Friday, February 26, 2010

Stockholm on track for emission goals

STOCKHOLM. Tonight residents on the streets of the Swedish capital can tune into a giant slide show aimed at making them even more climate smart.
On the walls of a downtown high rise (right), a slide show on a 72 meter high screen will show examples of how we can make our every day life more environmentally friendly.
The project, called “Green Projection”, is inspired by similar projects in New York and other cities. It will run through March 4 to mark Stockholm status as European Green Capital 2010.
“We must all help to reduce our impact on the environment and Green Projections is an effective and nice way to spread information about it. It will take hard and determined work to reach our goal of a Stockholm free of fossil fuels by 2050”, says Ulla Hamilton, Vice Mayor for environment and traffic.
Hamilton, set to present the slide show tonight, delivered some good news earlier this week when she announced that Stockholm is ahead of schedule for reaching its goal of 3.0 tons of CO2-emissions per capita by 2015.
City authorities estimate emissions for 2009 at 3.4 tons per capita and expect the figure to be 2.8 tons per capita by 2015.
That would mean a reduction of 44 percent since 1990. The population of Stockholm is expected to have grown by 22 percent during the same period.
“The climate goal of a 20 percent reduction of CO2-emissions from 1990 to 2020 that the countries of the world were expected to agree on at COP 15 in Copenhagen before Christmas is something we have already done in Stockholm. Therefore we will now set up new interim targets along the way towards a fossil fuel free Stockholm by 2050”, says Vice Mayor Hamilton.
The figures are part of a report to the Covenant of Mayors, a joint effort of more than a hundred European cities to reduce emission at a quicker pace than what the EU demands.
“To live in a big city is not only pleasant, it is also the way of life that is best for the environment and climate. It’s all about thinking renewable when it comes to everything from waste management to public transportation”, says Hamilton.
Examples of measures that helped Stockholm reduce emissions are a very high level (80 percent) of renewable fuels in the district heating system that heats most houses, a bus fleet for the inner-city that runs on renewable fuels and congestion charges that have reduced traffic in the city center.
“We hope to have phased out all use of coal in the district heating system by 2020”, says Hamilton at a meeting (left) with an environmental group that I attended in Stockholm last night.
For two hours Hamilton discussed environmental issues and took questions from an audience of mostly members of the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, a leading non-profit environmental group.
The evening was an interesting example of how quickly the debate on the environment is moving towards urban issues like city planning, public transportation, increased density and low energy housing.
A couple of days ago city authorities invited residents to contribute to the environmental work by e-mailing their ideas to a new "climate mailbox".
“Imagine if we could have an inner-city just for electrical vehicles by 2030. That would be a revolutionary change”, says Hamilton when asked present some of her visions for the future.
Ulla Hamilton represents the ruling liberal-conservative coalition that runs Stockholm City Hall. Sweden will have national and municipal elections in September this year, but in Stockholm there is a general consensus across party lines when it comes to the city’s ambitions to be a green leader.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A critic with a passion for architecture

CHICAGO/ARCHITECTURE. Blair Kamin greets me in the lobby of the Tribune Tower on 435 North Michigan Avenue. This is one Chicago’s many landmark buildings, not a bad place to work in for an architecture critic.
The neo-Gothic tower was built to celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Chicago Tribune, the city’s leading newspaper, in 1922. An international architecture competition was held to secure that the building would be “the most beautiful and distinctive office building in the world”.
Remember, this is Chicago, not a city for modest ambitions.
Kamin, who has won a Pulitzer Prize and many other awards, has written about architecture in the Tribune since 1992. Ten years ago he wrote the commentaries for a book about the Tribune Tower, but as we part later I realize that I didn’t ask him much about his own place of work.
There were simply too many other things to talk about.
We sit down for lunch in a nearby restaurant overlooking the Chicago River for a talk on architecture in this exciting city. Wherever we look, there are buildings to talk about.
“Have you had a chance to see the Trump Tower yet?”, asks Kamin and points in the direction behind my back.
The 92-story skyscraper, called Trump International Hotel & Tower (right), was completed last year and stands as the second tallest building in the United States, after Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) further up the river.
Developer Donald Trump had meant his Chicago skyscraper to be the tallest in the world, but plans were scaled down after the September 11-attacs in 2001.
It still stands as a giant in a city full of tall buildings and Blair Kamin is beginning to like parts of it after initial fears for what it would do to the cityscape. The reflective, silver-blue exterior changes constantly depending on your location and the weather. It brings the sky down to the city streets.
“In this city architecture stands for bold things and strong statements”, says Kamin, who studied environmental design at Yale before eventually choosing to write about architecture instead of being an architect.
“I felt I could do a more meaningful contribution by writing about it. I really have a passion for architecture, and I enjoy it more this way.”
Anybody interested in Chicago or architecture in general can follow Kamin in his Tribune blog Cityscapes.
“My job is to make people aware of the built environment. And there is a great interest for this in Chicago. People here are proud of the city and its architecture.”
On the other side of the restaurant where we are sitting, Chicago’s next spectacular landmark was supposed to be under way. Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava has designed the 610 meters (2,000 feet) tall Chicago Spire, a 150-story twisting skyscraper.
But it remains just a hole in the ground, due to the recession.
“I’m not sure if it ever will be built”, says Kamin.
There is still enough to see in Chicago, and the city had a great year for architecture last year. Several exceptional buildings were completed and the city celebrated the 100th anniversary of Daniel Burnham’s historic Plan of Chicago with many events throughout the year.
Burnham set the tone for Chicago with his famous words “Make no little plans” (even though there is no historic evidence that he actually said that).
“Burnham’s plan was a bold vision. But big plans have to be realized one step at a time, in a series of small moves. That’s how cities work. Chicago has become good at that lately”, says Kamin, and points out at the pleasant new Chicago Riverwalk (left) as an example of all the positive things that have happened.
The Millennium Park, just a few blocks away from where we are sitting, is another example. There will be more about that in a later report.
Kamin also talks about an incredible building boom in Chicago that has now come to a halt with the recession. Some 160-170 high-rise buildings have shot up in the past ten years, adding to the forest of skyscrapers that make Chicago so special.
When I ask Kamin to list a few of his favourite buildings in Chicago, new and old, one of those new high-rises comes up first.
Aqua, the 82-story residential and residential that I wrote about in my first report on Chicago architecture, has been praised by Kamin for its “spectacular sculptural presence”.
Another favourite is the new Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, opened in May 2009. Designed by Renzo Piano, this beautiful building is a pleasure to enjoy both from the outside and the inside, where you get a nice view of the skyline through the thin curtains (right).
As a third new favourite, Kamin picks the Millennium Park as a whole, just across the street from the Modern Wing.
What about the older architectural gems of Chicago?
For anyone who follows his blog, it’s no surprise that the old department store Carson Pirie Scott & Co on State Street is on Kamin’s top-three list. Architect Louis Sullivan’s fantastic ornaments in cast-iron makes it a building to see up close.
Frank Lloyd Wrights classic Robie House in Hyde Park near the University of Chicago is another of the city’s must-see attractions, and also on Kamin’s list.
His third choice in the “old” category surprises me. John Hancock Center is of course one of the most famous parts of the Chicago skyline, but is it really to be seen as old?
“It’s 40 years old!”, exclaims Kamin with a smile.
I forgot. That’s of course old in Chicago.

