CITIES: China, Japan, Russia, Europe, Green Capitals

CITIES around the world are sizzling –transforming with urban design, revitalization. architecture, the arts, and smart technologies . This month we’ll look at trends in Europe’s green capitals, Amsterdam, Moscow, Beijing, Tokyo, Naples, Beirut, and more!

In February the CITIES column looks at the multi-billion-dollar investment in museums and the arts as magnets for tourism, economic development and education. We’ll check what’s happening in Havana, Helsinki, Moscow, Paris, New York, San Francisco, and more.

Europe’s Green Capitals: Copenhagen, Bristol, Lubjljana

Independently juried with competitive selection criteria, The European Green Capital award — an initiative of the European Union –began with the naming of Stockholm as European Green Capital in 2010. Since then, Hamburg (2011), Vitoria-Gasteiz (Spain ‘12) and Nantes (France ’13) have all had a year-long celebration and special programs. All of the cities are recognized for being in the vanguard of environmentally friendly urban living and intended to encourage best green practices in other European cities. Learn more

Denmark’s capital city (pop. 1.2 million) has just wrapped up as the European Green Capital of 2014. Copenhagen continues to wow everyone with its portfolio of energy commitments (carbon neutral by 2025) and transportation initiatives, including The Green Wave,” a new road lighting scheme to make it safer and easier for bicyclists, and help trucks on major arteries. (See the road lighting story) Next up: more charging stations on highways for electric vehicles plying the distance from Aarhus to Copenhagen and eventually to the Netherlands. See the Green News Update article on Copenhagen, with multiple links to the city’s innovations.

UN Green Headquarters in Copenhagen

UN green headquarters in Copenhagen

Avon Gorge, Bristol England Photo by Chris Bahn

Avon Gorge, Bristol England Photo by Chris Bahn

Bristol 2015 European Green Capital
England’s sixth-most populous city (400,000+), and near neighbor to the historic cities of Bath and Gloucester, Bristol is being heralded as a 21st-century European Green Capital for its growing green economy and recognized commitments to EU energy initiatives. It’s a bicycle friendly community, with a goal of doubling bicycle ridership by 2020.

Bristol’s new hybrid buses have pollution sensors to switch from diesel to electric power

Coinciding with its Green Capital year, Bristol received a £1 million grant to buy hybrid buses equipped with “geo fence” technology that allows a bus to recognize when it enters higher-pollution areas and switch to a green electric mode. The city is also an innovator in encouraging car owners to switch to electric cars by installing over 100 charging points across the city.


Ljubljana European Green Capital 2016

Ljubljana dragon bridge

Ljubljana dragon bridge – a symbol of the city


Selected as the 2016 European Green Capital, Ljubljana, Slovenia is the political, administrative, cultural and economic center of Slovenia and home to over 280,000. Three quarters of the entire territory of Ljubljana are contiguous aquatic, forest and agricultural areas. Learn more about Ljublana

Follow what’s happening with the European Green Capitals program and on Facebook  and  Twitter @EU_GreenCapital

The Smartest City? Amsterdam Aims to Be #1

Amsterdam  Canal with bikes near Vredenburgersteeg. Photo by Bobbie Faul-Zeitler

Amsterdam canal with bikes on Vredenburgersteeg. Photo by Bobbie Faul-Zeitler

It’s a toss up: Copenhagen and Amsterdam are vying for the coveted top spot — to be the “smartest” city in Europe, but Amsterdam is looking to be the “smartest” city in the world (story below).

Cities in Motion Index

Cities in Motion Index

Fast Company (the tech magazine and web site) says Copenhagen is on top, with Amsterdam at #2 nipping at the Danes’heels; check out its criteria and list of the Top 10 smartest cities in Europe. Cities in Motion, another index by IESE Business School, ranks 135 cities worldwide, and places Amsterdam as #16, with New York, London and Tokyo on top.

It’s safe to say there is no single model of success or what makes any city “smartest.”

Here are just a few reasons, according to Kernel Magazine,  to follow Amsterdam’s trajectory for its ambitious goals in making the city livable for more people, cutting back on emissions and on energy consumption.

