TRACKING THE FUTURE OF CITIES
By: Pierre Herman
Oman’s private-car dependent capital is no environmentalist’s dream, but what it does have that make it unique among oil-rich Gulf nations is a conspicuous absence of high-rise buildings. Proving that ambition doesn’t have to be measured in glass and steel, Muscat’s skyline is instead dominated by the majesty of its Al Hajar mountain range and the traditions of its citizens. With so many cities around the world fighting for sameness and ubiquity, it’s nice to see a few bucking the trend. Skyscrapers are so last decade!
Schlepping deep underground to catch our morning train in most city underground systems is as uninspiring as it gets. Not in Naples. Metronapoli understands that public transport is not just a rational economic choice – it can also be an emotional one. Stunning art combine with vivid colours and patterns to create “galleries” that uplift the spirits and awaken our imagination. Commuting to work now becomes something one can look forward to and even benefit spiritually from. Toledo station has been voted most beautiful underground station in Europe by the Telegraph newspaper, and over 180 works of art by 90 artists (some of international prestige) dot the stations, which while limited in number are extensive in their lasting imprint on the minds of commuters.
Most cities are coming to the realization that cars ain’t always great. Many are experimenting with bike-sharing and even occasionally cordon-off a street or two to traffic. Bogotá, however is still the leader (not to mention the original pioneer) of full-blown, car-free days. The only place in the world to hold one on a weekly basis, Ciclovia lasts 7 hours each and every Sunday and on public holidays, bringing out as many as 30% of the city’s population to bike, skate or walk on a special street network. In the name of democratizing the city’s streets, improving air quality and promoting physical activity (not to mention that it’s just fun), this is one initiative that’s ripe to go global.
When national and state governments go to bed with manufacturers and lobby groups, it’s often local governments that have the nerve and moral authority to stand up for citizens and the environment. In early 2014, Los Angeles became the largest local jurisdiction in the world to prohibit the distribution of single-use plastic bags in shops and supermarkets, joining another 90 jurisdictions in the state that did the same. The city estimates that the ban (which only permits shops to sell paper bags for 10 cents) will save an estimated 2 billion plastic bags in L.A. alone, many of which ended up on streets and then in the Pacific Ocean. Isn’t it time for a worldwide ban?
Havana might steal the spotlight for its efforts in feeding the city with its own urban farms, but small towns back home can do it just as well. Todmorden (population: 15,000), a beautiful parish town just west of Manchester, England, is gaining recognition for its coordinated efforts to grow produce where-ever there’s room to do so – whether it be next to fire station, on railway land, abandoned plots, or even a cemetery. And this isn’t to say the local council has given them permission! The Incredible-Edible Todmorden campaign, as it’s called (quietly spreading to other cities worldwide), let’s locals pick what they want, when they want it, all in the name of survival. It was founded on the knowledge that food security is threatened by future climate change, not to mention that local growing helps bring communities together all while improving the quality and reducing the carbon footprint of our food. www.incredible-edible-todmorden.co.uk
Ghent keeps citizens and tourists on foot by being one of Europe’s most walkable cities, thanks to the car-free plan which went into effect starting in 1996. The plan was adopted as a means of battling traffic congestion and the tailpipe grime that would coat the city’s Gothic and Medieval architecture. The car free zone now covers 35 hectares (the largest in Belgium, and among the largest in Europe) and add to that nearly 400 kilometres of cycle paths and more than 700 one-way streets, where bikes are allowed to go against the traffic for their own safety. The city even boasts Belgium’s first cycle street, where cars are considered ‘guests’ and must keep their distance from cyclists.
Some cities have realized that transport services need to be as “value added” as any other product or service. Madrid’s ultra-modern Metro system had the brainy idea to introduce 12 in-station libraries that loan books exclusively to passengers. They’re strategically located where passengers connect between trains and lend out more than 800 titles and 3000 volumes with an automated, touch screen catalogue that can also be viewed online. And for a bit of history, the Metro’s Opera Station also features a 200 square metre, underground archaeological museum, exexhibiting archaeological remains from the 16th and 17th centuries belonging to the Caños del Peral Fountain, the Amaniel Aqueduct and the Arenal Sewer.
During the 1980s an explosion of politicized graffiti art took hold of the bustling Chilean capital, much of it (inspired by American hip-hop culture) erased by authories up until around 2003. Since then, the government has taken a more relaxed attitude to the form and even went as far as appointing a “muralist coordinator”, spawing what has been called “one of the most respected galleries of the anti-establishment art world.” Covering walls, doorways and in some cases entire buildings, the astounding concentration of open-air art is perhaps the best example of the democratization of art and the overlapping of art with urban life. Centred around the Bellavista, Lastarria, Centro and Brazil neighbourhoods, the city has attracted street artists from around the world, including Canadian guerilla street artist Peter Gibson (aka Roadsworth) whose fishy crosswalks were a hit.
Great ideas for our cities sometimes come to us by way of the sheer determination of individuals. Robert Hammond and Joshua David met by chance at a community board meeting in 1999. That meeting culminated in Friends of the High Line, a multi-year effort to save an abandoned, elevated rail line that runs for a mile and half through Manhattan from demolition and turning it into a public park. Countering fierce opposition, the duo carried out feasibility studies and eventually convinced Mayor Bloomberg to throw his weight behind it. While costing $150 million to build, it’s estimated to have added half a billion dollars in property values and local tax revenues. First opened in 2009, the High Line Park has attracted more than two million people annually to its elevated landscaped gardens, urban farm and amphitheater. Hammond recounted how he was surprised to see New Yorkers, normally wary of public displays of affection, holding hands while on the High Line. He says: “I think that’s the power that public space can have to transform how people experience their city and interact with each other.” www.thehighline.org
City councils in some cities, like Zurich, are literally trying to annoy drivers out from behind the wheel with car-unfriendly by-laws that make driving painfully slow, parking difficult to find, stops at red lights longer, and two-way streets a thing of the past. Want to shop at the giant new out-of-town shopping mall? Take public transport or be prepared for a hefty parking fee in the tiny lot. And there’s no jay-walking here either: pedestrians can often cross wherever they like on a street and have the right of way. A solid and widely accessibly public transport system doesn’t hurt either (This is, coincidentally, a country where 91 per cent of members of the Swiss parliament take the tram to work!)