This is the second in a series of reports on architecture in Chicago.

Renzo Piano's Modern Wing on a rainy Chicago night.

Blair Kamin checking out attractions near his Tribune Tower office.

The urban site makes Robie House unusal among the "Prairie School" residences.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Scanning the streets for stolen bikes

COPENHAGEN. The Danes love their bicycles and ride them more than anybody else. But don’t you just hate it when your bike is stolen?
Last summer the City of Copenhagen introduced a new scheme to combat bike-theft, and this week it announced an expansion of the so called chip-project.
It works like this:
A small chip connected to a radio frequency identification system is placed in a reflector on your bicycle. City car-park attendants are equipped with a scanner that will register any chip that is placed on a bicycle that has been reported stolen.
Data will then be sent via e-mail to the owner who can reclaim his or her bike.
The project is a part of Copenhagen’s ambition to promote bicycling. The goal is to be the best city in the world for bicycling by 2015. Many think that the Danish capital already can claim that title. More than a third of all trips in Copenhagen today are made by bike. The city aims to reach 50 percent by 2015.
Every year some 18,000 bikes are stolen in Copenhagen. In the first stage of the chip-project 5,000 chips were handed out to bicyclists. This week another 3,000 chips will be placed on bikes.
The city claims that the project has been a success so far, even if there are no reported cases where stolen bikes have been found thanks to the chip. The system works, says authorities, and expect to introduce a permanent chip-program when the test-project has been analyzed later this year.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Creating poetic waves in the skyline

CHICAGO/ARCHITECTURE. As I sit down to finish this story, architect Jeanne Gang and her Aqua skyscraper in Chicago are in the news again.
Today, the spectacular residential and hotel tower was named 2009 Skyscraper of the Year by international building database Emporis. The building is hailed for its fascinating shape and the brilliance of its construction, among other things.
“It has been an amazing feeling to be able to add something to the skyline and to the overall image of this city”, says Jeanne Gang (right) in an interview I did with her in her Chicago office.
Like everybody else who’s had a chance to stand beneath the 82-story wonder of Aqua, I had been fascinated by the ever-changing appearance of the building. The undulating balconies, different in shape for every floor, creates a wave-like façade that seems to change as you look at it from different angles.
Somebody called it architectural poetry, not a bad description.
“I’ll leave that to others to judge. We just took all these rather banal criteria, like the structure of the building or the sun-shading of the units, and tried to make it a whole that responds to it in a poetic way. I don’t know if we achieved that”, says Gang.
I contacted Jeanne Gang with little hope of getting a chance to see her on short notice. Lately she has been everywhere in the media. She was recently number 22 on a list of America’s up-and-coming in T, the New York Times style magazine.
If you want a taste of all the portraits and interviews with Jeanne Gang lately, you can check out the Chicago Tribune here, the New Yorker here or the Los Angeles Times here.
Or you can just continue reading.
You can summarize it all by saying that Gang is the coolest American architect at the moment, who designed the coolest skyscraper in the coolest city for architecture.
That is no small achievement, for several reasons.
To design a building that gets recognized in Chicago, it takes something special to begin with. This is the birthplace of the skyscraper and a virtual showcase for modern American architecture. All the big names have put their mark on Chicago’s skyline.
Aqua is one of the last skyscrapers to be finished in a great boom of high rise construction in Chicago that came to an end with the on-going recession. It was also built just a few blocks away from the most prestigious high rise project in Chicago lately, the gleaming Trump Tower on a prime location on the Chicago River.
The Trump Tower, designed by likewise prestigious Chicago architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (who also did Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building), was completed in 2009 and now stands as the second tallest skyscraper in the U.S.
The tallest, Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower), is also in Chicago.
Aqua has clearly outdone the Trump Tower for recognition and appreciation.
Also, the 45-year old Jeanne Gang is exceptionally young for a project like this. Skyscrapers are usually done by the big boys in their 60’s from the big firms, like Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
When I enter the second floor offices of Studio Gang Architects in Wicker Park, a trendy Chicago neighbourhood in what used to be the Polish and Ukrainian part of town, Jeanne Gang is seeing off a group of students.
She invites me in to her office at the far end of a big room humming with activity. The firm was founded by Gang in 1997 and now has 35 full-time staff. Aqua has put Jeanne Gang and her studio on the big stage.
The opportunity came by chance. Gang was in the right place at the right time, and the planner of the project didn’t want a “starchitect” but a fresh face to do the high rise centerpiece of a huge residential development near Chicago’s celebrated Millennium Park.
Gang takes me through the creative process behind the unique building.
“From the beginning I didn’t think much about what kind of iconic structure that could be placed there. I thought more of how the building could be connected into the city and how we could get good views from the units.”
The site for Aqua is right in the middle of a forest of high rises. Gang and her colleagues built a model not only with existing buildings, but also future buildings in the area. Then they attached strings to the Aqua model to see what the views would be from different parts of the building. A version of that work can be seen in the video below.
Instead of doing a traditional skyscraper with a flat façade, they got the idea to “bump out” certain areas to get unexpected views “around the corner”. They were talking of creating a “vertical topography” on the outside of the building, with undulating balconies that give an “inhabitable façade”.
“What started with exploring the connection to the city and the views ended up being this rather organic structure”, says Gang.
The undulating balconies were designed through a series of “slices”, one for each floor and all different in shape. Looking at the model horizontally, a landscape of rolling hills emerged. The “pools” of water between the hills would be portions a glass façade on the real building.
The balconies were not just decoration. They provide shade and reduce the need for air-conditioning, normally a big part of the energy-consumption in a traditional skyscraper. And they add life to the building.
“One of my favourite buildings in this city is the Marina City Towers (built on banks of the Chicago River 1962-64). I love them and how they were made so that people could use their balconies. People put out lights and plants, and you can see that there is life in the building. Some architects don’t like this and try to eliminate it”, says Gang, who calls Agua a “distant cousin” to the Marina City Towers (left).
She is very pleased to see people stop and admire Aqua.
“When you look at the building, you see a changing landscape. That makes it more intriguing, and you look at it longer.”
Jeanne Gang grew up near Rockford, Illinois, not far from Chicago. Her father was a civil engineer, working with bridges. Family vacations would typically be a tour of interesting bridge constructions.
She planned to follow in her father’s footsteps, but became interested in architecture along the way. She got her masters at Harvard and spent time working with famous Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas before setting up shop in Chicago.
Aqua is said to be the tallest building ever designed by a female architect, something every story on Jeanne Gang points out.
“That is something that never crossed my mind during the design process. But people who have done the tour of the building or seen it have said that they just want their daughter to know that she too could be an architect and design tall buildings”, says Gang.
She points out that skyscrapers not only has been the realm of male architects, but also the realm of corporate architects. It pleases her to have been able to break into that territory with her group of design architects.
“And at my age, it feels amazing to be 45 and have done a high rise. I’m very glad that I got the chance to do that”.

