London looks to Europe on active design

Wednesday 7 June 2017

© City Clock Magazine

London can learn valuable lessons from Paris, New York and Copenhagen in the art of integrating active travel and wellbeing into their new and existing pieces of cities.

Dominique Alba, Director, Atelier Parisien d’Urbanisme (APUR), kicked off an NLA breakfast session on the issue this morning with the French capital, which is to get a new metro line with 68 new stations and a ‘very high level of interconnection’. ‘That means that everyone in the future will be able to go by bicycle to the railway station or metro because everybody will be a maximum of 2km from a station’, she said. This will aid the city’s ‘huge target’ of walking, cycling and all sorts of shared mobility, while the city also has a ‘toolbox’ of other examples from other cities that show how change is not always an expensive proposition: ‘Sometimes you just have to sit on the street and it’s enough for a transformation’.

The Paris mayor, Anne Hidalgo, is using this strategy to inform seven places, including the Place de la Bastille, which is being reworked to allow more pedestrianisation, or the Place de la Nation, which now includes a roundabout where children learn to ride a bike. Another rule implemented by the mayor is to have more use of water for leisure, more quick ‘swiss army knife’ transformations-and-returns, such as with the left bank park/road, and a pledge for sports facilities less than five minutes from all Parisian’s homes. ‘This is for the Olympics, you know, because we are going to be the winner’, joked Alba. ‘So we need to be very active.’

Stockholm, said Monica von Schmalensee, CEO/VD, Partner, White, is often known as the ‘Venice of the north’, but the big debate now is how the city densifies. The proximity of the city to nature is another, along with public transportation, with rebuilding underway of what is the ‘backbone’ of the future city development, designs at Slussen, by Foster and Partners and White.

Stockholm is growing by an estimated 30% over the next 15 years and is thus looking to build a new ‘city’ of 140,000 housing units along with schools, libraries, cinemas, sport and commercial within its boundaries. So the city is also creating new parks and a lake in a new suburb called Arstafaltet, cleaning water for swimming in the centre and creating a dense new life-science cluster in Hagastaden near the centre. Finally, the city has a Vision 2040, which includes looking to reduce its carbon footprint and create a socially cohesive and egalitarian city as well as meeting its housing needs. ‘I think we have to talk about democratic architecture that really empowers people’, said von Schmalensee.

Public space, said Riccardo Moreni, Senior Consultant, Gehl Architects, is where we meet our future loves, and it should be ‘open and inviting’. But often falls short of that standard. Time is the most valuable thing we have, said Moreni, but the notion of ‘efficiency’ in cities creates a city of highways, whereas a city of streets are the core basis of what makes good place. ‘Public space needs to be for everybody in the demographic range’, said Moreni, especially when by 2050, 19% of the global population will be 80 years old. And yet walking environments for all are not always adequate. ‘Everybody wants progress but nobody wants change’, said Moreni, so people, not cars, should be put central to what we do, with people, rather than to them.  ‘The solution is not building bigger roads – that’s like being obese and buying a bigger pair of trousers.’ Health is about the way people feel, with fresh air that is an issue with London’s dangerous levels of particulates, and creating a public realm where ‘you feel like hugging somebody’ is critically important. Inactivity is a big killer, so making ‘invitations’ for people to change are crucial.

But Copenhagen’s success is not about the bike, but about quality of life, with cycling just the ‘barometer’ of the success of the city. It has met targets set in 2015, with car trips going down year on year, but what it has and London does not is a connected, coherent network, said Moreni. 56% of people cycle in Copenhagen because it is the easiest thing to do, ‘not because they’re going to save the planet. It’s because it’s easy. The invitation is there.’ And walking and cycling are the cheapest things to deliver, Moreni added.

New York is essentially an 18th and 19th century city, said the Pratt Institute’s David Burney, although today it is based on the quality of life of its inhabitants rather than industry and its value as a port. But it is doing ‘small things’ well but big things ‘really badly’, with the former including Times Square’s decluttering and pedestrianisation representing a start of a modal shift from cars to people. This led to a city-wide plaza programme, with a pipeline of 70 similar schemes, predicated on the success of temporary closures. One of the impacts of this has been a major uplift in retail in surrounding units, said Burney, as well as an increase in the number of people walking.

Wayfinding is important in walkability and making streets more legible, but cycling has been ‘behind the curve’, said Burney, even though its hire scheme has expanded ‘exponentially’, being used more as a commuting method. But one of the biggest transitions has been the changing waterfront, said Burney, from a manufacturing zone to other uses including recreation, with projects like the Hudson River Park, almost complete Brooklyn Bridge Park and ‘Diller Island’ – a controversial proposal to build a park on a pier. The New York ferry system has also been expanded. But things not going so well include the ‘suffering’ subway system, said Burney, with 70,000 delays recorded last month and a growth in ridership coupled with a lack of investment. The old, elegant Penn Station has been replaced: ‘It’s not only unpleasant, it’s downright dangerous’, said Burney. ‘So what do we do? We take $4bn and spend it on this Calatrava folly down by the World Trade Centre that serves about 60,000 people compared to the half million that use Penn station’. Airports are also under stress, with La Guardia and JFK ‘completely congested’ and difficult to access.

But the Centre for Active Design is doing good work in active design, looking at existing buildings via Fitwell, an accreditation system like BREEAM where property owners can have their buildings assessed, and at Assembly, to explore the relationship between place-based design and civic engagement.

David Taylor

Editor, New London Quarterly 


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