Liveable cities with people at their heart

The historic Royal Mile in the centre of Edinburgh was the suitably attractive setting for a conference last week on liveable cities. As Paul Lawrence, Executive Director of Place at Edinburgh City Council, observed, Edinburgh has been grappling with liveability for 300 years. But it’s one of many cities now facing new challenges to ensure that the concept applies as much to the “have-nots” as to the “haves.”

Including the precariat

Paul described Edinburgh’s single biggest challenge as addressing social and economic polarisation. While the city has a very successful economy, the benefits are not being enjoyed by all of its people. Many have well-paid jobs and enjoy a good quality of life, but those at the fringe of the labour market – the “precariat” – are on short-term contracts, with low wages and poor housing.

At the same time, the city of Edinburgh is facing significant urban planning challenges. Paul highlighted the difficulty for pedestrians – particularly those with disabilities – negotiating Princes Street at the height of the Edinburgh Festivals, and noted that the city didn’t have a single example of a successful pedestrian precinct.

Making successful places

The theme of how to make cities more liveable was taken up by Ian Gilzean, Chief Architect for the Scottish Government. He gave numerous examples of successful placemaking, such as the Crown Street and Laurieston redevelopment projects in Glasgow and regeneration in Edinburgh’s Craigmillar district. Ian also highlighted the work of charette programmes, which bring communities together to engage in the design and development of their neighbourhoods.  Ian stressed that the key drivers of sustainable development – social, economic and environmental – were also vital for improving the health and wellbeing of communities.

Reinventing a post-industrial area

A great example of the reinvention of a post-industrial area came from Ian Manson, Chief Executive of Clyde Gateway, Scotland’s biggest and most ambitious regeneration programme. When it comes to recovering from the demise of old industries, the East End of Glasgow has seen many false dawns. As Ian explained, when Clyde Gateway was launched ten years ago, the local community were sceptical about the programme’s ambitions. But they were also ready to engage with the project. A decade on, the area has undergone significant physical generation, but more importantly this has taken place in partnership with the local people. Unemployment in the area is now 26% – still too high, but an improvement on the 39% of 2008. The project has taken risks –  building infrastructure such as roads and a school in the hope that developers will be attracted. And, as Ian explained, Clyde Gateway needs more people to settle in the area to fill the gap left by the 20,000 who moved away in the post-war years.

To attract more people, places need to be distinctive, to surprise and delight. And, as Ian stressed, they need to acknowledge and respond to their historical urban patterns and buildings. For example, the much-loved former Olympia cinema at Bridgeton Cross has been given a makeover, and is now home to a public library, café, boxing centre and Scotland’s first BFI Mediatheque.

Learning from Denmark

The conference was organised by the Royal Danish Embassy in the UK, and there were good examples of successful placemaking from Denmark.

Jacob Kurek, from Henning Larsen Architecture in Copenhagen explained why the Danes are so famous for doing design differently. “We have a curiosity and ambition for making things better for people.” Denmark has put this philosophy into practice, designing clean harbours for swimming in the city centre, providing safe and stylish bike lanes and planning open-air spaces that take account of the challenging Danish winters (what Jacob described as “conquering the public realm”).

This approach has attracted attention elsewhere, and Jacob described his work in Belfast, where there are plans to transform the east bank of the River Lagan, using Copenhagen harbour as a model.

Stephen Willacy, Chief Architect for the city of Aarhus, reminded the audience that there’s more to Denmark than Copenhagen.  Aarhus is a city on the move, with a population growth of 5,000 per year. Stephen described some of the efforts to make Aarhus a good city for everyone by developing facilities for living, playing and working, including an ambitious masterplan for the city’s harbour.

Ewan Anderson of 7N Architects in Edinburgh has also been learning from Denmark. He took his team to Copenhagen to explore the city’s innovative approaches to place making, such as the transformation of a car park into a playground and the creation of a “pop-up neighbourhood” on a former warehouse site. Once back in Scotland, the 7N team developed their own ideas for making more liveable cities – introducing electric bikes for hilly streets, replacing a car park with a modern art gallery and even transforming Edinburgh’s Leith Walk into a Ramblas of the north.