This is the first in a series of reports on architecture in Chicago.

It takes something special to be noticed in Chicago's forest of skyscrapers.

Jeanne Gang in her Chicago office with a model of Aqua.

A new "Flatiron" for a denser city

STOCKHOLM. The famous Flatiron Building on Manhattan has a new, distant relative in the Swedish capital Stockholm.
In a city expanding through increased density, developer Skanska found a minimal space between a street and the railroad tracks near the central station and decided to use it for an unusual office project.
The result is an 8-story office building inspired by one of New York’s most admired landmarks.
In a presentation of the project, head architect Inga Varg of Rosenberg Arkitekter says that the big challenge was to “design a building for a site that actually didn’t exist”.
The Stockholm Flatiron is located at Norra Bantorget, where Skanska recently built the Clarion Sign Hotel, the largest hotel in Stockholm. The new Flatiron will be completed next month.
The project could symbolize a trend in Stockholm, where developers are looking for any open or derelict piece of land that could be used to further densify the city.
The original Flatiron Building on Fifth Avenue and Broadway in New York was designed by famous architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham in the beaux-arts style and completed in 1902. It has since inspired similar buildings in a number of cities.

On a minimal space near the railroad tracks, Stockholm gets a "Flatiron".

Monday, February 22, 2010

"Extreme" problems for Swedish public transit

STOCKHOLM. Many parts of the Northern hemisphere have experienced severe seasonal weather lately, with a notable exception for Winter Olympic host Vancouver.
After days of heavy snow and unusually cold weather Swedish capital Stockholm experienced an “extreme day” today, according to public transportation officials. Traffic on all metro lines above ground was cancelled and there were widespread disturbances in commuter rail and bus traffic. Stockholmers who could stay home from work were recommended to do so.
This follows a weekend of total chaos in Swedish rail traffic, due to heavy snow in the southern and central parts of the country. Many trains were cancelled, others were stuck in snow or ice for hours.
This has led to a heated debate in Sweden over what level of service that should be expected from public transportation providers in a country were cold winter weather and snow is a normal occurrence several months of the year.
Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt added his voice to the critics who questioned the failures in public transportation.
“This is thought-provoking in a country geographically located where Sweden is. After all, winter is one of the four seasons we have and we must ask ourselves why we haven’t been better at handling this situation”, he said on Monday.
But Jan Forsberg, CEO of state-owned national railways SJ, shot back, criticizing the government for not investing more in railway network.
“We have a railway network that is used to full capacity. That means we cannot handle disturbances. The system is under-dimensioned.”
Even if the sun was shining on Monday, it was a dark day for the 700,000 passengers who use Stockholm public transit on a normal day. But some choose not to worry.
“I rode my bike to work this morning on nicely cleared bicycle lanes, without any problems. The sun was shining and my long underwear made me warm”, wrote one commuter in a comment in the on-line edition of daily Dagens Nyheter.

My neighbourhood restaurant today, a nice place in the Summer.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Fighting crime and traffic to save a community

