Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Cities on the edge of chaos

with 3 comments

The Observer

Deyan Sudjic on the city of the future. Actually he’s flogging his new book (Endless City, edited by Ricky Burdett and Deyan Sudjic, is published by Phaidon next week at £35.) But there are some interesting insights in a longish article. (The English quality Sundays always make me feel a bit homesick, now I live in a city which only has the Province on Sundays.)

The future of the city has suddenly become the only subject in town. It ranges from tough topics such as managing water resources, economic policy, transport planning and law enforcement to what is usually presented as the fluffier end of the scale, such as making public spaces people want to spend time in. It’s about racial tolerance and civilised airports, the colour of the buses and the cost of the fares on them. Unless you have some kind of framework to make sense of all that, the city can seem to be about so many diverse things that it is about everything and nothing.

And that is how I found myself swept up in Urban Age, a mobile think-tank set up by the London School of Economics Cities programme, with the Alfred Herrhausen Society, a well-funded charitable arm of Deutsche Bank.

And my old school too. And the result

… a lot of messages about reducing the reliance of cities on the car, on high-density cities being more sociable places in which to live, as well as more sustainable environmentally, about the importance of a coherent form of city government. Though it doesn’t shrink from the darker aspects of city life, it is also a powerful affirmation of the city as mankind’s greatest single invention.

Cities are made by an extraordinary mixture of do-gooders and bloody-minded obsessives, of cynical political operators and speculators. They are shaped by the unintended consequences of the greedy and the self-interested, the dedicated and the occasional visionary. The cities that work best are those that keep their options open, that allow the possibility of change.

The ones that are stuck, overwhelmed by rigid, state-owned social housing, or by economic systems that offer the poor no way out of the slums are in trouble. A successful city is one that makes room for surprises. A city that has been trapped by too much gentrification, or too many shopping malls, will have trouble generating the spark that is essential to making a city that works.

The pattern of the Victorian terraces of London has proved to be remarkably adaptable. A four-storey house 18ft wide can be used for almost anything and it supports a population dense enough for pedestrian life on the pavement that makes cafes and small shops flourish; a system-built tower block marooned in Tarmac is not so adaptable.

Typical East Ham houseActually the vast majority of London terraces are two storeys. Most were built between 1880 and 1914 and have two distinctive features: the narrow frontage to reduce liability to property tax (then determined by length of street frontage) and designed to meet the specifications of the 1880 Public Health Act. The four storey versions tend to be older and are mainly found in inner London – the ring of boroughs that were within walking distance of the City.

Good stuff and worth your time. But as for “world class” we are not even mentioned in passing – and neither is T.O. So there!

Written by Stephen Rees

March 8, 2008 at 5:37 pm

Posted in Urban Planning

3 Responses

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  1. When I first moved here I was astonished at the number of Vancouverites who consider their city “world class” – I guess they don’t get out much!


    March 8, 2008 at 10:31 pm

  2. Vancouver world class?

    Nada. If anyones asks if Vancouver is ‘world class’ it isn’t. There is no definition of world class and is a political term for local politicians and alike, to pretend Vancouver is something, when it isn’t.

    Take away the mountains and the sea and Vancouver becomes a rather nasty little boil of a town that needs to be deverly lanced..

    When we stop navel gazing and actually work to make Vancouver more livable, then we will stop asking ourselves, “Is Vancouver a world class city?”

    Malcolm J.

    March 9, 2008 at 11:18 am

  3. I moved to Vancouver — more accurately, the inner city of Vancouver — from Calgary in 1979 and found it several orders of magnitude more “world class” in ways too numerous to list. Largely because of fairly successful heritage planning, a detailed city hall design review process, a lively arts and cultural community, and many creative local designers, inner Vancouver is getting even better and is now able to stand on its own without the natural backdrop. I can’t say the same about Metrotown, Whalley, North Delta, South Surrey, Walnut Grove or the Westwood Plateau. These are Anywhere Communities with no there there.

    Even the downtown eastside has much value; it was not as downtrodden then and still possesses it’s original great urban design and architectural attibutes. I used to walk there and in Chinatown at night all the time when I lived in Strathcona and visited places like the crowded Classical Joint Cafe, places noted for thinhs like high energy live jazz, places you’d never find outside the inner city because they’re overwhelmed by the snoring Muzak and whining Country sound tracks at the ubiquitous Denny’s. If we could only elect leaders who would treat the people who live in the DTES as human beings, then that neighbourhood could rise and find its potential again.

