopping street of Curitiba, in southern Brazil. More than just a charming tradition, the child's play commemorates a key victory in a hard-fought, ongoing war. Back in 1972, the new mayor of the city, an architect and urban planner named Jaime Lerner, ordered a lightning transformation of six blocks of the street into a pedestrian zone. The change was recommended in a master plan for the city that was approved six years earlier, but fierce objections from the downtown merchants blocked its implementation. Lerner instructed his secretary of public works to institute the change quickly and asked how long it would take. ''He said he needed four months,'' Lerner recalled recently. ''I said, 'Forty-eight hours.' He said, 'You're crazy.' I said, 'Yes, I'm crazy, but do it in 48 hours.' '' The municipal authorities were able to accomplish it in three days, beginning on a Friday night and installing paving, lighting, planters and furniture by the end of the day on Monday. ''Being a very weak mayor, if I start to do it and take too long, everyone could stop it through a juridical demand,'' Lerner went on to explain. ''If they stop the work, it's finished. I had to do it very fast, at least in part. Because we had discussed it a great deal. Sometimes they have to have a demonstration effect.''
The demonstration worked. Within days, impressed by the increase in their business, the once-recalcitrant shop owners were demanding an extension of the traffic-free district. Some diehard motorists, however, sulked. Lerner heard that a group of them were planning to disregard the prohibition and drive their cars into the street on a Saturday morning. So he contrived an unbreachable defense. With the cooperation of the city's teachers and a donation of rolls of newsprint and boxes of paint, on that morning he assembled several hundred children in the street, where they sat and drew pictures. ''It was to say, 'This is being done for children and their parents -- don't even think of putting cars there,' '' he told me. The sputtered-out protest was the last resistance to the pedestrianization of the shopping area, which has since expanded from the original 6 blocks to encompass about 15 today. ''Of course, this was very emblematic,'' Lerner recounted. ''We were trying to say, 'This city is not for cars.' When many mayors at the time were planning for individual cars, we were countervailing.'' He observed that it was emblematic in another way also: ''From that point, they said, 'If he could do this in 72 hours, he can do anything.' It was a good strategy.''
Could a city paralysed by bureaucracy make the progress Jaime Lerner did in Curitiba? I doubt it.
3. Culture. I like marathon running, and one of my favourite sayings is "Train the mind, and the body will look after itself". It's not a bad moto for cities too, in my opinion. Cities need to build infrastructure, but they could also benefit from thinking how they can change the way people think about the city.
The city of Adelaide started their Thinkers in Residence program in 2003, where they invited influential people to their city to help them think differently. The first thinker was Sustainable City expert Herbert Girardet, who asked how to create aSustainable Adelaide mostly by building the right things. Second came Charles Landry, who helped Adelaide Capture Imagination and challenged Adelaide to use its creative culture to reinvent itself.
Do you think that this a great way to try to better our cities?
4. Creativity. Jaime Lerner, in his excellent TED presentation Sing a Song of Sustainable Cities, said "Creativity starts when you cut a zero from your budget. If you cut two zeros then it is much better".
There are always excuses to change - Cities need creativity to transcend barriers. Or as Albert Einstein said,
"You cannot solve a problem with the same thinking that created it"
5. Acupuntura Urbana. Or Urban Acupuncture, in English. Another Idea from Jaime Lerner - do something amazing that everyone can see, hear and feel. It could be physical, like the Western Harbour in Malmö or an event like Ciclovia in Bogotá.
Urban Acupuncture can be little or big, but it is felt far and wide and can have a dramatic effect on the city.
6. If you build it, they will come. Jan Gehl, the genius behind Copenhagen's transformation from a city for cars to a city for people (and bicycles!) always has belief. This interview with Jan Gehl gives you some ideas of how he thinks. Have you ever worried that your ideas will not work? You're not alone, but have faith.
7. Start with the children. Us adults are slow. Slow to change, slow to innovate and slow to care about the future. Not the children. Curitba separates more of its waste than any other city in the world, thanks to the children.
What do you think? How would you make Cities for People?