CHICAGO/AMERICAN URBAN VOICES. I get off the Red Line train at Bryn Mawr, about six miles or ten kilometers north of the Loop, Chicago’s downtown.
It’s a crisp, sunny day and as I walk east towards Lake Michigan, past a couple of beautifully restored buildings on Bryn Mawr Avenue, it’s hard to imagine that this was a neighborhood on fire just a couple of decades ago. Crime and drugs was killing people, traffic was killing street life in this part of Chicago known as Edgewater.
I’m walking around to get a feel for the neighborhood before meeting one of the persons who played a central role in saving and restoring it to the pleasant and popular part of Chicago it is today.
Mary Ann Smith (right) is the alderman for the 48th ward, representing the local community of Edgewater in Chicago’s City Hall.
She receives me at her local office on North Broadway Avenue, and I’m not quite prepared for the bewildering experience a meeting with this remarkable woman turns out to be. I don’t think I’ve ever met a local politician so full of energy aimed at improving her community, and I’ve met a few.
I ask one question, something about cities and how to best improve them, and she talks the rest of the day.
“It all boils down to quality of life and trying to do things that don’t serve one kind of population at the expense of another”, says Smith.
When I read about Mary Ann Smith in Jeb Brugmann’s interesting book “Welcome to the Urban Revolution” (published last year), I realized that she would be a great example of a person committed to urban improvement that actually helped save a city.
Brugmann compares Chicago and Detroit, two big American cities with a similar background. Detroit collapsed and is today seen as one the greatest urban failures in the western world. Chicago could have gone the same way, but didn’t.
“In stunning contrast, Chicago has transformed itself district by district to resume its position as one of the most productive, creative, and vibrant cities of the world”, Brugmann writes.
A lot of this was done thanks to local community activists, and Mary Ann Smith was one of those before she entered local politics (you might recall another young community organizer on Chicago’s South Side who also entered politics and ended up in the White House).
I spend most of a working day with Mary Ann Smith and her colleagues in and around the alderman’s local office. By the end of the day she has told me the story of Edgewater, we have toured the neighborhood, had meetings with the local community groups and block clubs that form the backbone of the vibrant local democracy that Mary Ann Smith represents.
The atmosphere is relaxed but intense. There is no time to waste. Alderman Smith is dressed in blue jeans and drives around in a small car with a license plate saying “ALD BABE”. She has so many stories to tell and so many buildings to point out that I’m not sure she has an eye on the road as we travel the streets of Edgewater.
“When you walk around the neighborhood its hard to understand that in the 70’s, and even the 80’s, we had owners who burned down their buildings in arson for profit. My children used to look out the windows in the evenings and point out buildings that were on fire. But we decided not to give up our neighborhood”, says Smith.
Her background as an activist began with environmental issues concerning Lake Michigan. Another early issue was traffic and how it affected the local community. She got more and more involved in community politics when she in 1989 suddenly found herself appointed alderman for the 48th ward by Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley who had picked her predecessor Kathy Osterman for the City Hall government.
She was first elected in 1991 and in February 2007 she was re-elected to her fifth full term of office.
As she tells the story of her many years of serving her community, she repeatedly comes back to the issue of cars and traffic and the harm it has done to so many American cities (Detroit being the prime example).
Edgewater, with some 60,000 residents within the 48th ward, lies at the upper end of Lake Shore Drive which connects central Chicago with its northern neighborhoods. This is where commuter traffic hits the streets and avenues of the local community.
“We now have some 150,000 vehicles commuting through this part of the city every day”, says Smith.
Early in her political career she began to study the effects the traffic had on Edgewater and she could see a clear connection to the decay of the neighborhood.
“This community was built for public transportation. Chicago used to have street cars every fourth or sixth block, which you can see on old maps. But for every decade the streets were widened to accommodate more traffic. Money for public transportation went down the toilet. You could see how the neighborhood was torn apart by this.”
As the old infrastructure crumbled and the cars took over, people began to leave for the suburbs. In the vacuum that followed, crime moved in and the neighborhood was soon in flames.
But Mary Ann Smith and her activist followers were not willing to give up. At one point in her early years as alderman she even began to physically challenge the drug traders.
“I had this colleague who was a big guy. We would take his jeep and drive around at night to street corners where we new the drug trade was going on. I would take a folding chair and sit down on the street corner. The presence lowered the comfort level for the criminals. It was dangerous, but my idea was that the police wouldn’t allow me to get shot”, Smith says.
This is just one example of the work Mary Ann Smith has done in Edgewater. Safety for the residents has been one of her cornerstones. Improving schools is another, sometimes a challenge in this diverse neighborhood with many newly arrived refugees.
Curbing traffic is a constant struggle. Sidewalks have been widened and the streets of Edgewater have come back to life. The proximity to a greatly improved waterfront at Lake Michigan has made this one of the most pleasant parts of Chicago.
The Bryn Mawr Historic District (left) with its beautifully restored buildings, where crime used to rule, is another source of great pride for Mary Ann Smith. On the other end of Edgewater, to the west, lies the old Swedish neighborhood Andersonville (above, right). Most Swedes have left, but a number of restaurants, shops and the Swedish American Museum reminds you of the heritage in what is now one of Chicago’s most attractive neighborhoods.
The achievement of the Edgewater activists led by Mary Ann Smith is a remarkable story of urban heroism. It goes beyond the struggle for a sustainable future in the environmental sense, even if that has been part of it.
In Edgewater, as in many other parts of Chicago, it started as a struggle for a future, period.
Mary Ann Smith sends me off with a heavy bag of material and impressions that could fill a book.

This is the fourth and final report on my meetings with American urban thinkers and activists in Chicago.

Mary Ann Smith meeting community groups to hear their views on a park.

Walking the beach at Lake Michigan in Edgewater with Chicago's skyline in view.

Mixed land use a key to urban vitality

URBAN PLANNING. Canada’s leading city Toronto has a way of attracting urban thinkers and visionaries to set up shop there. Well-known architect and urban designer Ken Greenberg (left) is on of them.
Earlier this week I posted the first part of an e-mail interview I did with him last week, mainly to get his view on recent urban development in Scandinavia that he saw on a visit last year. I also asked him about his views on important trends in urban planning today.
In an interview for Metropolis magazine recently, Greenberg said that he sees an on-going transformation of cities today as profound as what happened immediately after the Second World War.
In other words; a lot of things that will shape the future of cities are happening right now.
Before we get to that, I asked Greenberg to explain what makes Toronto an interesting place.
“Toronto (and the other major Canadian cities) represents in some ways the ‘other America’. Like siblings sharing much of the same gene pool but with differences we have gone a slightly different direction, in many respects closer to Europe in attitudes and approach. We are growing rapidly now as a mid-size modern world city emerges rapidly from what was a relatively small and modest provincial city”, answers Greenberg and describes this as an “exciting if nerve wracking process”.
“To me the most interesting and optimistic aspect is what is happening socially. We seem to have developed a special talent (admittedly far from perfect and still with many challenges) for successfully welcoming integrating recent waves of immigration to the point where in Toronto over half of the population was born elsewhere and there is no ‘majority’ population, only minorities. According to the United Nations we are the most cosmopolitan city in the world.”
“Torontonians growing self-identification with ‘diversity’ as a positive feature is not just about proximity but about what happens when there is a genuine opportunity for people to come together face to face with the possibility of becoming familiar with each other while at the same time allowing room for mutually defining the relationships”, says Greenberg.
He is presently involved in parts of the vast redevelopment of the Toronto waterfront. Take a look at the video below to hear him talk about this.

What do you see as the most important trends in urban planning today?

The extravagant syndrome where a small part of the world’s population has been consuming a wildly disproportionate amount of the world’s non-renewable resources has now been revealed as fundamentally unsound. Long hypothesized but now a reality we are at the end of abundant and cheap energy supplies placing us on the cusp of profound transformations in the way we live and pushing us to seek a more sustainable urban future. While painful in many ways, this forced transition is ultimately a cause for optimism about the future of cities. As numerous commentators have pointed out our survival as a species is tied to them in ways previously unimagined. With a newfound respect for their inherent capacities, cities and city-building have again become our urgent priorities and they are making a comeback.
One of the greatest challenges is to put our better understanding of what cities can do into practice. This has been occurring through an intensive empirical process of trial and error that leads from one city to another as each contributes new insights to the learning curve. Building on early transitional steps a whole new way of working on cities is emerging that skillfully weaves together targeted public sector and private sector efforts to advance larger visions for more sustainable city growth. In a North American and European context this work is increasingly has to be done in a highly public and contested environment with a right and need for affected communities to be at the table. A new kind of planning tool kit is needed: rigidly prescriptive city plans and traditional zoning ordinances do not hold up well against dynamic market forces rapidly changing social patterns. Flexible frameworks are being pioneered that allow for innovation, hybridization, organic growth, change, and surprise. Rather than thwarting added layers of design creativity by architects and landscape architects, these open-ended frameworks encourage and release them. All of this heightened activity and interest coalesces around the term “urbanism” which is broader and more inclusive than any of the defined professions that contribute to it.
As this convergence occurs we are moving away from compartmentalizing things; blending public and private initiatives; working across disciplinary lines as and engaging civil society in new ways. More and more different kinds of knowledge and skill sets are added in the upstream creative process to expand our understanding of situations of increasing complexity including: engineering specialties, civil, municipal, transportation, marine; economists and market specialists in different sectors including community development; environmental scientists, ecologists, hydrologists; sociologists, community service providers; artists and arts organizations among others. This broad fusion of expertise and knowledge is not compromising - it enables richer and better outcomes.

