Lines are on trend. There’s New York’s High Line that created a linear garden above the streets of Manhattan, soon to be joined by the Lowline promising the same through Lower East Side tunnels, where sunlight is to be directed underground using fibre optics. Sydney has got in on the act with its Goods Line and South London is pondering the Coal Line over disused railway viaducts. The vogue was invented in Paris – where else? – with the creation of the Viaduc des Arts near Bastille back in 1994.

Artificial urban beaches, where stretches of waterside city are beachified – not much of an Aussie phenomenon given the proximity of the real deal – are now the big thing in Europe each summer. To name just a few: the Paris-Plages along the Seine and canals; the Strand Zuid in Amsterdam; the Beach on the Cobblestones in Cologne. Set out a few deckchairs, provide a bar and some inflatables, maybe strew some sand – instant Copacabana. Intriguingly, Jean-Louis Missika, the deputy mayor of Paris in charge of urbanism and architecture, also has “economic development and attractiveness” in his job title. So French, so chic. There are fashions in urban design, then, as much as in hats. Pop-ups and pavilions (temporary or otherwise) are also de rigueur in the current dressing-up box for regenerating cities.

Under 20th-century modernism, city shaping was a technocratic act by architects and planners; the godlike designer looking down to create utopias, giant hands segregating cities into zones, separating homes from industry, people from cars. As we know from so many failures, this just didn’t work; people aren’t cogs to be fitted neatly into a city machine. So in the post-industrial world of the 1980s that had lost faith in utopias and modernism, the task of refitting our cities brought a new profession into being – the urban designer.

There are many definitions about what urban design constitutes. It is bigger than architecture but that doesn’t mean just lots of buildings rather than one. In some ways it is the space between buildings – although it is far more than landscaping. The fashionable term “place-making” captures some of its complexity: how do you create somewhere out of nowhere, or correct the failing bit of urbanism that has lost its historical purpose or has been unwisely developed in its recent past?

A garden on New York’s High Line abuts a high‑density car park.
A garden on New York’s High Line abuts a high‑density car park. Graham Crouch

Place-making can encompass interventions as large-scale and obvious as trying to get Sydney’s Darling Harbour right (in its third incarnation) or as subtle as nurturing Melbourne’s successful laneway culture. And as the world gets ever more urbanised and its cities balloon into megacities transformed with the ebb and flow of vast and diverse populations, some are questioning how we can ensure traditional concepts such as neighbourhoods survive. The celebrated sociologist of cities Saskia Sassen argues the sizeable chunks of global cities such as London and New York, now owned by foreign sovereign wealth funds and international developers, are having a negative impact on vibrant “cityness”.

Public redefined

The “public” realms created in such developments are often not public at all, with a right to sit and sip a flat white ceded but with private security and no right to protest, or, in some cases, take pictures. If London’s controversial Garden Bridge proposal – a park spanning the Thames – does get built, there will be limits on the size of group that can cross it and closures for private parties. This is a fairground attraction masquerading as public infrastructure. Likewise, rallies at Melbourne’s Federation Square can only take place if the forecourt isn’t booked for a private event (it is managed by a private company owned by the state government). All those lines, high and low, have similarly blurry public/private credentials.

There can be a faux spontaneity supplanting the genuine grassroots activity that is vital to creative urban economies. Even the genuine article can be carelessly quashed. Lock-out laws have done for Sydney’s Kings Cross while London’s King’s Cross is a vast, well-designed but essentially privatised chunk of inner city. Too much control of any stripe can be as fatal to vitality as too little. Cities need a degree of mess; the squatted artists’ studios, the grubby railway arch club and seedy back alley can be as valuable as the tree-lined boulevard. Urban design in the pursuit of city pleasures raises a question then: are all these temporary beaches, linear parks, pop-up pavilions and street food vans some welcome icing on the urban cake, or window dressing that disguises fundamental threats to the sanitised public life of cities?

One starting point for the present approach to improving our cities was the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. In preparation, visionary Mayor Pasqual Maragall reinvented the decaying Catalonian capital with dozens of new piazzas, dense, mixed-use waterfront neighbourhoods, better public transport. Crime, it is claimed, fell 40 per cent in a decade. Barcelona continued to work at its urban design in the post-Olympic period and its success became a model for others. But while pleasures were important to this vision, they were attached to real attempts to tackle urban problems and promote genuine liveability as much as a café lifestyle. Melbourne has followed a similar path under its equally visionary director of design, Rob Adams – hence its consistent high placing in rankings of liveable cities.

