Thursday, July 01, 2010

Our Cities Ourselves

Last week the exhibition Our Cities Ourselves: The Future of Transportation in Urban Life opened at the Center for Architecture, running until mid-September. Organized by the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP) to mark their 25th anniversary, the exhibition gathers "ten of the world's leading architects* [to] show how integrating urban planning with transport can enable cities to thrive, while also combating climate change and managing population growth." Each architect designed visionary but practical solutions for ten cities on six continents, most in developing areas outside of North America and Europe. Their designs comprise the bulk of the show, alongside some hanging bicycles, a becak, and a bus interior graphically depicted in one of the spaces. Not surprisingly, the focus of IDTP, if not the designers, is biking and bus rapid transit (BRT), in addition to the usual emphasis on walking.

[How much for the bikes in the window?]

Being drawn into the exhibition by the hanging bikes, the visitor is confronted with the "ten principles of sustainable transport." These are key to ITDP's efforts and the designs which take them into account. Developed with über-urbanist Jan Gehl and published in a booklet (review forthcoming), the principles seem fairly obvious, but this doesn't obviate the need for their articulation.
1-Walk the walk: Create great pedestrian environments.
2-Powered by people: Create a great environment for bicycles and other non-motorized vehicles.
3-Get on the bus: Provide great, cost-effective public transport.
4-Cruise control: Provide access for clean passenger vehicles at safe speeds and in significantly reduced numbers.
5-Deliver the goods: Service the city in the cleanest and safest manner.
6-Mix it up: Mix people and activities, buildings and spaces.
7-Fill it in: Build dense, people and transit oriented urban districts that are desirable.
8-Get real: Preserve and enhance the local, natural, cultural, social and historical assets.
9-Connect the blocks: Make walking trips more direct, interesting and productive with small-size, permeable buildings and blocks.
10-Make it last: Build for the long term. Sustainable cities bridge generations. They are memorable, malleable, built from quality materials, and well maintained.
The principles are also fairly dry, making the role of the designers in the exhibition that much more important. They give form to the list, in many cases pushing the boundaries of what is possible or acceptable in urban situations, making for some good-nature discussion on the visionary designs. But in some cases the renderings overshadow the principles, drawing attention away from them and towards the sometimes fantastical imagery. Not all visitors will have IDTP's executive director giving them the lowdown on the ten projects, as members of the press were treated to last week.

[A becak retrofitted for the exhibition, opposite the ten principles.]

Speaking of executive director Walter Hook, in his comments the word "blight" was used to describe the existing conditions of many of the projects in the exhibition. It reminded me of the term's use in the mid-20th-century in slum-raising urban renewal projects in places like New York City. Blight was the reason for tearing down neighborhoods and building public housing in their place. The success, or lack thereof, of the supposedly blighted areas' replacements -- towers in the park, in many cases -- contributed to a too-late questioning of the term's misuse. I think Hook's use of the word is different -- referring to areas disfigured by primarily massive automobile infrastructure -- but no less political in this sense. Physically aligning some of the project sites with the damage to the urban fabric done by automobiles may be matter-of-fact, or a pointed critique that sets up the walking, biking, and BRT modes in opposition to cars.


Like many studies of sustainable architecture and urbanism today, 2030 is used as a target for implementation and evaluation. Still far enough off to feel like we have time to develop alternatives and find ways to implement them, 2030 will still see plenty of automobiles, even if countries like the US curb their appetite for cars and developing countries learn from our mistakes. So transportation infrastructure in the future will need to accommodate a mix of modes, from walking and biking to cars, buses, and trains. This is a mix taken by many of the designs, even as BRT and bike's prevail.

For safety, I think the speed of cars needs to fall closer to those of walking and biking (4-15 mph), letting buses be the speedy movers of people, with dedicated thoroughfares and stations for speedy on and off. (Taking out traffic lights is one tactic used in Holland for reducing overall speeds of cars, but without increasing travel times; and the slowness of buses in cities now is attributed more to riders paying when they get on, not traffic.) But convincing people that mass transit should be given a priority over personal autos is tricky, to say the least. The ten designs at Center for Architecture (traveling to the other nine cities in the future, if all goes to plan) may woo people with their colorful -- mainly green -- renderings and optimism, but they also run the risk of pissing of those who think cars and speed are equated with vitality and progress. I think that's certainly a risk worth taking.

*Participating architects and their cities (see WNYC's culture page for before and after views of the designs):
Ahmedabad, India | HCP Design and Project Management
Budapest, Hungary | Varos-Teampannon and Kozlekedes
Buenos Aires, Argentina | PALO Arquitectura Urbana
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania | Adjaye Associates
Guangzhou, China | Urbanus Architecture & Design
Jakarta, Indonesia | Budi Pradono Architects
Johannesburg, South Africa | Osmond Lange Architects and Ikemeleng Architects
Mexico City, Mexico | Arquitectura 911sc
New York City, United States | Terreform and Michael Sorkin Studio
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil | Fábrica Arquitetura and CAMPO

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