What mistakes are being made?

We are still stuck with many of the old tools and prejudices trapped in the rigid specialization in concept, form, financing and delivery which characterized the post-war development process. Achieving mixed land use is one of the hardest nuts to crack in making new neighbourhoods. Many of the new places still turn out to be more sterile than we would like, lacking the fine grained and intricate interweaving of living, working, shopping etc that grew up organically in their older counterparts. For example, success in incorporating new street retail into the mix was uneven. In Copenhagen there was still the temptation in some new areas to have an interior “shopping mall” in the plan for new areas, depriving the streets of life and vitality whereas in Hammarby Sjöstad (in Stockholm) the shopping successfully lined the new tramway street and restaurants and cafes were sprinkled throughout the neighbourhood. By contrast in the older neighbourhoods the adaptations were subtle re-workings of long established traditions. Attractive street markets were located in the older squares and along the newly carved out pedestrian streets. In Copenhagen the dominant grocery chain Irma had created a category or Mini Irmas that cropped up everywhere and very impressive was the variety of non-chain specialized establishments for very particular goods or services and tiny popular cafes with only two or three tables, demonstrating that with enough density and overlap, these kinds of small and unique businesses which we often consider unviable can thrive.

There is a lot of discussion around the state of the American (and perhaps Canadian) suburbs today. What is the way forward?

This is the big question. A majority of North Americans now live there but ultimately we are in the same boat in facing the need to alter our living arrangements and make the fundamental shift to a more sustainable way of life. The fantasy that we can buy our way out of this or that there will be a technological fix, a magic new fuel source like hydrogen fuel cells or solar energy reflected back from space that will allow the current sprawling auto-based, high energy consuming way of life to proceed unchanged is just that, a fantasy. The way out of our dilemma starts with the frank and unequivocal acknowledgement that we face serious problems. From that acknowledgment flows the understanding that we too have a need for a similar “re-balancing” in our world and will have to summon the leadership, the will and the resources to make hard decisions in changing course. If there is the will and the means to make changes, it is physically possible while admittedly difficult to “convert” suburbs. Beyond the house, suburban roads also have the potential to be transformed into multi- purpose urban streets, the arterials converted into boulevards shared with transit and cycle lanes. In fact, the groundwork is already laid for all this, and pioneering examples exist in many cities. The major impediments are cultural resistance to change, a fragmented pattern of ownership and an extraordinary tangle of intractable zoning regulations.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Waste collection as an unlikely attraction

STOCKHOLM. Every year thousands of visitors come to the Swedish capital Stockholm to see examples of modern urban development and marvel at an unlikely visitor attraction – waste collection.
Hammarby Sjöstad, a still on-going waterfront development project near the city center, has been a showcase for Swedish urban planning and green tech for the past 5-10 years. As Stockholm and Sweden now moves on to the next step in city development, a vacuum waste collection system invented by Envac remains as a symbol for Swedish ambitions in green tech.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity when customers actually come travelling here to see our product. And it’s also a product that you relatively easy can raise an interest for”, says Jonas Törnblom (right), corporate marketing and communications director of the Envac Group.
At a seminar in Stockholm earlier this week, Törnblom told the Envac story to a group of green tech businessmen and entrepreneurs. The meeting highlighted opportunities that come with the Swedish capital’s year as the first European Green Capital, an award given by the EU.
It’s a story Törnblom and his colleagues at Envac have told many times.
“In 2009 we held presentations for more than a hundred visiting groups from abroad that came to Hammarby Sjöstad. They were from 20 countries and we usually have two delegations coming here every week”, says Törnblom.
What they see is a Swedish invention that until recently was rather unique. Now Envac has installed some 600 of its waste collection systems in 30 countries around the world.
The system consists of inlets were users throw their waste. The waste is transported to a central collection point through underground pipes, using a vacuum system basically the same way a vacuum cleaner sucks dust.
Envac systems have been installed in residential areas, business premises, hospitals, airports and on city streets. The company likes to see its product as part of the city infrastructure.
When Hammarby Sjöstad was planned the vacuum waste collection system was seen as a help in reaching three environmental goals; reducing the total amount of household waste, reducing waste collection by heavy traffic and introducing source separation.
Since it became clear to Envac management that visitors to Hammarby Sjöstad found this interesting, the company has been very purposeful in using this opportunity for marketing of their products.
“Sweden has a good reputation when it comes to urban development. We use every opportunity connected to royal visits abroad, conferences, trade shows and such to seek alliances with foreign partners”, says Jonas Törnblom as he gives advice to his Swedish colleagues in the green tech business.
Despite the recent success for Envac, with a rapid expansion on the global market in the last couple of years, this is not the story of an upstart that made it big in a matter of years.
The history of the vacuum waste system goes back to the early 1960’s when the predecessor to Envac installed the first system in a hospital in Northern Sweden. That system is still in operation.
As early as 1965 the first waste system was installed in a new residential district in a suburb of Stockholm.
“The local politicians who made that decision were really bold. At that time nobody could really know if it would work, but the system is still in use”, says Törnblom.
He describes the continued story of Envac as a “bumpy road” leading up to the company’s present status as a world leader in its field. Sweden has for many years been in the forefront of green technology in urban development, district heating is one example, but it’s not until recently green tech became a trendy label for any company striving to be part of shaping the future.
For years, Envac struggled for a breakthrough on the domestic market. The company almost went bust after the crisis in the Swedish building industry in the 1990’s.
“That’s when we started to look at the international market. We had to, otherwise we wouldn’t have survived”, says Jonas Törnblom.
A couple of years later, waste collection become an attraction in Stockholm and what started 50 years ago with a few tech-optimists wanting to “vacuum” garbage through pipes became a sustainable success.

Inlets to the Envac system in Hammarby Sjöstad.

