The Other City

Many a Melburnian arrives home after an overseas adventure sporting, among other things, a perfunctory reaction to the ‘liveability’ of their own hometown. Visiting cities in other places usually confirms one’s prejudice about how stuffed Melbourne is, or it leads to overly illustrious praise.

Where once stood a Wall, now stands a fence... Ebertstraße, Berlin.

The great thing for me about the time I’ve spent travelling over the past few weeks, is that most of it has been in cities. Small cities, big cities, and one or two mega-cities, for good measure. I travelled most recently to indulge my curiosity and study of urban planning, and experienced these places in a way quite unlike the tourists I encountered. My interest was not in seeing the sights and visiting attractions, but in experiencing each city at the street level – the spaces between the things to see – was what I hoped to better understand.

In Frieburg I looked at cooperative housing developments that sought to meet and exceed the (German) Passivhaus standard for energy efficiency. I found that largely, the people of Freiberg view things like solar and wind energy integration and energy efficiency as enticing challenges, and not as a threat to their standard of living. But of course, they are different.

Bike riders, Hans Christian Andersen Boulevard, Copenhagen.

In Berlin, Copenhagen and Amsterdam, I watched as people pedalled from place to place on their impossibly elegant, upright bikes. Wearing only a segregated bike lane for protection, most were unaware that where I come from, we wear a helmet law which offers no protection at all.

In Prague I saw that conserving heritage buildings is mostly a nonpartisan cause, which poses both problems and opportunities for the city and it’s people. I saw that built heritage is something to be celebrated; if not by locals, then by the visitors who like to look at it and take pictures.

Jægersborg Dyrehave (The Deer Park), Copenhagen, is an open space protected by a real urban growth boundary.

In Copenhagen I saw that a long term strategy of preserving public open spaces (green belts and wedges) is reason to codify urban growth boundaries, and not to scrap them. I also saw segregated bike lanes – but I may have already mentioned this.

In Barcelona, Dublin, London and other places I saw bike share systems that were, well, very much in use. Tourists, families, workers, professionals and kids all zipping about as though there’s nothing to it. I mentioned bike lanes earlier, but did I mention the helmet law thing?

I saw lots of other things too; Ildefons Cerdà’s layout for the less old parts of Barcelona; the docklands redevelopments of Malmö, Hamburg, Rotterdam, Dublin and London (we’re not the only ones to do it poorly); and the phoenix city* that is Bilbao. Ghery’s art house isn’t all there is to see there, I’m very pleased to report.

So when I flew back in to Melbourne earlier this week, I felt that my city had some serious explaining to do. Arriving home to the wild wet of winter, what could she possibly say to justify herself in the face of such formidable competition?

Turns out she said nothing. She didn’t have to say a word.

*Pheonix City is a phrase borrowed from the 2010 book by Anne Power, Jörg Plöger and Astrid Winkler titled ‘Phoenix cities: The fall and rise of great industrial cities’ (The Policy Press).

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Simply Parisienne

I don’t wish to gush, but; ahh… Paris. It’s nice to see you again.

The streets of Montmartre, early evening, Paris.

Paris is the epitome of a ‘long wave’ city (refer to my Wave City Theory  – you’ll be glad you did). The patterns of life for Parisians are routine, but they evolve with the months and seasons. Consistent with my definition of a long-wave city, Paris has a rich multicultural heritage but maintains a dominant Parisian sensibility. There are always things going on – tourism related things of course, as well as sporting and cultural things. It’s a city of drama, and a city of leisure. But what trumps all of this, is that Paris is a city people live in.

As I explore places beyond postcard Paris, I begin to wonder about how the city evolved, and how people come to form their patterns of life within it. Ideas about chickens and eggs sprung to mind – what came first, the city, or the daily routines of its residents? Of course there has already been much written about Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s layout of boulevards (too wide to barricade, but wide enough for military parades and manoeuvres, according to Mumford anyway). From a planning perspective though, this is only one part of the story.

What I’ve discovered to be so interesting about Paris is the way the city adapts to the demands placed on it throughout the day. Early in the morning, Parisians can be found heading out from their homes in search of their daily bread (quite literally). Its not a cliche; the baguette is a staple of French daily life and a reason to venture out in to the street with money enough to procure one. In Paris, the humble bread stick is at the core of vibrant street culture at 6am.

