Save the World AND Have a Nice Life

Event: Our Cities Ourselves: Architects, Developers, and Transport Planners on the Future of the City
Location: Center for Architecture, June 26, 2010
Speakers: David Sim — Gehl Architects; Enrique Peñalosa — President, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP); Saskia Sassen — Colombia University
Panelists: Michael King — Nelson Nygaard; Michael Sorkin — Distinguished Professor of Architecture & Director, Graduate Program in Urban Design, City College of New York & Principal, Michael Sorkin Studio; Wagner Colombini Martins — Logit Consultoria; Walter Hook — Executive Director, ITDP; Luc Nadal — Technical Director, ITDP; Emiliano Espasandin — PALO Arquitectura Urbana
Moderator: Paul Steely White — Transportation Alternatives
Organizers: Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in collaboration with AIANY

20100504-perspective 3 Final copy

2030 vision of urban transport in Guangzhou by Urbanus Architecture & Design.

Urbanus Architecture & Design, courtesy AIANY

Like the exhibition, the “Our Cities Ourselves” symposium largely advocated common-sense solutions that would promote equality across the public realm and bring city residents closer to a more egalitarian version of “the good life.”

There were four overarching themes throughout all of the dialogues. First, walking and pedestrian design should be given higher priority alongside motorized forms of transport. Design for “powered by people” transport (primarily bicycles) should consider future deployment on both individual and mass commerce levels. Current roadways must be realigned to favor pedestrians and cyclists, including: the redesign of slower, shared streets with mixed traffic; a wholesale decommissioning of highways; congestion pricing for cars; and development of eco-zones that would control the type and density of truck penetration into neighborhoods. Lastly, the implementation of Bus Rapid Transit systems (BRT) was highly praised for both the ease of adaptation and low cost.

In addition to costing much less than subway systems to develop, new BRTs differ from traditional express bus service in a variety of ways: users prepay before entering “stations” allowing for faster boarding; and buses can travel in dedicated lanes adjacent to vehicular traffic. A recent example is the new BRT in Guangzhou, China, which utilizes a trunk feeder system connected to the subway to move more than 800,000 people per day. Panelist Wagner Colombini Martins of Brazil-based Logit Consultoria noted that like Guangzhou, higher density Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) will be planned around BRTs in the future, affecting the shape of a city along these corridors.

Though panelists alluded to the fact that future interventions need to be tailored to fit existing and new cities differently, concepts were largely discussed as one-size-fits-all solutions. Enrique Peñalosa noted that certain things like establishing cycle- and pedestrian-only thoroughfares were “easier to do in cities that don’t exist.” They are hardly impossible, however, given his success with creating such corridors in Bogotá. Some impediments that existing cities face are a pre-existing historic fabric; already established patterns for vehicular use and parking; limited existing transportation right-of-ways; and even personal predispositions against intermingling social classes on the street or in public transport.

Clearly, better transport systems can be engineered, but individual choices play a large role. Individuals’ concerns about sustainability are low on the list. In bicycle-saturated Copenhagen, only 1% of women commute on bicycle because of the environment, but 61% bike because it is convenient and easy, said David Sim of Gehl Architects. Transportation decisions in the future should not be based on either “‘save the world’ or ‘have a nice life,'” he continued. “We can offer both.”