Protests in the wake of urban development

HAMBURG/CITYSCAPE IN CHANGE. In three earlier reports we have looked at HafenCity, the gigantic urban development that will change the landscape of this Northern German port city.
During my latest visit to Hamburg I spent most of my time wandering around this construction site, the largest on-going project of this kind anywhere in Europe.
But Hamburg is so much more than a laboratory for the cityscape of the future. This city of 1.8 million residents (over 4 million in the metropolitan region) has long been one of my favourite cities in Europe.
What makes Hamburg special is the sharp contrast between the two faces of the city.
On one hand you have a very prosperous city, one of the richest in Europe, with wealthy businessmen in expensive suits driving a Mercedes or BMW. In Hamburg you will meet a more distinct bourgeois Germany than anywhere else, with elegant ladies in fur coats walking their poodles from their expensive homes on the inner-city lakes.
On the other hand, this is a city of leftist protest culture, squatters, anarchists and seedy neighbourhoods that used to be the image of European sin.
And than you have the raw power of the port, the heart of Hamburg that made the city what it is.
While I was going through my material from Hamburg I came across an interesting story from the German news magazine Der Spiegel, published here on its English-language on-line service. It tells the story of an on-going struggle over the future of Hamburg that you won’t see much of if you visit HafenCity.
In the tradition of Hamburg’s protest movements there has been a reaction against the ambitions to change and develop the city. HafenCity is perhaps not what mostly stirs emotions. This new part of the city is being built on derelict old port and industrial land, but there has been protest against the high cost of living there.
Protesters are more against on-going gentrification in other parts of the city, which they feel might change the unique character of the city.
What set things in motion, according to the story in Der Spiegel, was the ambitions of city leaders to change Hamburg in line with the ideas of U.S. economist Richard Florida and his philosophy that cities have to attract the “creative class” in order to succeed.
Buildings have been occupied and manifestos circulated. An alliance of activists called “Right to the City” has been formed. At this point the story becomes somewhat confusing. The protest movement is to a large extent made up of the “creative class” the city seems to want more of.
An opening between city authorities and protesters is said to be under way, but the tension in Hamburg reminds us of struggles that might come in many cities as they now invest heavily in the future urban landscape.
“In this sense, Hamburg currently functions as a focal lens of sorts, one in which the conflicts of the coming decades are already recognizable. These conflicts will pit change against preservation, private property against the community and, most of all, economic interests against social considerations”, writes Der Spiegel.

This is the last of four reports on urban development in Hamburg.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Sweden sees a bright future in green tech

STOCKHOLM. For a small country on the Northern fringe of Europe, Sweden has produced a fair amount of world class products and brands over the years. Swedes can take pride in safety-leading cars, mobile phones, the Nobel Prize, Ikea’s inventive furniture stores, Abba’s music, a welfare model admired by some, and leading athletes in many sports.
However, what might be the most important contribution for the future, and the best next business opportunity for Sweden, lies in a field now commonly knows as green tech.
Not all Swedes seem to be aware of this.
“When Stockholm was chosen as the European Green Capital 2010 it received much more attention abroad than here at home”, says Ulla Hamilton, Stockholm’s vice mayor for environment and traffic.
She spoke yesterday at a gathering of green tech companies and entrepreneurs in the Swedish capital. The topic was the opportunities Stockholm’s year as the European Green Capital creates and how they could be used to catapult more Swedish green tech on to the world market.
“We can already see an increased interest from officials and politicians from around the world that want to come here and see what Stockholm is doing”, says Ulla Hamilton.
When the European Commission chose the Swedish capital as the first European Green Capital (Hamburg in Germany will follow in 2011), the jury concluded that Stockholm “has an outstanding, long historical track record of integrated urban management also confirmed by its ongoing credible green credentials. Ambitious plans for the future clearly demonstrate continuity”.
“We can show how you can have a growing city and at the same time lessen the damage done on the environment, if you only do it right from the beginning”, says Ulla Hamilton, who represents the liberal-conservative alliance now running Stockholm’s City Hall.
The European Green Capital award aims to promote and reward commitment and innovation from cities as they take on the environmental challenges that face a predominantly urban continent.
Stockholm is considered to have strong green programmes in most relevant areas. The long term ambitious goal is to be a fossil free city by 2050. The European Commission also notes the fact that 95 percent of the population in Stockholm live within 300 meters of green areas.
The overall picture of a city committed to sustainable urban development with a strong focus on public transportation and new technology in buildings and infrastructure, sets the stage for an ambitious green tech-business.
Next stop on the journey to promote Swedish green tech will be Shanghai and an event in the Swedish pavilion at Expo 2010 on June 11.
Strong fields in Swedish green tech include waste management, district heating, biofuels, water purification, energy efficiency and sustainable urban planning in general.
The European Commission also hails Stockholm for its “well-conceived communications strategy” when it comes to sharing its experiences and acting as inspiration to other cities.
A major part in this effort over the last 5-10 years has been Hammarby Sjöstad (left) near the city center, seen as one the first true examples of sustainable urban development. Despite the failings shown in evaluations of the Hammarby Sjöstad project (more on that later in this blog) this has been a showcase for Swedish urban development and green tech that has earned a world reputation.
Work is now under way on the Stockholm Royal Seaport project and visitors are already making their way to what vice mayor Ulla Hamilton calls “Hammarby Sjöstad 2.0”.
Efforts to co-ordinate Sweden’s and Stockholm’s ambitions when it comes to green tech is also under way. Last year the Sweden Green Tech Building opened in central Stockholm to serve as a meeting place and trading centre for green technology companies.
SymbioCity, a new trademark for Swedish green tech, is another effort administered by the Swedish Trade Council to help companies reach markets abroad.

Tomorrow: the story of a waste management company that came to symbolize Swedish green tech.

