No city limits

As with the pioneers who created Paris, New York and other great cities, 21st-century urban planners have to reconcile the conflicting demands of rapidly changing technologies, environments and demographics

Rapid urbanisation, increased mobility and population growth have created a huge pressure to plan cities for the future. What these look like is a work in progress, but masterplanners, government authorities and developers have been experimenting with how to plan a city for many years.

The emerging smart, eco and informal cities have become test beds for responsive technology, low-tech solutions and alternative resources, demonstrating that no singular design approach exists.

Evidenced by our own obsession and romance with them, cities reflect human behaviour and desire, representing certain identities and aspirations – they are physical honeytraps. Their growth is dependent on the intangible (a sense of place) as much as the prosaic (affordability and accessibility).

With more than two-thirds of the world projected to be living in urban settlements by 2050, it is no wonder that planners have become the darlings of the global community, and how they go about planning our cities a true fascination.

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For Helen Logan, a lead architect at Allies & Morrison, history is the cornerstone of planning. “You rarely have a site that hasn’t been touched by human hands,” she says. “Even when it hasn’t, it has a particular topography and a character... a

history.” Imbued with the sense of the past, cities such as London and other European capitals face particularly complex conditions for developing new buildings and characters.

The London-based practice is working on masterplanning projects in the Middle East and Europe, and is behind the King’s Cross London development, where the focus has been on the “in-between spaces”, building in flexibility so that architects designing the buildings within the plan can forge new and different identities for this part of the city. Logan believes the most important thing is the site itself. “Great masterplans respond to what’s there,” she says.

In spring last year, the Chinese government launched such a masterplan to meets the demands of what has been the largest urban migration in history – it projects that 60 per cent of the population will be living in cities by 2020. The plan envisions a huge construction programme of transport networks, infrastructure and residential developments. China has invested billions of dollars in clean energy and is building more public transit than all other nations combined.

While some nations are adapting their cities continuously, growing to accommodate new residents and evolving as they expand, some developments in emerging economies are taking a tabula rasa approach. In Songdo, South Korea, for example, infrastructure and services have been designed to be invisible.

You rarely have a site that hasn’t been touched by human hands. Even when it hasn’t, it has a particular topography and a character... a history

Helen Logan, Lead architect, Allies & Morrison

Indeed, on paper, Songdo is a utopic environment where rubbish is sucked out of houses into a network of underground pipes to a waste management plant out of sight and where the transit system is in sync with its users. While Songdo is designed to be a model sustainable, tech-integrated city, it has been slow to be populated.

“You’re trying to create a diversity and a vitality that organic development creates, in and of itself,” Jonathan Thorpe, CIO of Gale International, Songdo’s developer, told the BBC, “so it’s a challenge to try and replicate that in a masterplan setting. At the same time, with a masterplan you have the ability to size the infrastructure to make sure the city works – now and in 50 years’ time.”

While its waterways recall those of Venice and its towers huddled around the large park mirror New York’s Central Park, the 40 per cent of outdoor space is Songdo’s own design. Indeed, public space has enormous currency in planning. In the case of the hi-tech city of Masdar in Abu Dhabi, mobility is vital to vibrant streets and connected spaces.

For Masdar, Norman Foster’s practice used ancient souks to inform the orientation of its winding streets, combining new materials with traditional devices to capture wind and shade. Local conditions are vital to city planning, and emerging cities such as Dubai are investing in projects that respond to extreme climates, organising space in new ways to enable building in previously restrictive places. One such project is Arup’s Pedways proposal, which

delineates ventilated and shaded walkways to extend the reach of the metro. The project also identifies existing spaces that can be adapted to encourage movement and connections. In this instance, the shopping mall has replaced the traditional public squares and can be seen as a connection as much as a destination.

“The most enduring thing about any city – like the Roman roads in London – are streets,” says Logan, “they endure beyond the buildings.” Urban sociologist Saskia Sassen emphasises this point: “The new Dubai [has made] attempts to generate street space, even in the form of walkways on the artificial lake and generating enough boat traffic on the lake to give a sense of street space, too.”

How people used and navigated the streets of New York became the subject of iconic urban planner Jane Jacobs’ book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Her observations of people – mostly from her window – allowed her insights into how the city shaped people’s lives, its failures and successes: “Frequent streets and short blocks are valuable

because of the fabric of intricate cross-use that they permit among the users of a city neighbourhood.”

In New York, a premium has been placed on public space. In contrast to the higgledy-piggledy streets that evolved from the Dutch and English settlers, the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 laid out a grid connecting the East River with the Hudson River trade routes.

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The parcels of land carved out were distinctive. Policies have ensured commercial buildings provide for horizontal public space below. Central Park, conceived as a playground for the wealthy, has over time been developed as a public park.

Cities are at the whim of the people. The planner Amanda Burden recognised this when she changed 115 zoning laws to implement her vision. The riversides have been transformed from industrial to public and cultural, and a scheme to provide affordable housing within a 10-minute walk from the subway in Manhattan has helped make the city less elitist.

Burden helped rescue the Highline, the elevated railway turned park and cultural attraction in the Meatpacking District, from demolition. Her commitment to excellence of design and her efforts to engage architects and designers in projects has been key to the provision of public spaces.

For Jacobs, “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody”. While the examples here of advocacy and implementation come from the strength and courage of lone figures, planning resists singular voices, but is made at the hands of many. Indeed, emerging and mature cities alike are an amalgam of history as much as a result of future-led aspirations.