Every city does street signs - Paris does them best.

By about 9am, cafes are open, and people are out and about doing what people do in any large metropolis. I suspect that in Paris though, most of those sitting at the cafe tables are in fact tourists. These tourists seem to be widely dispersed throughout the city though – each laying claim to their own piece of her. But it’s locals that seem to be bring the most vibrancy to the streets. They’re the ones that bring the most colour and movement as they stop and chat to the shop keepers, cafe owners, tradespeople and others as everyone goes about their morning routine. The vitality of nearly every city street at this time of day is generated by locals – the rest of us are just watching on.

I think the hour before lunch is my favourite hour of the day in Paris. Everyone seems to be preparing for something. The shops are open, people are busily going from place to place. It seems like everywhere you go, there are tables to set and food to prepare. This is a city that knows how to eat – and sitting down is really the only right way to do it. It feels as though lunch time is viewed less by Parisians as a time to escape from work, and more a time to socialise, and rest. A glass of wine (or more) with lunch is perhaps the single most prominent manifestation of this. It’s a reminder that what’s to come for the remainder of the day ought only be viewed as deed, and not as duty. It’s well understood that wine to the French is something of a National icon – something to be revered. But more than anything, it’s something to drink and enjoy. It’s effect is not to impair what remains of the working day, but to enhance it. There are two sides to every coin.

A street vendor and his spotter, early evening under a certain Paris landmark.

In the evening, during summer at least, Paris transforms again. Bars and Bistros swell with patrons bringing the streets back to life after the afternoon lull – and everyone is welcome. Crowds gather around performers along the streets and boulevards. They gather too, at the numerous big attractions, where street vendors wander through the crowd; their spotters ever watchful for any sign of the police.

The streets of Paris are a place where young people, old people and families can feel safe. Absent are marauding packs of antisocial youths; of drunken and belligerent men; or others looking for opportunities to inflict harm. Paris at night, like so many of the other great European cities I have visited on this trip, is a safe, attractive and pleasant place to be. The revelry is contagious, and dispersed throughout the city. And on the Metro ride home, I’m commonly joined by sweet old ladies, mature couples and polite young people enjoying each others company. There’s not a drunk or stoned passenger in sight.

"Le Pouce" by César Baldaccini (obscured), and La Grande Arche (from the North), La Defense, Paris.

If what I have to say here seems less a commentary on the planning and urban design characteristics of Paris and more like a passage from a travel diary, then you have misunderstood my meaning. Paris is less a city and more a pattern of life, at least for those 2.1 million or so that live within it’s 20 central arrondissements. Paris is famous for so many wonderful and unique things, but the overwhelming thing that attracts people to this city is something that few visitors are readily able to identify or understand. It’s very much buried in the physical form of the place.

Everyone who comes to Paris lives a little differently when they do. The city makes you live differently, and inevitably leads you to thoughts of how city life might be improved if we did some things more like the Parisians do, or if we built our towns and cities in a way that would allow us. Not everyone who visits Paris likes it, and indeed, not everything about Paris is desirable. But everyone who visits Paris is changed by it, even if they don’t recognise or admit to it.

Paris is a wonderful city.

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Nice Town for a Change

Letchworth Garden City: Day twenty-nine

I didn’t think I would say this, but Letchworth Garden City is perfectly pleasant, and is probably a lovely place to live. But there’s no way I could live there.

Letchworth Garden City Station

The open spaces, parklands and commons are great. On the Saturday morning of my visit, there were old people, young people, families, kids and couples all out and about. But although lots of the shops were open, no one was doing anything exciting, or even interesting. It was all just very nice.

Turns out that my first impressions are not entirely original, or unique. As I prepared to head back to Letchworth station by ducking through what I thought was a largely unused retail arcade, I discovered the window display of an interesting, albeit temporary tenant.

The Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation in partnership with Allies and Morrison Urban Practitioners (planners, I presume) were using this space to consult residents about putting together a Masterplan for The Wynd, and a Town Centre Implementation Plan* (interesting name). Under a banner proclaiming “Letchworth YOUR Garden City”, it appeared that I’d stumbled across something impersonating stage 1 of a public planning consultation.