    Stopping freeway expansion and the building of brutal social housing blocks in the late 60s was crucial in making Vancouver’s livability rating so high (second only to Melbourne). Luckily, the city limited these housing blocks in Strathcona, but their impingement is still obvious on the plethora of heritage houses.

    I suspect the livability assessment staff from the Economist do not venture much into the burbs. And I wouldn’t confuse the highly subjective term “world class” with livability which has definable criteria … and certainly not with sustainabilty which is another measureable term.

    “World class” is also relative. Paris ranks highly largely due to some extremely controversial and expensive convolutions that took place in the late 1800s, notably its clearing of slums for boulevards, building the Metro which opened just in time for the Worlds Fair at the turn of the century, and imposing extremely dictatorial restrictions on building height, form and materials, things hardly possible to do today outside of a totalitarian government. In doing this though, the most dangerously overcrowded Parisian streets where cholera killed hundreds were eliminated, and the city matured. Paris (and other great European cities) has also had a 1,000-year head start over Vancouver.

    Doug Saunders wrote several pieces in the Globe and Mail on the riots in projects built on the outer ring of Paris suburbs, and how they contributed greatly to the feeling of isolation experienced by mostly immigrant youth. This does detract in a big way from Paris’ world class reputation, but the factors involve immigration policy and practice and a lack of community identity. He noted that one building underwent a recent design ‘revolution’ where the tenants were alllowed to paint their windows, doors and walls with distinctive colours and build gardens in the otherwise bleak courtyards between towers (i.e. to set down “roots” and establish a semblence of control over their homes and a sense of identity). It was the only building not damaged by rioting.

    With a recent recognition (and serious money) from a senior government that culture really does define a city’s identity, it can get only better. One doesn’t go to Paris for the mountains. One goes for the museums, galleries, restaurants and urban ambience. I just hope that the proposed new Vancouver art gallery lives up to its huge potential and undergoes a professional evaluation process, unlike the Vancouver library which underwent Gordo’s imposed mall crawl and straw poll process.

    Despite the derogatory comments in other posts, I’ll take inner city “starchitect” design any day over the faux “craftsman” vinyl, cultured “rock”, Pepto Bismol stucco, tex mex roofs, vast cheaply built houses from the 80s and 90s where peeling back the siding reveals oceans of OSB sheathing (mostly made of glue that disintagrates in a rainforest climate), and the shallow symbols of wealth represented by excessive, little-used acreages of lawn and number of shiny SUVs of suburbia. And I haven’t even mentioned the malls and entertainment palaces yet.

    I make an inner city exeption for the main branch of the Vancouver library which got royally screwed by an imported architect who made a weak post-completion claim that the obvious cheap po-mo reference to the Roman coliseum was not intended. We have a very deep history of our own, thank you Mr. Safdie, and by the way, anyone can design an ellipse without tacky references. I use the library every weekend but have to hide my eyes until I’m inside. I do appreciate its functionality and tall atriums –but these are experienced from inside once you get past the fading facade.

    I also make exceptions for the leaky condo disaster. But one can’t blame only “starchitects” for that one. The majority of them found the overuse of stucco and outside polystyrene insulation appalling because of their inappropriate references to dry climate California design importated to the rainforest. I’d hold the development industry and builders proportionately more responsible.

    In most North American cities there is a vast disconnect between the inner ring 19th and early 20th Century neighbourghoods and suburbia. The rare exceptions to suburban blandness are jewels like Fort Langley and Steveston (which were stand-alone 19th Century towns), that have now been almost subsumed by the schlock.

    The suburbs seem to be deteriorating. We have family in Port Coquitlam who designed and built thier own house from a raw lot carved from the forest next to a Sockeye stream in the early 60s. The community surrounding them developed later in the 70s and 80s with first generation suburbanites in a Metro region of around a million. The neighbourhood was well kept, and the most well built houses were the older ones of the 60s (this is also common in other cities; something happened in the late 70s that triggered the construction of cheaper houses in larger subdivisions).

    Now when we visit, we notice the neighbour’s houses are falling apart, and there’s junk piled in the yards. The lack of upkeep seems to be stemming from the second generation, and to top it all, bikers moved in down the street! Our relatives have not only kept up repairs but improved their house and property, and there is much pride in the fact the father built it, yet they keep more to themselves because of the negative changes around them. I’ve noticed the general decline is common thing in most subdivisions of the 80s asnd 90s. The trees in older subdivisions are maturing and perhaps hide some of the deterioration there too, but there does seem to be a divide between the 60s and 80s.

    Lastly, I appreciate the reference to English terraces. I see this historical housing model as a very attractive option and wish someone would build some and uphold them as one important answer to the density question.


    March 11, 2008 at 11:20 am

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