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.

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