Friday, February 19, 2010

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.

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