Mammoth bicycle garage in Houten (about 35 mins from Amsterdam)

Mammoth bicycle garage in Houten (about 35 mins from Amsterdam)

  • Amsterdam Smart City (ASC) and the Amsterdam Economic Board is a public private partnership focused on using the city as an urban laboratory– testing smart city programs and helping them grow to become city-wide features.
  •  100 partners are involved in more than 70 projects throughout the city. Check out the projects
On-street charging station in Amsterdam

On-street charging station in Amsterdam

“Living labs” throughout Amsterdam are “petri dishes for ideas and initiatives to be tested” says ASC, before scaling them across the city. Projects range from smart parking to the development of home energy storage for integration with a smart grid.

Floating Houses Ijburg Waterbuurt

Floating Houses Ijburg Waterbuurt

IJburg Waterbuurt (Water District) is one of those petri dishes. The community was the first floating neighborhood –93 buildings with glass houses erected on floating barges moored next to floating sidewalks.There’s Smart Work@Ijburg – an alternative workspace so people can work remotely rather than commute. Article on the floating  Ijburg houses.  Archidaily story on Ijburg

Waterbuurt Courtesy

Waterbuurt Courtesy

  • Smart Citizen lets people monitor the air pollution, noise, and light intensity in different neighborhoods to let the community contribute to the City’s open data program.
City Zen smart grid

City Zen smart grid

  • City-Zen: Amsterdam is one of two European pilot sites for City-Zen “city zero carbon energy,” an energy saving program that will substantially lower carbon emissions and improve energy infrastructure. The goal: save 59,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually.
  • Vehicle to Grid: use the batteries of electric vehicles to store energy generated during the day.

China’s Weird Buildings – No thanks!

La Defense in Paris

Paris has La Defense and the inside-out Pompidou Center; London has The Gherkin and The Cheese Grater (named for its wedge shaped design), but China is notable for outrageously novel — if not downright strange — building shapes appearing on city skylines, from golden eggs to jokingly called “oversized pants.” It appears China’s President Xi Jinping has had enough: At a fall 2014 symposium he called for a shift in architecture to be more “…like sunshine from the blue sky and the breeze in spring that will inspire minds, warm hearts, cultivate taste and clean up undesirable work styles.”

International architects at work in China’s major cities (Renzo Piano, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid and others) as well as Western-trained Chinese architects, are vying to create the most transformative building shapes in places from Beijing and Shenzhen, Shanghai to Guangzhou.

Galaxy Soho in Beijing by Zaha Hadid

Galaxy Soho in Beijing by Zaha Hadid

Preservationists are riled by how new development is jeopardizing “preservation of the old Beijing streetscape,” says the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center,” the original urban plan, the traditional Hutong and courtyard houses, the landscape formation, and the style and color scheme of Beijing’s unique vernacular architecture.”

Galaxy Soho from nearby street courtesy of Hufton Crow

Galaxy Soho from nearby street courtesy of Hufton Crow

Others decry how traditional Chinese culture is being lost with tear-downs that destroy neighborhoods and villagers forced to abandon their homes for relocation to urban life. Article series in the New York Times

Some earlier endeavors – such as the Herzog & de Meuron-designed National Stadium built for the 2008 Olympics (aka Bird’s Nest) and National Center for the Performing Arts (aka Giant Egg) received favorable notice. But newer examples are being viewed as reckless attempts to capitalize on weird shapes as attention-getters for their developer-owners. The Guardian offers a photo gallery of China’s extreme shapes

Chaoyang Park Plaza rendering courtersy of MAD architects

Chaoyang Park Plaza rendering courtersy of MAD architects

Wangu Shu, the first Chinese architect to win the Pritzker Prize, said President Xi is addressing a real problem. “The greatest quantity of strange buildings in the world has converged on China,” he said. “Why does everyone have objections to certain buildings in Beijing?” he questions. “Because it’s public funds, ordinary people’s money being spent.” New York Times

President Xi also offered criticism of radical architectural designs that have come with China’s construction boom, calling for an end to “strange buildings,” People’s Daily Online “The creation of art can fly with the wings of imagination,” he said, “but make sure art workers tread on solid earth.”

Controversy over Tokyo’s Next Olympic Stadium

Tokyo is seeing gold as host of the 2020 Olympic Games – the second time it has hosted the Games in 60 years. Not everyone is thrilled however with the threat of eviction and demolition, the high cost of a new arena and the selection of a non-Japanese architect (London-based Zaha Hadid) as the headliner for a new signature space for mega-events.