Although the shop/exhibition was closed, I could read the display boards though the window. “We don’t need more shops, we need more shoppers!” was one of the comments left by a respondent. Another requested; “Can we have a cafe on Broadway Gardens with some tables to make it seem more part of the town…” I understood these responses (and others) to mean that even the residents think Letchworth is mostly, a nice place to be.

Leys Avenue, Letchworth GC

The planners facilitating the consultation themselves identified part of the problem in some of their own recorded observations. The Garden City principals on which Letchworth was founded overwhelmingly emphasised residential amenity above the towns other needs. Consequently, the town centre itself developed in a more “piecemeal” way. So it’s no surprise then to discover that a town built on utopian principals is not immune to the pressures of change in response to the needs and desires of it’s residents. I expect that when it’s finished, Letchworth Garden City’s new masterplan (although I doubt they’ll end up calling it that) might create excitement among the locals unlike anything the town has seen in the last 50 years – and not necessarily of the good kind.

I was rather relieved to get back to London.

*Learn more about the changes proposed for Letchworth Garden City at www.thenextsteps.co.uk

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Power, Art then Architecture

If you happen upon this place, go in. Tate Modern, London.

As I write this, I am sitting on the hard floor of what is the vast space known as the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London. Ever since I first visited here in 2006, I have imagined returning. To me, this is a wonderful place – a masterstroke of a landmark building. I think its a better piece of architecture than Guery’s Guggenheim Bilbao, and other buildings with a similar iconic intent. Let me tell you why.

To the uninitiated, this is an interesting building, but not flashy. To the initiated, its heritage adds a dimension that is largely irrelevant, but altogether exceptional.

The building is large, of coarse. But its scale doesn’t seek to intimidate or assert power over those that visit. Instead, from the inside at least, it inspires awe. It’s an object lesson in scale and perspective. It’s big, and it is powerful, but it’s power bound up in it’s previous life as an instrument of human ingenuity, and not in the statements the architects might have been trying to make.

Turbine Hall, Tate Modern. Not my picture, it's from here

If you don’t know about the rejuvenated building that is now the Tate Modern, you should learn about it. By doing so, you will learn about what makes good place-making architecture.

You should also get on a plane and visit this place, even if you visit nothing else in Europe. This is, as I said before, a wonderful place.

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A Masterclass in Wheel Reinvention

Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester.

Things are changing in Manchester. There are construction projects going on, and there’s a proposal for a Metrolink “Second City Crossing” (SCC) as an integral part of the future extension to Manchester’s existing Metrolink light rail. This is not like our tram system in Melbourne, or many other cities I’ve visited. The trams are more like a tram-train hybrid. They look like trams, and share the roads with cars, bikes (although, very few) and pedestrians. But they can only be boarded from the raised platforms dotted around the city – the doors are about 700mm off the ground. They’re not like any tram (or train) that I’ve seen.

Subtle... huh? Public notice announcing consultation for SCC project. Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester.

Currently the transport authority is in the public consultation stage for its SCC, so I went along. Befitting my arrogance, I thought they might benefit from an outsiders perspective. I’m pleased I went, it was interesting (for me, not so much for them).

I wondered why they chose the route that they did. I imagine cost was a deciding factor, but I thought their stated objectives could be better achieved with an extension beginning at Deansgate in the South, rather than St Peters Square. The truth is though, I really only went along to learn more about public consultation. I think I picked up on a thing or two.

One of the outstanding things about this process was that it overwhelmingly emphasised the positives. In fact, there was no mention whatsoever of any adverse impacts of the scheme. There was no mention of the projected (or proposed) cost, nor were there any technical challenges identified. There was a claim that the SCC was designed to help reduce congestion on a system that faces a trebling of passenger numbers over the next few years. Problem is, the proposed extension contains a bottleneck at each end. There were no congestion easing measures in it’s design, from what I could see.

This got me thinking about consultation processes in general. Having not properly engaged with one previously, I’ve come to understand that there is some logic in the exhibitor holding back information in the early stages. This ensure that the feedback provided is less clouded by data that may or may not be relevant. Perhaps this has been a well prepared consultation after all. By not giving too much away, they’re able to compare the public’s candid contributions with their detailed proposals. A process without too much detail could reveal a consensus between what respondents want, and what’s proposed.

