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The city as a place of transformation

21. April 2021

In the urban landscape, different needs, requirements and challenges come together with ideas and visions for more social and economic sustainability. The convergence of diverse competencies and potential creates dynamics that can bring transformation and reality closer together.

The city as a place of transformation

The will to innovate and the courage determine the transformations in cities. Photo: ©iStock/IGphotography

Trends set the pace

To be a place of transformation means having to constantly deal with the challenges brought about by trends, habits and progress. While digitalisation continues to drive the e-commerce boom and the world of work becomes increasingly flexible – accelerated further by the coronavirus pandemic – it is the densely populated urban areas in particular that are being impacted by these developments. This creates a unique opportunity for action – especially since the sociocultural heterogeneity in urban areas makes for a high level of innovation dynamics.

These factors ensure a variety of participatory, intersectoral actions as part of transformation of the urban space geared towards the needs of the future. The growing number of personal cars and the resulting congestion above all in large cities, the rising real estate prices in the suburbs and inner cities, and the shifting individual needs due to demographic change are issues that are increasingly reaching the agendas of those committed to urban change.

The shift in vision

Modern urban development processes are characterised by a high level of dynamics and many small-scale projects. This is partly due to the fact that within the consensus of modern urban development a number of planning shortcomings need to be corrected or at least compensated for. The principle of the “car-friendly city”, derived from the title of Hans Bernhard Reichow’s book published in 1959, gave rise to a transformation in the 1960s and 1970s toward an urban landscape in which the automobile assumes the predominant role. Although this model has long ceased to be ideal due to climate awareness, the structures that were created are in place and the roads in operation.

While the car-friendly, functionally separated city creates long distances, which are impossible or difficult to cover without motorised vehicles, the city of short distances is unanimously considered the preferred model. It features small-scale and mixed-use spatial structures as well as a broad and safe mobility service for quick and uncomplicated

Many European pioneers

Everywhere around the globe, bigger and smaller attempts are being made to achieve the city of short distances, whether it is initiated by the people or at the political level. The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, launched the concept of the 15-minute city (Ville du quart d’heure) developed by urbanist Carlos Moreno, which will enable all residents of the French capital to reach everything they need in their daily lives within a 15-minute walk or bicycle ride. This involves expanding the existing inadequate bike path network as well as limiting parking space in the city (link to “Transformation of Mobility”). While the plan has drawn criticism for excluding commuters from the suburbs to the city centre, it is also argued that it is a matter of using the existing space more efficiently. There appears to be enthusiasm for the concept in the city, which is congested with traffic not just during rush hour.

Similar approaches can be seen in Barcelona and the Japanese metropolis of Kyoto. In Barcelona, Mayor Ada Colau and a few urban planning stakeholders have been able to take advantage of the city’s widespread grid plan. Five superblocks, consisting of three-by-three city blocks, are now completely free of through traffic. Intersections once used by thousands of cars every day are now picnic areas or playgrounds. The concept, which sparked protests when first introduced, is now appreciated and used. Therefore the number of superblocks is expected to increase exponentially in the coming years. A major advantage: The street areas to be converted already exist – just in a different capacity.

The temporary becomes permanent

Regardless of whether interventions are being planned at the drawing board or come about through activism, many projects that are now firmly established in the urban landscape were first installed as temporary solutions before they became permanent in order to test their everyday feasibility. This may also happen with the pop-up bike lanes created in many places during the coronavirus pandemic in order to reduce the risk of infection in public transport by providing mobility alternatives. According to an MCC study , the temporary lanes in the 106 European cities analysed have increased cycling by up to 48%. In Berlin, the lanes were originally supposed to remain until May 2020, however, they are still in operation. Orders for their removal because the additional bike lane would interfere with car traffic were revoked by the city’s court of appeals (Oberlandesgericht). The pop-up bike lanes are another example for how the energy of cities make use of their potential even in crisis situations.

Interventions like these show that it is possible to successively correct the concepts of the past decades and make the quality of life in urban areas a priority. This requires a will for innovation and courage to act, both from the population as well as a city’s administration.

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