Zaha Hadid's modified stadium design. Courtesy of Dezeen

Zaha Hadid’s modified stadium design. Courtesy of Dezeen

The 1964 stadium is being torn down for a $1.7 billion structure that is 70 meters (230 feet) tall and feature a retractable roof. With overall floor space of 2.26 million square feet, the Wall Street Journal notes, it is four times bigger than the stadium it is replacing, and twice as big as London’s arena for 2012.

“Tokyo has proposed new buildings for 21 of the 36 venues at the 2020 Games, including 11 permanent structures. While smaller in scale, the plan is reminiscent of the 1964 Games, when the face of the city and the nation were transformed with projects such as the shinkansen bullet train.” What’s got people fuming?

ALERT: The fabled 1962 Hotel Okura (below),  boasting a midcentury modern lobby incorporating traditional Japanese designs, is about to be demolished, according to the Washington Post.  It will be replaced by a skyscraper to hold more Olympic vendors.Preservationists are concerned that more midcentury buildings will be destroyed.

Hotel Okura lobby Courtesy of Cornichwatches

Hotel Okura lobby about to be demolished. Courtesy of Cornichwatches

The estimated cost was recently lowered from $3 billion to $1.7 billion, especially given Japan’s long recovery from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Tokyo's Olymic Stadium for the 2020 Games. Courtesy of Dezeen

Tokyo’s Olymic Stadium for the 2020 Games. Courtesy of Dezeen

Then there’s the design. Pritzker Prize winner Pumihiko Maki  has called it a “monster” – and a white elephant — others, a turtle and a bicycle helmet, and especially offends some because it will be located near the venerated Meiji Shrine. Not least is the question of whether a costly 80,000-seat stadium will have a successful afterlife than some other Olympic venues, such as Sochi (Russia) and London.
AFTERWORD: The Olympic City Project is a documentary photographic project and book by Gary Hustwit (filmmaker of Helvetica and Urbanized) and Jon Pack on what has happened to Olympic venues in cities once the games are over. Some are retrofitted and reused; others have sat unused for decades! Hustwit has already covered Athens, Barcelona, Beijing, Berlin, Helsinki, Mexico City, Moscow, London, Los Angeles, Montreal, Lake Placid, Rome, and Sarajevo. And they’ll keep going. Check out the project/book, with a foreword by Michael Kimmelman, and web site.

Moscow’s Recyclables – Don’t waste ‘em
While the ruble plunges so does the capacity of Russia’s largest city to recycle its waste. Moscow – with a population of at least 11.2 million – has no municipal recycling program. Leading indicators from FinTEKES, the Finnish innovation center that is studying waste management in Russia’s “megacities,” suggest that the overall Moscow area may grow up to 2 ½ times its current size by 2025. (See the study)
A New York Times story notes, “The majority of the city’s landfills date to the Soviet period and fail to meet modern environmental standards. Furthermore, Greenpeace Russia has estimated that all of Moscow’s landfills will be full within the next two to four years.”

Using the subway to take recyclables to a recycling site. Photo courtesy of Denis Sinyakova

Elena Barysheva uses the subway to take recyclables to a recycling site. Photo courtesy of Denis Sinyakov

The lack of municipal recycling has not stopped a hardy band of Muscovites –including Greenpeace advocates — from leading the way on resources recovery for paper, old milk cartons, cans, plastic bottles and other recyclables. They have cobbled together efforts to work with private recyclers and companies that will take the waste they have collected. People hire taxis and even ride the subway to get to the recyclers. Read the New York Times story

Moscow, for its part, says The Times, “was a world leader in recycling” in the Soviet era primarily because of the shortage of everything. People reused paper, plastic bags and containers because they were scarce or expensive. “….Now, according to Greenpeace estimates, “what Russians throw out contains 15 to 20 times more plastics than it used to, as well as more hazardous waste, like batteries and laptop computers.” Make no mistake: Moscow has a serious landfill crisis. It seems to be working on a an environmental plan for waste management through 2030. Makes you wonder what the Russian Federation did with all of the waste from the Sochi Games!

AFTERWORD: Read how places like Hammarby (Stockholm) and Copenhagen have trumped the waste management and recycling challenge.