“Two wheels good” is the catchphrase in Copenhagen.
“Two wheels good” is the catchphrase in Copenhagen. Leonardo Patrizi

A second source of urban design inspiration for our generation has been Copenhagen, which is steadily overcoming the dominance of the car, turning city spaces over to people – fewer car-parking spaces, more street cafes and cycle lanes. The city’s 2009 plan, A Metropolis for People, aims for the “most liveable city in the world” but it is a process that has been going on since the early 1960s when Strøget, Copenhagen’s main shopping street, became one of the longest pedestrianised streets in the world. Its “two wheels good” mantra has been supplemented by initiatives including creating decent affordable housing, swimming pools in the once-polluted harbour and heating more of the city by a district system supplied by green energy.

Focus on habitat

Jan Gehl – known for his championing of cycling – was there from the start, counting cars to make the case for pedestrianisation in the 60s and now advising cities world-wide on how to become people-friendly.

“Cycling is only a sideshow for me, says Gehl. “I’m interested in people – some of whom are on bikes. I was trained in the 50s as a good modernist to look down as if from a great height and push objects around. Then I married a psychologist who asked me all these nasty questions like: ‘Why don’t architects care about people?’ We knew more about the habitat of mountain gorillas than about urban homo sapiens.”

Barcelona’s inspired rejuvenation was kick-started by its hosting of the 1992 Olympics.
Barcelona’s inspired rejuvenation was kick-started by its hosting of the 1992 Olympics. Artur Debat

He tried to put into practice the ideas of pioneering US theorist Jane Jacobs, whose 1961 book Death and Life of Great American Cities decried ripping down traditional mixed-use neighbourhoods in favour of motorways and zoning.

Cars, Gehl argues, are an outmoded, century-old technology from Los Angeles, while Singapore, he predicts, will be the world’s first car-free city.

Fellow Dane Bjarke Ingels is now one of the hottest architectural properties on the planet, beginning with a Copenhagen harbour pool project before now conquering New York with a series of tower proposals and a linear park along the East River where flood defences double as leisure provision. Back in Copenhagen he is completing a new waste-to-fuel power station that will be built below an artificial ski slope as part of his campaign for “hedonistic sustainability”.

Such successes are built on sustained political will. Gehl has walked away from Sydney projects, for example, after NSW state politicians and big-end-of-town myopia meant his advice was ignored and the proposed public realm of the Barangaroo waterfront development was sliced and diced.

Sydney delivers the Goods Line.
Sydney delivers the Goods Line. Florian Groehn

Generational cost

Even Copenhagen, however, isn’t utopia: cars still dominate the outer suburbs, for instance. And of the soulless new urban extension at Ørestad towards the airport, Gehl says: “Out of 12 things they could do wrong they did 13.”

Berlin, meanwhile, lauded for the way it has put itself back together since the fall of the Wall, has also had to learn the lessons of its first hasty post-unification development – the introverted and unconnected shopping centre at Potsdamer Platz by Renzo Piano et al.

The consequences of failed urban design can be far more serious, however, than simply miserable, boring places to live that, wastefully, have to be put right by the next generation. Some have blamed urban rioting and home-grown European terrorism on the alienation that follows from the segregating out of big cities into zones of rich and poor, black and white, central and peripheral.

Melbourne’s Federation Square isn’t a truly public space.
Melbourne’s Federation Square isn’t a truly public space. Joao Canziani

Paris has exiled its poor minorities out of sight (and until now pretty much out of mind) to its ugly margins, the grim banlieues (suburbs) beyond the orbital Périphérique motorway, reserving its historic core for the wealthy, the bobo and white. Architectural apartheid. The disaffected of Paris’ high-rise exurban estates – the notorious cités – are these days, it’s argued, as likely to turn to terrorism as overturn a police car. Likewise, Molenbeek in Brussels, which suffered a dreary postwar rebuild across swaths of the commune. It may be only a walk from the tourists supping beer in Brussels’ Grand Place but this so-called “Jihadi Central” is invisible to outsiders. Them. Us. There’s no doubt creating a feeling of “otherness” makes it easier to dehumanise and attack a stranger rather than a neighbour.

Do bad places breed bad people? The relationship is complex and subtle. Social cohesion can be hindered by poor design – blocks arranged so neighbours don’t easily meet each other, open space no one has responsibility for, locations that reinforce isolation and introspection. But this point is too often overstretched.

Urban design is not destiny. It alone can’t create communities, can’t address racism or affect global politics through pretty place-making. While segregation reduces chance encounters with the “other” that characterises successful, cosmopolitan cities, equality and justice are better than boulevards in preventing violence.

This vital need to bring to people together as city populations change in their make-up, as well as the need to densify our cities so they grow sustainably, will characterise the next age of urban design. We will have to concentrate more on the suburbs than city centres or creating hipster havens among old warehouses. The burbs now demand the same regenerative attention and innovation that the urbs of the world have seen over past decades.

“To be a good architect you have to love people,” Jan Gehl says. The same is true of visionary place-making: look beyond the lifestyle and there are important questions of life to address. And of belonging. Integration, not segregation, should be urban design’s watchword.

Source: Financial Review
June 27, 2016
By Robert Bevan