Peak liveability: Europe’s cities have a unique opportunity
As Italo Calvino wrote half a century ago, cities are like dreams; while they may have absurd rules and hide as much as they reveal, they are made of desires and fears. And each one offers a chance for inhabitants to “give space” to what is not infernal in them.
City planning is or should be mostly about that strategy, which the Italian author noted is a risky one.
Today most of humanity lives in an urban setting. But that’s an average that rarely captures reality.
Urbanization is very high in Europe, around 50% in China, and notably lower in Africa, where along with the Middle East it is growing the fastest. Likewise, populations vary enormously, with the average age only 15 in Niger and three times higher in Germany and Italy.
Consequently, the quest for the urban form of the future varies considerably, with environmental assets such as water and climate playing a major role. As this issue of Infrastructure Channel notes, there are three broad approaches.
Build brand-new gleaming smart cities, a strategy applied with the greatest force in the examples of the UAE’s Masdar City, Dubai and Saudi Arabia’s Neom. Green densely-populated areas, a tactic with particular urgency in China and exemplified by Liuzhou Forest City, where trees will literally crawl the walls and outnumber people, offering oxygen and respite from dust. And recover and regenerate spaces that have fallen out of use, a big focus in Europe and exemplified by Milan’s ongoing Bicocca neighbourhood project and a host of clever new parks made from abandoned commuter train lines in New York and Paris.
As the solutions these approaches offer are to different questions, it would be arduous to debate which one is the best. For many, especially amid younger populations, the past is a foreign country. And current mobility suggests that foreign cities may be anyone’s future.
Back and forth, again and again
To some extent there is cross-fertilization, following a trend of the 20th century, when German visionaries tapped the American frontier to conjure up the modern Bauhaus tradition even as Americans flocked to study in Europe and return to build neo-classic monuments in their home towns.
But an even greater force may be speed, says Anupama Kundoo, an archistar who was born in Bombay, teaches in Berlin and runs a studio out of Auroville – the South Indian planned community where she was chief architect for a decade - that innovates in the area of cheap and sustainable building materials. When she brought the illiterate Tamil laborers she taught to make bricks in an old-fashioned way to Venice for her blockbuster Venice Biennale installation in 2014, they used churches in the lagoon city like temples in their native landscapes to serve as their personal mapping devices – a reminder that Calvino was onto something when he said that a city’s delight lies not in its various wonders but “in the answer it gives to a question of yours.”
Referring to Oriental urban trends today, she says “the pace and scale of development often doesn’t allow much time to plan or even think” and that all too often “the developer-driven model where houses are conceived as investment rather than homes leads to a new skyline which is usually just a conglomeration of individually driven real estate” with inadequate basic intangible infrastructure.
While that may sound harsh, it happens to be almost identical to Livy’s complaint in Book V of his History of Rome, written more than 2,030 years ago and probably the first non-religious bestseller of all time. The Eternal City was rebuilt “haphazardly” due to haste, with individuals building where they wished without concern for roads, so that ”the design seems that of a squatters’ city rather than one that has been planned out.”
It would seem that the only thing harder than city planning would be predicting how unplanned cities end up! Indeed, it could even be argued that the greatest calamities reflect an excess of intentionality, not a lack. Maurice Rotival, a major influence in the U.S. and Europe in the mid-1900s, and the chief architect of Caracas, was a champion of bringing high-speed infrastructure to urban centers, an idea that came to the Parisian as a result of his love of aerial views he discovered as a pilot in World War I. For the record, he also describes the work of the planner as “making war against chaos” and favoured the wholesale military-style demolition of areas – think “West Side Story” or even the Via dei Fori Imperiali, a tribute to Rome’s ancient glory that exists because Mussolini “gutted” (the vernacular term was sventramenti) scores of ancient, medieval and Renaissance structures as well as popular tenement housing units - to make way for the new.
Today city planning in Europe is basically the opposite of what it was for a century, and remains elsewhere, and revolves around what Kundoo calls “adaptive reuse”. There’s a unique opportunity to focus on “building life rather than building buildings,” she says.
