There’s no denying that urban spaces – cities worldwide – are trending big-time, with an abundance of people on the move and plenty of challenges. In 2014, we’ll be presenting ideas, projects and success stories that look at everything from tree canopy and water scarcity to remaking airports and greener ways to build. This month we feature: Amsterdam, Copenhagen, New York, Philadelphia, São Paolo, Shenzhen, St. Louis, Sydney, Venice and studies/books on urban greening.
Happy City (not a Bollywood movie): Is there such a thing ? Yes indeed, writes Canadian journalist Charles Montgomery in his new book Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 355 pp $27) that mostly addresses the state of American cities and suburbs, with people giving up half-acre lots and 90 minute commutes to enjoy the chance to walk on sidewalks, run multiple errands on foot or bicycle, and relish the variety and unexpected qualities of urban living. Urban design, he concludes, is changing people’s expectations and desire to live in the city. He’s really big on the need for greening. “Green space in cities shouldn’t be considered an optional luxury,” Montgomery says. “It is a crucial part of a healthy human habitat.”
For Stockholm’s urbanites, it might be water that does the trick – people live, on average, no more than 300 meters from water wherever they are in the city. Or a temporary beach, in the heart of Paris: Mayor Bertrand Delanöe has devised many ways to enhance livability in this world capital: Embankments are transformed in summer, with tons of sand for the famed “Paris Plages” that allow city dwellers to loll about, get a tan and try out the water in temporary swimming pools. Read book excerpt. Read the book review.
São Paolo, City of Green Deserts: In a city of 10 million, São Paulo Brazil has only 64 parks and squares – 13 of the city’s districts have no green space at all. So where do teens and young adults gather for leisure space/time in this mega-city ? They go to malls –for a “rolezinho,” slang for getting together for strolling, dancing, looking to hook up with girls. And they are singularly unwelcome, often followed, stopped and removed by police and security from the premises. The country that is spending hundreds of millions to spiff up its cities and create venues to attract Norteños and Europeaños to the 2014 World Cup has not worked out creating space and opportunities for the young. Read the full op-ed
” ‘Kids from the lower classes have been segregated from public spaces, and now they’re challenging the unwritten rules,’ said Pablo Ortellado, a public policy professor at the University of São Paulo.” Check out update (Jan 19) in the New York Times.
Happiness is a green scene: Two recent studies look at how urban green space has a positive effect on mental health. Researchers at the University of Exeter Medical School (UK) used longitudinal data from an 18-year period to test out whether urban green space has an effect on mental health, well-being and life satisfaction. The findings gleaned from 10,000 participants (self-reporting) confirm it: “Our analyses suggest that people are happier when living in urban areas with greater amounts of green space.” Interesting that when compared with other life satisfaction factors as income, marital status and housing type, having a greener scene in the community comes out on top. The authors discuss their paper (video) Article on the research
Meanwhile, researchers at the Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and University of Edinburgh concluded in a 2013 study that spending time in green places with trees reduces stress and brain fatigue! The data were gathered in real time from study volunteers hooked up to a lightweight EEG that measures brain waves. Volunteers walked/jogged in three different areas including tranquil, treed green space and a commercial, traffic-laden space. The study is published The British Journal of Sports Medicine. Read the study. Details at New York Times
Trees good for your health: A first-ever study in 10 cities to estimate the overall impact of a city’s urban forest on concentrations of fine particulate pollution (particulate matter less than 2.5 microns, or PM2.5) concluded that lives are being saved thanks to the salutary benefits of trees. Fine particulate air pollution has serious health effects, including premature mortality, pulmonary inflammation, accelerated atherosclerosis, and altered cardiac functions. Conducted by David Nowak and Robert Hoehn of the U.S. Forest Service and Satoshi Hirabayashi and Allison Bodine of the Davey Institute in Syracuse, NY, the study considered “how much fine particulate matter is removed, their impact on PM2.5 concentrations [particulate matter] and associated values and impacts on human health.” Cities in the study: Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Syracuse, NY. “More than 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas containing over 100 million acres of trees and forests,” notes Michael Rains, director of the Forest Service’s Northern Research Station. He concludes: “America’s urban forests are critical capital investments helping produce clear air and water; reduce energy costs; and, making cities more livable. Simply put, our urban forests improve people’s lives.” Modeled PM2.5 Removal by Trees in Ten U.S. Cities and Associated Health Effects. News story
Destroying the view: Landmarks can be threatened by “neglect, overdevelopment or …political and economic change,” says the World Monuments Fund (WMF). For three cities –New York, Venice and St. Louis– it’s the viewshed that is imperiled.