Even an award winning urban design treatment won' t make people go where they don't want to. Castlefield, Manchester.

My visit to the consultation briefing brought me full circle in my day exploring a number of Manchester’s more renown public space developments. I visited Piccadilly Gardens, the Millennium Quarter, Castlefield and Salford Quays. All of these areas were perfectly presentable, and each have been the subject of different urban or landscape design awards. I visited Exchange Square too – the location of the new second Metro stop for the SCC. But my reaction to this place was a little less circumspect.

Exchange Square isn’t actually a square at all, it’s a triangle. Notwithstanding this, the original design concept and delivery was good. Building it in the first instance involved closing and reclaiming a street reservation, then building tiered seating, a water feature and a couple of interesting art installations. Simple as it sounds, the space is very well used, attractive and functional.

Spot the (white) elephant in the... er, square? Exchange Square (or what's left of it), Manchester.

Before I visited Exchange Square, I was entirely unaware that the City of Manchester had decided that this perfectly functional, well designed and attractive public space needed one of those unsightly, oversized, noisy, permanent and (mostly) ridiculous observation wheels. This one however, was the worst I have seen so far.

Let me go on the record as saying that the London Eye is good. I’m prepared to admit that at the time, I thought building it was a pretty simplistic attempt at creating a tourist attraction in a city loaded with tourist attractions – but it’s been a runaway success. Even now, more than ten years on, it attracts enormous crowds (and equally enormous queues). The London Eye is good.

But then the copycat wheels began to pop up all over the world. On this trip alone, I’ve seen these things in Hamburg, Dublin and now Manchester. I would add Melbourne’s miserable attempt to the list too because I drove past it on the way out from the city to the airport. Except, it’s less like a wheel, and more like a large stump. These wheels are unimaginative, unoriginal, and in most instances, patronising to the cities they are commissioned to showcase.

A spot to sit and watch the wheel go round, perhaps? Cathedral Gardens, Millenium Quarter, Manchester.

I asked one of the attendants at the SCC consultation about the wheel that dominates Exchange Square. She said, quite diplomatically that the wheel would have to move very slightly to make way for the new Exchange Square SCC stop. But she also let it slip that although the location and operation of the wheel was outside the jurisdiction of the authority planning the SCC, the future of the wheel remained uncertain anyway, because the operator had recently gone in to administration. I can’t be sure, but I think she said it with a smile. Oh well, c’est la vie.

The wheel in Manchester looks temporary and entirely unnecessary. Actually, it just looks shit.

Melbourne (and Manchester), tear down your wheels. And do something more befitting of your creative reputation, and spirit.

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Post-industrial Urbanism

Birmingham: Day Twenty-five

After a few weeks of traveling to new cities, I still don’t feel particularly qualified to ‘read’ each from a land use planning and urban design perspective. I’ve certainly developed a fairly acute sense of how each city presents itself, but as for the critical measures I ought to be paying particular attention to, I’m overwhelmingly unskilled in the science of measuring these places.

I’m not ignorant to how cities might be measured – don’t get me wrong. I have been paying attention to my lecturers and I’ve done more reading than the average second year planning student. But I think my uncertainty arises from my unwillingness to apply the theories I have learned. It doesn’t sit well with me, to reach conclusions when I know there is much more to many of these places, than meets the eye.

Of course, I do have my own ‘Wavelength City Theory’ (yes, that’s what I’ll be calling it from now on, okay!?). It’s evolved very slightly, to include some ideas on one way that a long-wave city might be distinguished from a short-wave city. Birmingham has been my muse in this; the evolution of my Wavelength City Theory, that is.

I’ve read fairly extensively about the attempt at transformation by the City of Birmingham since the mid 1980’s. In response to the economic downturns brought about by the restructuring of the industrial and manufacturing sectors that Birmingham was so reliant on, the city adopted an ambitions rejuvenation strategy. With it, Birmingham would become not just a place, but a brand; identifiable not simply for it’s past, but for it’s ambitious and optimistic future.

Some of the rhetoric around the plan was quite unprecedented at the time, apparently. But by my calculation, they are about two thirds of the way through their initial 20 to 30 year plan. Now might be a good time for someone like me to prepare a report card detailing how things are going.

