Architectural Ponderings

Are we building smart?

As both The Hague and Eindhoven have announced the intent to add large numbers of residences in the following years, the topic of building smarter and better cities is a hot one. The Hague has announced 50.000 new houses by 2040 while Eindhoven plans on adding 20.000 in the next 10 years. These are not small numbers, and as one can see from the two references, their volumes will have a major impact on every level. The irony is that these numbers are being added while in 2014 there were reportedly 40 millions square meters of vacant real estate in the Netherlands. These included houses, offices, hospitals and shops…  

But, what does a smart city entail?

Peter Calthorpe, an american architect deeply involved in the development of cities, presents in the TEDx talk below, 7 principles that need to be taken in consideration when expanding cities in today’s social context. Some of them are directly related to human nature while others are a result of our technologies and social reactions to economic development.

1 / Preserve – Preserve natural ecologies, agrarian landscape and cultural heritage sites.
Though this has been a lesson learned the hard way, the Dutch are doing well. After years of deforesting in favor of built environment, the wake up call of needing to preserve is still an active element. However despite doing well in preserving nature and special environments, the matter of green social spaces within residential areas is a work in progress.

2 / Mix – Create mixed-use and mixed-income neighborhoods (mixed income, age groups as well as mixed land use).
After the war, the need for new and proper housing became a dire need. Small houses packed in tight grids were the fast solution to the health hazards of overcrowding. And they worked. They were fast to build and improved everyone’s lives. Add to that the urban trend of separating functions within city that was thoroughly embraced and you get to today’s inheritance of the urban layout.
The historical trend of building separate areas based on functions is still actively used. Though its usage today is no longer based on the same reasoning, the separation of functions within new built districts is highly visible. It’s survival is mostly sustained by the investors that aim to build compact neighborhoods with the highest possible financial outcome, leaving aside the psychological and sociological needs of the new neighborhoods.
The system does have as a benefit, quiet residential neighborhoods. It however, does not supply with interaction spaces further than some children playgrounds. This can either create a safe but isolated environment or, in some cases, trigger a reaction from its residents to hack their environment in order to better suit their needs. And, this is where the need for feedback comes in.   

3 / Walk – Design walkable streets and human scale neighborhoods “There is no great city that you do not enjoy walking in!”
The Netherlands is small. It’s cities are small. The old city centers are warm and cozy. The streets are narrow and filled with shops and activity. However, the further outward one goes, the streets become less appealing. The scale does not change much, however the appeal of the street dramatically decreases. Sure, the residents appreciate the quiet, but they usually don’t stick around when looking for the element of socializing. And this is in direct relation to points 2 and respectively 5.

4 / Bike – prioritize bicycle networks and auto-free streets.
He, he, here in the land of bikes… need I say more? 

5 / Connect – Increase density of road network, limit block size (create many kinds of streets instead of just one type).
There is a large variety in the local networks as well as constant improvement. However, the structure outside of a private residence has been focused so much on getting from point A to point B, that it left no room for anything else. Interaction with neighbors is either done in one’s own back yard or in specific locations, commonly in the city center. The network of the neighborhood does not provide enticement in that matter (obviously there always exceptions).

6 / Ride – Develop high quality transit and affordable BRT
Here we’re on weird ground. The Netherlands has a fantastically well built network of roads. Works well, is well maintained and constantly improved. However the predicted density growth and implicit raise in traffic levels has the potential of rapidly making its capacities not enough. Thus the need for an efficient public transport system.
The Nederlandse Spoorwegen (Dutch Railway) is an incredible force. I know that the national sport is to bash their efforts, but stop for a second and consider this: The Netherlands is the only country in Europe that uses trains like buses. The average commuter spends at least 30 minutes and up to an hour and a half in the train on the way to work. The distances are small. (Yes they are. I grew up in a country where it takes about 10 hours to cross it diagonally by train.) Which makes it easy, but it also makes it prone to overloading if not properly maintained. The context of the Nederlandse Spoorwegen is much more complex, however the main point is that be it train or road network, were one or the either fail, its effect would tear through the local economy.

As for the local transportation represented by trams, buses and metro, the bigger the city, the higher its speed and effectiveness. However that has something to do with point number 4 and choosing the bike whenever possible.

7 / Focus – Match density and mix to transit capacity 

I know that the small size of the Netherlands is a direct connection to its high mobility, however the typical and daily traffic jams are the clear answer that the present time structure is no longer properly serving its purpose. As a result, a better mixture of functions needs to be thought of, tried, experienced, given feedback over, refined and finally redesigned.
“Build it and they will come” is an outdated and flawed perspective. A city is a living organism. Urban plans represent only the beginning. Once in place, the city organically develops beyond the new additions over and over again as its needs change.

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