Copyright: Sweco/City of Stockholm
Stockholm Royal Seaport, the next showcase for Swedish green tech.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"Cold" architecture beginning to warm up

HAMBURG/CITYSCAPE IN CHANGE. After some initial criticism, architecture in Hamburg’s giant urban development project HafenCity is beginning to get positive headlines.
The new German headquarters for Unilever, a Dutch-British food and personal-care multinational, was the office-category winner at the World Architecture Festival recently. The unusual office building, designed by German architects Behnisch, sits right on the river Elbe and is expected to be one of the signature buildings of HafenCity.
Unileverhaus (left), as the building is called, is right next to the site of the future cruise terminal, which will be a center of activity in this new part of Hamburg. On the other side stands Marco-Polo-Tower, also designed by Behnisch Architekten, an irregularly shaped residential tower that will house some of the most exclusive apartments in HafenCity.
The many visitors who come to the site have been able to follow progress in the construction of these two buildings from a special view point nearby (below right).
Unileverhaus is wrapped in a special protective membrane to shield it from strong harbour winds and inclement weather. At first this might be mistaken for a part of the on-going construction, but at a closer look you realize that the membrane is an important part of the unique character of the building.
Unileverhaus has also been hailed for its airy and bright interior, with a central atrium that is open to the public and gives access to a terrace with a view of the huge port.
This part of HafenCity is called Strandkai and is nearing completion.
The first parts of HafenCity that were completed, Am Sandtorkai and Dalmannkai with mostly residential buildings, received early criticism for what was seen as boring and cold architecture.
A year ago, influential Munich daily Süddeutsche Zeitung complained that there were few traces of the visionary thinking that was supposed to put its stamp on HafenCity’s architecture. The paper talked of a “dictatorship of right angles” when it described what it thought was factory-style apartment buildings.
Most houses in this first part of HafenCity resemble large cubes sitting on the water’s edge. There are exceptions, like the soft shapes of “The Oval” (below right) on Dalmannkai, but most buildings fall under the description by Süddeutsche Zeitung (below left).
The criticism will probably soften as the construction of HafenCity progresses. A few years from now all eyes will be on the spectacular Elbphilarmonie concert hall that I wrote about in the previous report, and a number of other buildings under construction.
Next year two of the more noteworthy office buildings, the new headquarters for the Spiegel media group and the neighbouring Ericus Contor, are expected to be completed. Both are designed by Danish architects Henning Larsen.
Close to 750 architectural firms from all over the world have been participating in competitions, workshops and in realising buildings and public spaces in HafenCity since work began in 1999.
HafenCity Hamburg GmbH, the city-owned company that runs the project, keeps development in line with the overall ambitions for HafenCity. No speculation in property has been allowed. Investors and developers go through an initial 12-month tendering phase, where plans are scrutinized, before the final deal is signed.
“This model has worked out very well. Investors buy their site only when plans are optimal and the city has control over the process. It’s a flexible process, and I think there have only been two projects that have not come through”, says Susanne Bühler, head of communications at HafenCity Hamburg GmbH.
HafenCity is a huge urban development, the largest on-going in Europe, but its components are kept relatively small-scale. No single developer or investor is allowed to be too dominant.
Construction is now under way in Überseequartier in the center of HafenCity. This part of the project will be a showcase for the mixed cityscape planners aimed for in HafenCity. Residential buildings, hotels, offices and retail in street-level stores will guarantee a vibrant urban atmosphere in these blocks, planners hope. Many visitors are expected to come to a future Rem Koolhaas-designed Science Center.
This is also where the new subway-line U4 will have its main station in HafenCity.
Überseequartier is also an example where the city has drawn the line for some of the plans of developers.
“There were tough negotiations for the development of Überseequartier. One of the issues was plans for a shopping mall. But we don’t want that, it doesn’t fit into the urban development idea for HafenCity”, says Susanne Bühler.
The development of HafenCity will work its way eastwards until it finally reaches what will be called Chicago Square some time around 2020-25.
With inspiration from Hamburg’s sister city Chicago, the HafenCity project will end here with a number of high rises. Ideas for this new Hamburg skyline have already been proposed by a group of invited architects – from Chicago, of course.

This is the third in a series of reports on the HafenCity urban development project in Hamburg, Germany.

Copyright: Henning Larsen Architects/HafenCity Hamburg GmbH
The new headquarters for the Spiegel media group will be a signature building.

Copyright: ELBE & FLUT/HafenCity Hamburg GmbH
A model of Überseequartier, representing the idea of urban life in HafenCity.

Copyright: Michael Behrendt/Überseequartier Beteiligungs GmbH
The Überseequartier part of HafenCity is planned to be a vibrant urban scene.

Copyright: Gärtner & Christ/HafenCity Hamburg GmbH
Rem Koolhaas designed plans for the Science Center, a future attraction in HafenCity.

Norway plans to curb free parking

TRANSPORTATION. The Norwegian government, lead by the Social Democrats, is working on plans to stop all forms of free parking for cars in cities, reports daily Aftenposten in Oslo. The measure is aimed at curbing city-traffic.
Three government departments are working on the proposal, looking at different ways of changing the law. One alternative would be that owners of private parking lots are allowed to keep the parking fees they would have to charge. Another alternative would be that city authorities takes the money and use it to improve public transportation.
If the proposal becomes law, it would mean an end to free parking at shopping malls, offices and public parking lots. The capital Oslo has some 120,000 free parking spaces today, where fees would have to be introduced if the government has its way.
Supporters of the measure hopes that it will not only curb traffic, but also give new life to city street shopping that can be reached by public transportation.
Norway has been a leader in introducing congestion charges for driving in city centres. Oslo introduced its system of congestion charges more than 20 years ago.

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Canadian perspective on Scandinavia

URBAN PLANNING. Well-known architect and urban designer Ken Greenberg of Toronto sees lots of inspiring examples of modern urban development in Stockholm and Copenhagen, two Nordic capitals with a clear ambition to be international role models in sustainable city building.
Greenberg (right), a consultant and winner of many awards for his urban planning projects, visited the two capitals (and Copenhagen’s Swedish neighbour Malmö) last year.
I saw him mentioning this in a recent interview with Metropolis Magazine, and sent him a number of questions for an e-mail interview on his experiences in Scandinavia and his views on current trends in urban planning.
Greenberg is writing a book, to be published next year, and presently works on projects in Toronto, Boston and other places. In Toronto he is involved in planning of the Lower Don Lands, a big project that will be an important part of the ongoing re-development of the city’s waterfront.
The Lower Don Lands is one of the 16 founding project for the Climate Positive Development Program, a project of former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s Climate Initiative with the U.S. Green Building Council and a global initiative to find a model for sustainable urban growth.
In Stockholm, Greenberg had a chance to see plans for another of the founding projects, the Stockholm Royal Seaport development.
Greenberg points out that the trip he and his wife Eti made to Scandinavia was “short and highly packed”, but gave him a chance to see some innovative projects first hand and explore some of the parallels to his own Canada (the climate, large land areas with a relatively small population and a complex mix of free enterprise and social democratic traditions).
“What was most impressive was not just the impressive new technologies, but the whole array of changes that obviously are part of a collective drive to develop ways of living that rest more lightly on the planet. Most significantly this did not seem to be some kind of hair shirt penance but a chance to make life more agreeable, providing great urban places and an excellent quality of life for many people. The air was cleaner and easier to breathe. It was easy to get around. Life in public spaces was active and lively for all ages. And cycling which we love to do in the city was both practical and a pleasure”, says Greenberg.