Except; I may be arrogant, but I’m not conceited. I have no way of knowing how things are traveling for Birmingham after my few hours of street-level observations. But something about Birmingham has me hungry for someone to give me an update. I’ve seen the rejuvenated Broad Street, Victoria Square and New Street Mall. There are instillations of place-making public art; most of it is really good, too. If little or none of this existed prior to 1990 I’m not sure that I would have taken to Birmingham quite so much. So, what makes Birmingham a long-wave city is my desire to know more about what’s happening here, because I can see that there’s lots going on. Centenary Square and the new City Library (under construction) looks like it will be rather swish when it’s all finished. About this and all those other construction projects, I want to know lots more. I feel like it’s even a reason to return again, and to better understand how all this work is, or is not, reaping rewards.

This is a city about the same size as Copenhagen. Unlike Copenhagen, it’s historical legacy in the industrialised world is mammoth. But it’s place in the modern world is less so. What makes Birmingham a long wave city in my view is it’s resilience and determination to remain relevant, and to evolve and respond. Long-wave cities can be short-wave cities that decide to change, and do.

Now what I need is some way of measuring this, beyond the rudimentary methods I have been shown.

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A City from Scratch

Dublin: Day Twenty-four

From what I’ve seen, few cities are intrinsically difficult to move around. Most feature the same devices to facilitate movement; paths, lanes, alleys, streets, roads, watercourses, open space reserves, light (trams) and heavy (trains) rail. The difficulties arise in response to attempts by administrators and policy makers to favour one mode of transport over another by installing obstacles, barriers, laws and regulations. I wonder, if I were to build a city from scratch, what would I do differently?

After identifying a piece of land that was topographically and ecologically suitable, I’d start by asking people where stuff should be put. Schools, shopping areas, and their homes, industrial and large scale commercial facilities. I expect it might be difficult to reach some consensus on these things, but I reckon there would be more agreement than disagreement in the room by the end of the process.

This process would also determine who wants to live where. The more popular the location, the higher the density, but the price would be less than for those that wanted to carve out their own private plot. The antitheses to what we do now in some respects.

Then, I’d start to look at how people might get from their homes to the places they need to go, and back. I’d prioritise walking above and beyond all other methods used to get from place to place. Next I would prioritise bike riding, skating, scooting and other active ways of moving around. Then I’d prioritise public light rail, then public heavy rail. I know buses are cheaper and offer more flexibility, but people don’t like buses as much as they like rail. Public buses are prioritised next, along with motorcycles (motorbikes and scooters), then cars, light trucks and finally, heavy (articulated) trucks.

I would design these priorities into the system by the way I allocated space – higher priority modes get the best bits, lower priority modes get whatever is left. This way, trucks give way to cars which give way to motorcycles, who give way to buses, who give way to light rail, who give way to bikes and pedestrians. The only exception might be when each mode is separated from the others. Pedestrians shouldn’t walk along rail lines, just like cars shouldn’t drive along bike lanes.

Where separated pathways meet, a hierarchy rule takes effect. Everyone waits for the pedestrian, then they let the bikes go, and so on.

I’m not suggesting that this system would work, but in the spirit of Ebenezer Howard, someone ought to give the whole thing a go!

Dublin is a great example of a place that could do with a rethink regarding the priority given to each of the transport modes represented. For reasons that I’m sure relate to past attempts at easing congestion’, Dublin now consists of lots of double and triple lane but one-way streets furnished to give cars and buses priority over everything else. And despite Dublin’s acclaim for the inroads it’s made with it’s bike share system, this is a difficult city to ride a bike in. A surprising number of bike lanes end inexplicably, or merge into vehicle lanes without warning. The idea of “A to B ism” (facilitating the most direct route from one place to another, and back again) is challenged here. I believe footpaths are for pedestrians, but at times while riding I found that this was my only haven from the risk of being run over by an errant car driver (of which it seems, they have about as many as we do, per capita).

Incidentally, the cost of unleaded petrol in Dublin today was €1.44 (AU$1.94) per litre. In Prague I remember seeing it at a similar price, as well as in Germany and Spain. Suck it up Australia. Our fuel is dead cheap compared to what many in Europe are paying.

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