Venice’s viewshed is under threat, the result of its success as one of the world’s top cruise destinations – cruise tourism to La Serenissima has increased 400% in the past 5 years. Huge ships (think a dozen decks high) dock along the waterfront, blocking the view of the city from the Giudecca Canal and from the city to outlying islands. According to WMF, which has put Venice on its Watch List, some 20,000 people a day disembark from ships in peak season; in 2011 a total of 1.8 million. There’s also another, related problem: dredging the Canal to make it deeper to meet ships’ clearance requirements. Read the NY Review of Books article.
New Jersey is the battleground for protecting the view across the Hudson River from New York City to the treed cliffs of the Palisades on the Jersey side. (See Green News Update Jan 2013) Somehow the Englewood Cliffs (NJ) Zoning Board of Adjustment approved plans by LG electronics giant (South Korea) to build its headquarters on a site behind the Palisades that would leave its 143-foot-tall structure peering over the treetops.
What’s at stake: ruining the view from the medieval Cloisters (operated by the Metropolitan Museum of Art), which sits in Washington Heights, across the river from the Palisades.
When John D. Rockefeller donated various pieces of medieval monasteries, to be assembled as the Cloisters in Washington Heights(1930’s), he also paid for Palisades land across the river to protect the view. In August 2013, a NJ Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the zoning decision, allowing LG to proceed with development on a site that was originally zoned for 35-foot-high buildings! The Palisades and the Cloisters were listed as threatened in the World Monuments Fund’s 2014 Watch List released earlier in January. Update Jan 24: Environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., the Natural Resources Defense Council and the New Jersey Conservation Foundation are lending support to scale down the project by filing a motion to join the lawsuit against the project. The National Park Service has also weighed in opposing the scope of the project. Read the New York Times story. A second lawsuit remains unresolved.
In St. Louis, the Gateway Arch – at 630 feet the world’s tallest monument rendered in stainless steel—occupies a huge viewshed. Designed by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen and structural engineer Hanns Karl Bandel, the Arch — often called the Gateway to the West — is prominent from the Mississippi River waterfront, from the air and from the city itself. It also gives visitors a unique perspective of the city – there are several ways to ascend to its observation deck. Completed in 1965, the Arch is part of a memorial to westward expansion, hence its name, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. The Arch has been added to the World Monument Fund’s watch list because of its importance – it’s an icon of mid-century modernism – and because of neglect, declining federal funding for the stewardship of national monuments. Local news story
Land Banks: The Answer to Decay? The ink is barely dry on the Land Bank legislation signed January 13 by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter to address the issue of thousands of abandoned or vacant properties around the city that are dragging down neighborhoods and costing the government millions annually. This ambitious program will aggregate ownership of buildings – there may be up to 40,000 no longer habitable or generating tax revenue — so that developers can acquire entire blocks of land for redevelopment. There can be many unanswered questions in getting a land bank to work well – in particular, the ability to get clear title to long-vacant privately owned buildings, and the autonomy to avoid logjams or interference by the city council before properties can be acquired or sold. Philadelphia officials say it could take a whole year to assemble the Lank Bank board, centralize the holdings into a single entity, and determine demand for market rate development, open space, urban agriculture and other uses for the properties. Resources and articles on Philadelphia’s Land Bank (New York Times) and Christian Science Monitor
Philadelphia Land Bank Alliance (web site)
Razing blocks rather than rehabbing buildings has caught on in many cities that have lost substantial population over the past 10-20 years– Baltimore, Buffalo, Cleveland, St. Louis and elsewhere. Detroit may be the grande dame – with over 60,000 vacant sites inside its city limits. Excellent New York Times story looks at razing versus rehabbing in Baltimore and other cities. Slideshow on East Baltimore – urban farming, gardens and rebuilding (NYTimes)
Philly Postscript: Expanding Waterfront Access: Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s only gloom and doom for the City of Brotherly Love. Millions are being poured into polishing the city’s waterfront and enhancing access for all to create authentic extensions from neighborhoods to the waterfront – an idea also intended to help strengthen waterfront development. The newest funding is a $5-million grant for the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation from the William Penn Foundation for the new master plan. The new grant builds on a $5 million grant from the foundation in 2010 that helped leverage more than $14-million from other sources. A six-mile stretch of the Delaware River will feature connectors to Race Street, Spring Garden, and Columbia, Shackamaxon and Marlborough. There’s a raft of improvements being planned: enhancements to the waterfront trail from Pier 70 Boulevard to Pier 53, pre-development work at the Festival Pier Site (Spring Garden) and an archeological study of the West Shipyard. Details
Porem van Mokum—The Face of Amsterdam: “Together we make a beautiful city.” The idea behind this innovative, two-year-old project is to celebrate the diversity of Amsterdam through everyday people – young, old, immigrant, homeless – whose portraits are created in clay by Dutch artists. In this first phase of Porem van Mokum, some 108 portraits were executed by 17 artists, and then put on display in the Stadhuis (townhall) in November. “Traditionally this privilege was only for rich people,” says Amsterdammer Aik Meeuse who helped raise funds and organize the exhibition. In this case, he says, “everyone can shine.” The only rule was that you had to be nominated – with a convincing argument — by someone else to have your portrait made. While the exhibition is over and the portraits are safely stored, the hope is to create a total of 365 portraits and find a permanent location for them– possibly in the Amsterdam Metro.