Hammarby envac vacuum system for recycling waste

Hammarby envac vacuum system for recycling waste

Read the Hammerby case study that profiles how waste travels below city streets to the recycling center.  Copenhagen Landfill from waste has been reduced to 1,8% of total while heating 98% of the city through district heating.

Beirut Revitalized but a Ghost Town

A woman walks in the Beirut Souks shopping region. (Natalie Naccache)

A woman walks in the Beirut Souks shopping region. (Natalie Naccache)

During Lebanon’s civil war there was unimaginable destruction of ancient and historic areas – including Roman and Mamluk ruins—and Beirut’s historic downtown was in rubble. After a multi-billion-dollar reconstruction, the city has regained some of its elegance and a bunch of posh stores – but nobody comes. People are the missing ingredient in Beirut’s revitalization. A major problem, according to a Washington Post story is how revitalization eliminated some of the amenities that people seek in a livable downtown. “Downtown should have soul. It should be alive,” said Mona Hallak, an architect and historical-preservation activist. “But what we have is a culture-free ghost town for the rich.” Read the story

Urban Food Trends: Toast and Coffee – Just Not Together

$4 slice of toast in San Francisco

$4 slice of toast in San Francisco

$ 4 for a slice of toast? There’s a toast “epidemic” in the San Francisco Bay area – instigated, if you believe the story, by a woman who started the idea of selling toast as a simple menu item in a Bay area coffeehouse. Now, it’s hold the coffee – artisanal toast is the rage among SFO’s hipsters  willing to pay $4 a slice for toasted artisanal bread topped with cinnamon.  Looks like it’s true – and the originator is a woman named Giulietta Carrelli, owner of Trouble.  Read the New Yorker story . Here’s John Gravois’s story in Pacific Standard that tells all

Now for the coffee – pay it forward

Kasbahouse cup

In World War II, the idea of “suspended coffee” was born – and boomed –in years when many people didn’t have the money to go out for a social cuppa joe.  Since cafes and bars are important gathering place in Italy, it’s not surprising that in Naples – a gritty port city of emigres, Roma and locals on lean budgets –  the trend is back, and those in need of a jolt check out places where a “suspended” coffee receipt, in an empty coffee pot, or taped up on the wall, is available for a free cup to sip and the chance to socialize.

In the US, the “pay it forward” idea has had bursts of momentum at Panera and Starbucks, but this seems like the real deal. In a New York Times story:  “It’s a simple, anonymous act of generosity,” said Ms. Cozzolino, 37…. “As a Neapolitan who tries to restrict herself to four coffees a day, I understand that coffee is important. It’s a small treat that no one should miss.” And please – hold the toast! Read the story 

Build Your Own City or a Medieval Town

Gamers who love cities and want a hand in designing them – look no further. Two beloved games allow you to plan out a medieval city ( Carcassone) or a futuristic one (SIM City)

Example from SIM City

Example from SIM City

Sim City – around for a quarter century and the delight of would-be and actual urban planners and architects – has a new  edition launched in 2013 called SimCity 5 that allows you to design  a single city or up to 16 . You can play alone or collaborate with others – there is a new multiplayer option.  This new edition is the first since 2003. Check it out 

Gather your creative inner “architect” and decide what will make your city unique – museums, colleges and libraries ? Or design a city dominated by megatowers; a green city (great energy efficiency) or one focused on consumption. Figure out where the residential, commercial, and industrial areas will be; and then add in cutting-edge real-world technology.

Many choices, many trade offs. A lot of younger architects and planners were attracted to the original SimCity as an inspiration that jumpstarted their desire to be in the design fields. Look at Cities of Tomorrow

Cite de Carcassonne Courtesy of Wiki

Cite de Carcassonne  FranceCourtesy of Wiki

Carcassonne, on the other hand, is a plunge into the past – a board game for 2-5 players with tiles—designed by Klaus-Jurgen Wrede and published in 2000; later in English by Rio Grande Games. Difficult to find in stock, Carcassone has an avid fan base – decidedly for those who like their architecture and settings to be medieval.  Now there’s also video and phone-based versions,  for the Xbox 360 and for Windows Phone.

Carcassonne board game

Carcassonne board game

COME BACK! In February the CITIES column looks at the multi-billion-dollar investment in museums and the arts as magnets for tourism, economic development and education. We’ll check what’s happening in Havana, Helsinki, Moscow, Paris, New York, San Francisco, and more.