Did you see any recent development projects in particular, or plans for new developments, that you found interesting?

With great local guides – including young architects and civic leaders working in each of these cities - we saw a range of new projects up and down the waterfront in Copenhagen (left) and met with former Lord Mayor Jens Mikkelsen who is now overseeing many of them; in Malmö we toured boO1 at Västra Hamnen and the neighbourhoods that are extending the original exposition site back to the centre; in Stockhom we spent a day at Hammarby Sjöstad and also visited the Royal Harbour site and met the project team. These new projects were all inspiring but what was clear from these diverse examples is that there is not just one way of doing things or one ideal urban form or scale. Allowing room for experimentation and the testing of alternative models is crucially important; not all the eggs in one basket.
What was most notable in the places we visited was that by utilizing a full range of technologies from low to medium to highly sophisticated, and operating at a range of scales from simple behavioral changes in individual households to the neighbourhood to the entire city, the reduction in environmental impacts in key projects has been substantial. Every conceivable source of energy is being tapped from district heating, co-generation using biofuels from organic waste and biogas from waste water plants producing power and heating (and powering buses) to geothermal for heating and cooling. Energy also comes from many other sources including ubiquitous wind farms, solar panels for hot water and photo-voltaics for power. In new projects highly sophisticated underground vacuum systems are used for waste management. In Hammarby Sjöstad an Envac system (right) collects four waste streams in conveniently located portals throughout the neighbourhoods and this waste then travels in underground pipes at 70km/hr to a small centralized collection point for recycling and use as fuel for co-generation. Not only is this cost effective and clean, there are no garbage trucks making the rounds and buildings are relieved of the need to provide garbage rooms, loading bays, or intrusive space-consuming bins. Highly effective education programs are also encouraging individual residents to take steps to reduce their own environmental footprints in tandem with the larger urban systems.

Stockholm and Copenhagen both aspire to be international role models when it comes to modern urban development. Do they live up to that?

I think they do. Not for one thing, but for doing many things well. There was obviously no panacea but lots of inspiring examples of expanding the realm of the possible in tapping new sources of energy, reducing auto dependence with better ways of getting around, reducing waste and collecting and processing waste what remained more effectively. And it was not just in the justly celebrated high profile new projects that we saw this but the widespread adoption of best practices (or better practices). The transformation in cities is as much about the retrofitting of existing neighbourhoods and the broader changes in daily life patterns s as it is about the special new places that are being created.

You said in the Metropolis interview that there are places that are 5-10 years "ahead of us" (North America, I presume). In what respect?

Higher energy costs today in these Scandinavian cities have no doubt been a key driving factor in all of these efforts but ultimately we in North America will be facing the same rising costs and the need for the same proactive responses. You are much further along on the curve. As affluent societies with choices, you seem to be demonstrating foresight and leadership by making good ones and offering real examples of what positive change looks like. For a start getting around without a car in these cities seems easy, comfortable and highly efficient with many convenient choices. Good alternatives – transit, cycling and walking, and ferries (left) – are helping to reverse the tidal pull to the suburbs and the allure of auto commuting. And it is not just about transit as a conveyance but the way the cities are being shaped around the stops which are at the heart of newly forming neighbourhoods. Where the system is light rail the lines are easily crossable by pedestrians; shelter for pedestrians is generous and important stations have amenities, cafes, restaurants, basic food shopping and social services, all easily accessed as part of daily routines.
Another trade-off or compensation for living in smaller interior spaces is the incredible richness and variety of the public realm. The neighbourhoods of Hammarby Sjöstad have spaces for all ages and levels of energy and fitness from the preserved Oak Grove, the Ski Hill (right), places to skate, to fish, to play sports, and to stroll along the water on boardwalks over the marshes and beautifully designed pedestrian bridges. There are tiny squares to meet and take in the scene and big parks to be more active, places to be together in public and intimate places to be alone. The city itself is outfitted for leisure; recreation is not an isolated separate category. There are swimming pool barges docked along the harbour in the centre of Copenhagen and new recreational areas like the beautiful Amager Strandpark Beach facing across the strait to Malmo, a new kind of 21st century ‘Jones Beach’ but with no parking lots, accessed by the new subway line and by bicycle.
Everywhere in evidence were changes in the design of streets to reflect a new hierarchy we all espouse but rarely achieve – first pedestrians, then cyclists and transit, and then vehicles. The treatment of spaces for walking is a high priority with quality materials and good design and a commitment to ongoing maintenance, but also in terms of safety by sending strong visual signals, like clearly delineating crosswalks through colour and texture. In each city there were expanding pedestrian only zones which, like Copenhagen’s famous Strøget grew out of the narrow streets of the city’s fine-grained medieval heart.
It was very clear that cyclists have a privileged place in the street network and as their already high numbers increase (aiming for 50 percent of trips in Copenhagen) there are impressive ongoing efforts to increase the number of separated lanes, and provide special traffic signals and safer markings for turning movements at intersections. Most of the bicycles are simple and functional; there are many types of three wheelers for carrying kids and groceries and most of the people using them are not fitted out like samurai ready for combat or suited up for the Tour de France. There are also bicycles to borrow. Stockholm has stands located all over the city with well designed bicycles that can just be returned at another convenient location. Most impressive for us was that many younger kids are able to safely and comfortably ride their bikes to school, something we used to see in North America.
Since we were exploring Copenhagen (left) on bicycle most notable to us was the provision of separate lanes almost everywhere often on the inboard side of parked cars and/or separated from the moving traffic by a small raised curb providing a secure space and protection from being squeezed into a narrow space with the risk of doors unpredictably opening on the drivers’ side. There were special cyclists’ traffic signals and consistently painted or textured delineations in the pavement for turning movements. What an extraordinary relief and reduction in stress levels!
Something else which really struck us was the presence of kids and young families everywhere we went. The city centres are extremely child friendly both in the older neighbourhoods and especially in the new ones like Hammarby Sjöstad or Västra Hamnen in Malmo. There are frequent play spaces, daycare facilities and local schools. Many of the residential courtyards have highly imaginative ’play sculptures‘ for a range of ages from toddlers to older children instead of standard issue insurance underwriters approved off-the-shelf playgrounds. The cities themselves are playful with many examples of whimsical public art, from poetry embedded in the streets and sidewalks to preserving a harbour crane as an sculptural recall or evocative pieces in parks and on street corners or in small squares.

A second part of the e-mail interview with Ken Greenberg will be posted later this week.