Putting people at the heart of placemaking

Too often, architects and town planners have failed to engage with the communities they serve. Throughout the day, speakers at this conference made it clear that those days are largely in the past. Many made reference to the influential Danish architect Jan Gehl, whose vision for successful public space and urban design had people at its heart.

As this conference demonstrated, his vision is being realised in places as different as Copenhagen and Glasgow, Belfast and Aarhus, to the benefit of visitors and more importantly for those who live there.


More on urban planning and liveable cities:

Planning to protect: how architects and urban planners are balancing security with accessibility

Wall Street Security Project by Rogers Partners Architects + Urban Designers

 “In high profile buildings or crowded places that may be attractive targets for terrorists, the challenge for designers is to incorporate counter-terrorism measures into their buildings and public spaces whilst maintaining quality of place.” RIBA guidance on designing for counter-terrorism

In recent years, terrorist attacks in London, New York, Berlin, Barcelona and Nice have heightened concerns about the safety of living in and travelling to cities in Europe and North America. In many of these attacks, cars or trucks have been driven at high speed into crowded streets with the aim of causing the maximum number of casualties. While such attacks remain relatively rare, planning authorities are now working on methods to deter and thwart the use of vehicles as weapons in public spaces.

From buildings and infrastructure to “soft targets”

The attacks on London’s transport infrastructure in 2005 and an abortive car bomb attack at Glasgow Airport in 2007 prompted a rethink in the UK about how to protect people from acts of terrorism.  As a result, protective cordons and barriers were installed at government offices, public buildings and transport hubs.

Subsequently – and perhaps as a consequence of the success of these measures – terrorists have changed tactics, focusing their attention on members of the public in crowded city centres. These so-called “soft targets” are harder to protect, partly because of the scale of defences that would be required, but mostly because city authorities want to retain the open and accessible nature of places which are most attractive to shoppers, tourists and businesses.

Approaches to protection

Guidance issued by the Home Office in 2012 explains how public authorities, communities and the private sector can mitigate terrorism risks by physical, technical and procedural measures, such as speed gates, barrier systems, closed-circuit television cameras and sufficient stand-off distance between vehicles and buildings. Similar guidance has been adopted in the United States, and most recently in Australia, which has also developed a self-assessment tool to help owners and managers of public spaces to assess their own risk.

Safer places with style

The challenges presented by terrorist attacks have prompted urban planners and architects to think again about how to protect the public without creating forbidding strongholds.

A successful example of an innovative approach can be found in New York City’s financial district. Home not only to the New York Stock Exchange, but to museums, shops and waterfront entertainment attractions, this part of the city is a vibrant area that brings together many people from different walks of life.

Wall Street Security Project by Rogers Partners Architects + Urban Designers

It’s this widespread appeal which makes the financial district a potential target for terrorism, and which presented Rogers Partners Architects + Urban Designers with the challenge of ensuring its security while retaining the positive aspects of the area.

Working with stakeholders, city agencies, and law enforcement officials, the architects came up with an innovative concept that includes sculptural barriers which play a dual role of seating and security. These “NOGO” installations quickly won over pedestrians and were widely applauded in the media. The Chicago Tribune was noted that the NOGO’s bronze surfaces:

“…echo the grand doorways of Wall Street’s temples of commerce. Pedestrians easily slip through groups of them as they make their way onto Wall Street from the area around historic Trinity Church. Cars, however, cannot pass.”

Closer to home, the National Assembly for Wales has also adopted counter-terrorism measures to protect the people who work in and visit this major public building. The architects have taken advantage of the public plaza around the building to achieve sufficient stand-off through landscaping. In addition, staircases and reinforced street furniture contribute to the protective facilities without turning the building into a fortress.

Secure and liveable public spaces

“Barbed wire and concrete barriers may be effective, but they make city dwellers feel like they are living in a war zone.”
A Green Living

Urban planners have a fine line to tread between making people feel comfortable in public spaces while ensuring their safety. Concrete barriers may be effective, but if they make residents and visitors fearful, they are more likely to drive them away. And since that is what terrorists are aiming to achieve, it’s all the more important to get the balance right.