Projects such as Rome’s EUR – the first time an urban core was built outside the historic center – would hold little appeal in Europe today. Yet it’s worth noting that it was the product of the first master plan for the city that wasn’t based mainly on managing traffic, and that it might have been a stroke of genius if Rome had in fact become a metropolis stretching all the way to the coast.
Having said that, "today European cities also need the ability to plan and build new infrastructure that serves more people on-the-move”, infers Massimo Sonego, Head of Corporate Finance & Investor Relations at Atlantia, the leading operator of urban toll roads in many large metropolitan areas in the world as well as a pioneer in digital payment solutions to integrate toll road and off road payments in Europe.
“This means first of all new roads to interconnect new residential areas to the city centre. Secondly ancillary infrastructure to serve modern needs, such as infomedia and the environment” says Sonego as he refers to city access control, parking tolling, new green street lighting or electric charge for zero emission vehicles. “And all these new services need to be easily accessible and payable from citizens' smart phones or their web-connected car dashboards. This is the next frontier for mobility operators”.
Sonego has a point: reducing the average commuting time and better connecting residential, commercial, and working districts is key in today’s European cities. Here multi-lane roads could be an alternative to a capillary underground transportation network that is effective in small-medium cities, but very expensive to build and manage in large metropolitan areas.
These ideas however may be difficult to implement at a time of shrinking public spending and municipalities’ large deficits. “This is why more private investments and involvement are needed”, adds Sonego, “not just to build new roads but also to refurbish other city networks, for instance street lighting by installing low consumption LED lamps”. This enhancement would repay itself in a short time due to the electricity cost-reduction. New street lamps may also provide electrical car recharge points and wi-fi connection utilising the already-existing telecommunication fibre networks on the same roads as well as video cameras for street surveillance and access control, thinks Atlantia’s Head of Corporate Finance.
Geography, demography and destiny
Europe’s urban forms have two factors that contrast trends in the Middle and Far East.
First, the foreign social geography has historically always been marked by strong “heartland” settlement spread around the interior, in contrast to the hegemonic role played by port cities in Asia.
Europe’s busiest sea ports are Rotterdam, Antwerp and Hamburg, none of which have populations or political power remotely comparable to giants such as Shanghai, Singapore and even Dubai, notes
César Ducruet, a sociologist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research. Those Asian ports serve people who live there, whereas those in Europe move goods to people who live elsewhere. One upshot of that, he notes, is that Europe has a highly adaptive intermodal transport infrastructure and can deploy commercial strategies that don’t rely on location, while Asia’s port cities “are forced to follow the urban hierarchy”. New ventures in the region may break that bind, which could be revolutionary for architects.
Interestingly, Ducruet notes that the situation is a bit different in the Mediterranean. There, port cities - think Athens or Naples - reflect an ancient era of global trade when the world was much smaller scale, and urban growth is rapidly chewing up prime agricultural land in a region where water and soil conditions are far from generous.
The second big distinction is that Europe’s population is not growing and that it is already highly urbanized. In fact many the continent’s cities are shrinking.
Perhaps surprisingly, urbanization has led to “de-densification” in every part of the world. Asia and the Middle East may be able to reverse that, not least because greater urban density can reduce energy needs as much as efficiency. But that will require a policy effort.
On the surface, Europe’s weaker demographic trajectory may make density seem less likely, but inspired policy efforts may yet work wonders. The investment case for urban property is based on easy access to good jobs and amenities such as green space. As most European and North American cities have large amounts of abandoned and even derelict spaces – which if combined are usually much larger than iconic parks like New York’s Central Park - there’s room to create mini-spaces that serve as public lounge spaces and anchor more liveable communities, replacing the suburbanization campaigns of the 1970s.
Interestingly, the most densely populated parts of Europe – swathes of Berlin, Barcelona, Paris - today are exactly where urban housing was built for rural migrants to take up industrial jobs in the late 19th century, as demonstrated by a fascinating mapping exercise done by Sheffield University Professor Alasdair Rae. Once stigmatized as overcrowded tenements, these areas have the magic location that people want plus an architectural fabric that lends itself to multiple civic uses – ideal for the vibrant spaces that anti-technocrat urban visionaries such as Jane Jacobs champion.
So instead of inventing a future as in Dubai, or reviving nature as in Shanghai, Europe has the option of dining on its own history.