The urban age: how cities became our greatest design challenge yet
There is a risk, in writing this piece, that I am going to restart the debate which raged in my absence in February.
Amid unprecedented levels of urbanisation, designers must be trusted to fashion cities that not only accommodate but also provide a pleasant environment
I am a bit less than thrilled that the criterion can be expressed in such language. The problem is dramatically illustrated in the original by a photo of a Lagos slum. This is more than an unpleasant environment. Though some see slums as comparable to a natural process of adaptation – and centers of entrepreneurial activity and social stability.
The big driver of urban reforms, historically, in places like London was concern for human health. People like Sir Christopher Wren wanted to rebuild London to look more impressive, but lost out to the much more powerful voice of the merchants and businesses that had to rebuild after the Great Fire, and do that quickly, to get a positive cash flow going again. About the only concession made to public safety was to allow a ban on thatched roofs. It was not until a ground breaking statistical study showed the link between cholera and water supply that the professions of urban planning – and public health – really got to be effective. And some of their ideas were a bit misdirected, or have become anachronistic, but we are still stuck with them. Like separation of land uses, or low density for residential areas. I have often thought that English “Town and Country Planners” were mostly frustrated architects – concerned more about issues such as “sensitive infill” and colour of paviours – than the social engineers they are accused of being. They mostly built places that were supposed to look good but didn’t work very well – like most of the post war New Towns. Most of which were pretty hideous too.
“Greater Vancouver can become the first urban region in the world to combine in one place the things to which humanity aspires on a global basis: a place where human activities enhance rather than degrade the natural environment, where the quality of the built environment approaches that of the natural setting, where the diversity of origins and religions is a source of social strength rather than strife, where people control the destiny of their community, and where the basics of food, clothing, shelter, security and useful activity are accessible to all.”
—Source: ”Creating Our Future“ (emphasis added)
It may be significant that I had to copy that out of the LRSP – the original seems not to be available on line. I think that most would concede that the objective I have highlighted has not been achieved. Nor is it likely to, as long as we pursue policies designed to maximize short term commercial profitability over nearly every other consideration. Much of what is built here is designed for a short life. Most industrial and commercial buildings are little more than huge sheds – often built of “tilt up” concrete panels.
Most houses are still stick built – and many get pulled down and replaced within 40 years of being constructed.
For me, one of the worst visual features is the wirescape: it seems nearly every view of our natural setting is through a tangle of hydro wires and tv cables.
Because, of course, it is cheaper to string wire than bury it. And, someone once informed me, the Hydro crews get paid a lot of overtime to put the wires back up again after every storm – so organized labour is as keen on this method as their management.
Is this really the best we can do?
Well, it’s good for those that get this view but even then I doubt the aesthetic value of the human contribution to the natural landscape here