Our thanks to Rogers Partners Architects + Urban Designers in New York City for supplying the information and photographs concerning the streetscapes and security project in the financial district.

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Hitting the ground walking: how planners can create more walkable cities, one step at a time

chaotic-people-on-charles-bridge-in-prague-picjumbo-com

In recent times, walking has been enlisted as one of the key weapons in the war on inactivity. Planners and policymakers have taken note of evidence highlighting the benefits of walking for health and wellbeing. Meanwhile, local and national governments have taken up the challenge of embedding walking into policy, strategy and guidance. There are now national walking strategies for England, Wales and Scotland, and from Belfast to Bristol local councils have published their own plans to get more people walking.

Travel trends and their costs

During the twentieth century, there was a shift from work involving physical labour to jobs of a more sedentary nature. In addition, the growth of suburbs and rising car ownership has contributed to a decline in people travelling on foot. At the same time, the attractions of television and home computers mean fewer people are spending their leisure time playing sports or taking part in outdoor activities.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has put the consequences of these trends into stark perspective:

“Sedentary lifestyles increase all causes of mortality, double the risk of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and obesity, and increase the risks of colon cancer, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, lipid disorders, depression and anxiety.”

  • Worldwide, around two million deaths a year are attributed to physical inactivity.
  • In the UK, physical activity contributes to one in six deaths, and costs £7.4 billion a year to business and wider society. It is the fourth largest cause of disease and disability in the UK.
  • In Scotland, inactivity contributes to over 2,500 deaths each year, costing the NHS £94.1m annually.

The benefits of walking

Efforts encouraging people to become more active have had mixed results, and there is now a recognition that turning the tide of physical activity may take decades to achieve. But there’s also a growing understanding that physical activity that can be built in to everyday life can be as effective as supervised exercise programmes. And, as we reported last week, the health benefits of walking can be demonstrated in unexpected ways, such as the emergence of the Pokémon Go game as an incentive to exercise.

A recent report from the Arup design and engineering firm highlights that walking is good for cities as well as for people. It details more than 50 ways in which the world can benefit from walkable cities, including:

  • Social benefits – health and wellbeing, safety, placemaking, social cohesion and equality.
  • Economic benefits – city attractiveness, urban regeneration, cost savings.
  • Environmental benefits – addressing air and noise pollution, improving liveability and transport efficiency.
  • Political benefits – leadership, urban governance, sustainable development and planning opportunities.

Making walkable places

Another key theme of the Arup report was the importance of planning for pedestrians:

“If we want cities to be more walkable, the way we design cities has to change. Walkable places are more compact, dense with mixed uses. Streets have to be well connected with more shade from sun and rain, green spaces, trees and public spaces. And, we must pay more attention to the quality of public spaces, not just providing quantity of walkable space.” Joanna Rowelle, Director at Arup

The report lists 40 actions that city leaders can consider to inform walking policy, strategy and design. Among the ideas:

  • Temporarily removing cars from a city can transform roads into public spaces, raise awareness around car dependency, reduce air pollution, and reveal the potential opportunities created by having more – and safer – spaces for people.
  • Financial incentives and disincentives, including subsidies and taxes like congestion charges, can be used to encourage behaviour change.
  • Use of shared spaces to create a pedestrian-oriented environment where people are aware of fellow road users.
  • Unused infrastructure – such as New York City’s High Line – offers major opportunities for facilitating safe and attractive pedestrian routes and activity spaces.
  • Urban regeneration creates the opportunity to redevelop small pieces of land into pocket parks or public spaces with a green character.
  • Rivers and waterways can be transformed from barriers into walking and cycling routes by creating green and accommodating waterfronts.

Best foot forward?

Many of the suggestions in the Arup report are not hard to implement, and needn’t be costly. But even when schemes have been enacted, they may face opposition.

Each weekend, for the past seven years, a busy thoroughfare in Bucharest has been cleared to create Via Sport – a safe space for leisure and sport. This summer, the city’s new mayor claimed Via Sport has been causing traffic problems. The scheme has now been closed for the foreseeable future.