Porem van Mokum is Old Amsterdam/Yiddish dialect, appropriate for a city known for its tolerance of all people.) View a short video (English subtitles) that documents the project and the exhibition opening.
Shenzhen, China–The origami skyscraper: Beautiful, efficient and a stunning innovation. Under construction until 2016, the Shenzhen International Energy Company North Tower has an origami-like folded façade that solves the problem of direct sunlight generating too much heat. The folds shield the complex, using integrated solar thermal panels, that still allows indirect sunlight into the complex. Copenhagen-based BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group) in collaboration with ARUP and Transsolar, was awarded the first prize in the international competition to design the 42-story Shenzhen International Energy Mansion, the regional headquarters for the Shenzhen Energy Company.
Shenzhen — population roughly 10 million — is the major city in China’s Guangdon Province, a mixed bag of classic business towers and residential for several million migrant laborers. It’s immediately north of Hong Kong. Here’s how BIG describes the innovative facade: “The folded wall provides a free view through clear glass in one direction creating a condition with plenty of diffused daylight by reflecting the direct sunlight between the interior panels. Even with direct sun from east or west, the majority of the solar rays reflect off the glass, due to the flat angle of the window. The reflected rays increase the efficiency of solar thermal energy panels. The combination of minimal passive solar heating and active solar panels reduce the energy consumption by more than 60%.” Flash web site Project Facebook page with designs.
Europe’s Newest Green Capital– Copenhagen: Denmark’s capital and most populous city (about 550,000 poeple) began 2014 as the European Union’s official European Green Capital, and it’s an obvious choice. Danes are eager to embrace an eco-lifestyle that emphasizes bicycling as transport (some 35% used their bikes to get to work or school in 2010) and eliminating dependence on fossil fuels by being CO2 neutral by 2025. Its Strøget (walking street) was the first in Europe, and is still the largest! There’s an emphasis on good planning and urban design.
The nearby North Harbour project features a green campus (with its LEED-certified United Nations headquarters) and a “green laboratory” to focus on eco-technologies. Its harbor has been cleaned up and that has invigorated local business and quality of life (there are swimming areas in the harbor!).
Landfill from waste has been reduced to 1,8% of total while heating 98% of the city through district heating. Besides, who wouldn’t love a city whose residents are addicted to great pastries, eat ice cream outdoors in the winter, and get to break to break plates and crockery to let off steam at historic Tivoli Gardens. Here are many examples of sustainable city solutions in Copenhagen:
Sydney National Harbour – New National Landscape. Walk a half dozen kilometers out of center city Sydney, Australia, and you’re transplanted to a natural world of waterways, beaches, bushland, wildlife and native plants. Sydney Harbour National Landscape – designated in February 2013 as the 16th and final landscape in the national system– embraces 620 square miles of natural assets that serve as a major relief valve for the country’s most populous city (metro area 4.6 million residents). Take a guided hike from Spit Bridge to Manly on the North Shore of Sydney Harbour – an all-day affair – and you’ll see remains of ancient Aboriginal sites and plant species that were essential for making fire, spears, baskets and bedding, before arriving at Manly’s coastal beaches (there’s a quick ferry home). Want to stay in the bush all day?
Select the more secluded and wild Royal National Park and lose yourself in time. National Landscapes were established in 2006 through a partnership of Parks Australia and Tourism Australia, to acquaint tourists and locals alike in enjoying the nation’s wild places. (Other national landscapes include the Great Barrier Reef and Red Centre, home of the famed formation of rocks known as Uluru.) New York Times article
IN FEBRUARY: Come back to learn about a special sensory experience in London’s Underground, the Coffee Lab in Paris, China’s tallest skyscraper, 100 urban trends from the BMW Guggenheim Lab, repurposing airports — Berlin’s Templehof and Denver’s Stapleton, and more.