Old instincts die hard. Those rethinking patterns and processes of urban design to stimulate walking (and cycling) will face a few bumps in the road. But the potential rewards will be great. As David Sim of Gehl Architects observes:

“The key strategy is about getting people to actually spend time out on the street. They become a part of the space, familiar with their neighbours, and are in tune with city life.”


Our previous blog posts on urban planning for pedestrians and cyclists include:

 

Learning from “Alcatraz” – the regeneration of the Gorbals  

Alexander_Crescent,_Gorbals_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1323370 (1)

Image: C L T Smith [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons

By James Carson

For decades, the Gorbals area of Glasgow was a byword for social problems. During the 1920s and 1930s, poverty and overcrowding spawned deprivation, poor health, gang culture and violence.

In the 1960s, the slums made way for new housing developments, including three tower blocks designed by the acclaimed architect of Coventry Cathedral, Sir Basil Spence.  However, almost as soon as the residents moved in, the houses began to suffer from condensation and persistent dampness. The architect may have intended his buildings to resemble “ships in full sail on washdays.” But, for the tenants, the multi-storey flats were prisons in the sky, located in a social wasteland devoid of public amenities. Before long, the development became known locally as “Alcatraz”. Few mourned their passing when the tower blocks were finally demolished in 1993.

An urban renaissance

Today, the Gorbals is once again being redeveloped, and this time the people living in the area have had a say in the area’s planning and design. With its focus on Crown Street, the New Gorbals is an attractive mix of housing, including apartments, maisonettes and terraced housing. In addition, residents can enjoy pedestrian environments and public spaces, with nearby commercial and community amenities, such as shops, a leisure centre and a modern public library.

The new development has won approval from residents, and affirmation from urban planning experts. Last month, a study by the Royal Town Planning Institute reported positive links between the regeneration of the Gorbals and economic success.

“It is clear that, from being historically regarded as one of the most deprived areas in Glasgow, the Gorbals now has consistently lower levels of income deprived population and employment deprived population than the wider Glasgow city region.”

Building on the foundations

Directly west of Crown Street, at Laurieston, further regeneration has been taking place. Last year, a £24m housing development of 201 homes was completed – Scotland’s largest ever single housing association grant-funded project. The homes are based on the traditional tenement, a longstanding feature of the Glasgow landscape.

The model fell out of favour in the post-war years, but the Laurieston development’s reinvention of the tenement is another success story in the regeneration of the Gorbals.  In November 2014, it was awarded ‘Best Social Housing Development’ at the Premier Guarantee Excellence Awards, which celebrate the best of the UK construction industry.

Future plans

Laurieston is one of eight priority Transformational Regeneration Areas (TRAs) in Glasgow. Established in 2009, the TRA Partnership between Glasgow City Council, Glasgow Housing Association and the Scottish Government, aims to provide new and sustainable mixed tenure communities through the provision of new housing, community facilities, green space and commercial units.

Around 600 homes for social rent are planned, along with a further 6500 affordable homes for sale or mid-market rent. Six of the eight areas are now active, and housing has been delivered in three TRAs.

Lessons from “Alcatraz”

Urban planners have often been blamed for the unsuccessful first redevelopment of the Gorbals, but, as the RTPI has observed, the planning profession can be proud of its role in righting those wrongs:

“… if improving places can be shown to lead to improved economic outcomes for individuals within those places, then there is an important role for town planners and other built environment specialists in using their professional skills to improve the economic life chances of individuals.”


 

The Idox Information Service can help you access further information on regeneration and planning. To find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading on the topics covered in this blog *

The Gorbals regeneration – delivering economic value through planning (RTPI working paper)

‘They seem to divide us’: social mix and inclusion in two traditional urbanist communities

Largest housing association grant-funded project in Scotland’s history unveiled

Another brick in the wall (Laurieston Transformational Regeneration Area)

Community empowerment in transformational regeneration and local housing management in Glasgow: meaning, relevance, challenges and policy recommendations (Briefing paper no 13)

*Some resources may only be available to members of the Idox Information Service