Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Livable City Is Not The Living City

(See previous post: "A Continuum Of Eco-City Models: A Brief Introductory Sketch")

THE LIVABLE CITY is the predominant public post-industrial alternative model, while the “separable” city is the actual model.  There has been long-standing design interest in “livable” cities, and more recent public interest and support for livable cities.  The livable city is primarily a large-scale professional redesign of urban and regional space to make it energy efficient and enhance the quality or “livability” of the city.  The primary emphasis is upon “decongesting” traffic, improving air and watershed, and expanding recreational green space. The livable city is environmentally sensitive, but not ecologically oriented.  While there is interest in “green” technology for its efficiency, there is less interest in a “green” values-set, because there is less commitment to an ecological perspective that includes human life.  Human life is still separate.  The focus remains primarily upon being more “humane” than ecological.

The quality of urban life is the primary focus, and urbanization is perceived to be a cultural process rather than a natural process.  Environmental progress is slow because the focus is on costly, large-scale changes in the built infrastructure that require municipal and regional cooperation.  Design is predominantly large-scale redesign that is directed by planning and architectural expertise.  Transformations affect large physical areas such as central city and industrial parks and processes such as modes of transportation and watershed. 

“New urbanism” reflects an effort to improve personal and family life by creating townships where most everyday activities such as work and home and education and civic activity and recreation are all in close proximity.  Proximity is seen as positively decreasing the congestion and pollution caused by urban transportation.  However, the primary focus is on enhancing human scale interface in urban areas where life can seem impersonal and alienated.  There are efforts to be eco-sensitive as an aspect of improving the quality of residential life.  And there is an important focus on urban residency rather than mobility and transitory relationships.  While aspiring to be a return to human-scale, this “local” effort is really a large-scale effort because it essentially builds a new community.  And while new urbanism has created actual communities, it is not widespread, due perhaps to the cost of such change and lower public interest.  And perhaps more importantly in the face of rapidly expanding global urbanization, it acknowledges the inability to planning to control the city, but sees this as a limit rather than sees the post-industrial global process as have functional aspects that are active on both immanent and large scales.

The general model of new urbanism[i] is important for its attention to human-scale and involves
a neighborhood with a community center,
a five minute walk to resources,
a variety of dwelling types’
shops on the edge,
close by playgrounds and school,
parking in alley, and a formal neighborhood association.

Looking at a larger livable city, The American Institute of Architects list ten principles for livable communities:[ii]
1.   Design on a human scale,
2.   provide choices in housing, shopping, recreation, transportation and
3.   encourage mixed-use development to create vibrant, pedestrian-friendly
      and diverse communities,
4.   preserve urban centers to help curb sprawl,
5.   vary transportation options including walking, biking and public transit,
6.   build vibrant and welcoming public spaces,
7.   create neighborhood identity to enhance a sense of place,
8.   protect environmental resources by balancing nature and development,
9.   conserve landscapes such as open space, farms and wildlife habitat, and
10. design excellence as the foundation of successful and healthy communities.

Similarly, the Congresses International Architectura Modern [CIAM] list ten Principles of Intelligent Urbanism[iii] which describe livability of cities:
1.     a balance with nature
2.     a balance with tradition
3.     appropriate technology
4.     conviviality
4.1  a place for the individual
4.2  a place for friendship
4.3  a place for householders
4.4  a place for the neighborhood
4.5  a place for communities
4.6  a place for the city domain
5.     efficiency
6.     human scale
7.     opportunity matrix
8.     regional integration
9.     balanced movement
10.  institutional integrity.

The livable city is the primary current working model, and it derived from urban planning rather than from the environmental movement.  “Suatanability” is a very recent push, but still oriented on green technology and recycling for “livability” far more than for ecological integration.  Certain aspects such as modifications of mass transportation and regional planning for water and air quality are the predominant accomplishments that have occurred to a minimal degree globally, but that are present as useful demonstration projects.  Importantly and yet limiting, the focus is on people rather than environment with the objective of increasing the quality of human life or “livability.”  Green space is valued both for park-like human recreation and buffering open space and to a lesser yet increasing degree as a chemical recycling process. 

The variety of “livability “principles sketched are representative of an approach to cities that is definitely increasing globally.   The overall appearance of the city does not necessarily change.  Core environmental features are primarily technological and include:
alternative fuels for mass transportation,
redesigned mass transportation to reduce emissions and personal transport,
passive solar and efficient heating and cooling and insulation, and

By far the most popular world example of the livable city is Curitiba, Brazil.  Rather than move toward smaller communities, Curitiba has grown from 150,000 people in the 1950s to 500,000 people in 1965 to 1.6 million in 1994.  Young architects in the 1960s, thinking about the environment and people’s needs, approached the mayor and made a case for better planningThe mayor sponsored a contest for a master plan, debated responses with the citizens and turned over comments to the architects.  The focus that was different was upon rehabilitating built-up areas rather than spreading the city outward.  There was resistance from shopkeepers with proposals to turn the shopping district into a pedestrian zone.  After a thirty-day trial, other shopkeepers asked to be included. 

Public transportation was modified so that now 70 percent of commuters use it.  Plexiglass tube stations allow shelter, very low fares, private ownership that keeps part of the fare and gives the city part for roads/terminals, faster loading and unloading and noticeably cleaner air, access to buses though all of the city, and express bus lanes that move at fast as subway cars on radial routes.   There is 25% less congestion in Curitiba than in similar-sized cities.  As much as two-thirds of daily garbage is recycled by dividing waste into organic and inorganic only.  Trash can be exchanged for bus tickets and local food, and the trash goes to plants where it is sorted and sold and provides employment.  Builders get tax breaks for including green areas.  Open space has drastically increased from 5 square feet in 1970 to 559 square feet with 16 new parks and 1000 plazas throughout the city.  There are 341 industries involving Fiat, Pepsi, and Volvo and environmental laws do not slow industrial development. Adult education has been enhanced through mobile training centers.[iv]

The values that are operant in Curitba are important to consider.  Various general design elements that contribute to the success of the city and the local state include:
people first/ “humane urbanism,”
public-spirited and eco-efficient,
integrated urban planning component: IPPUC laboratory,
visions/design/creative innovation,
cheap solutions,
efficiency of transportation [encourage public transportation],
land-use planning,
minimize downtown traffic,
encourage social interaction by providing more leisure areas and pedestrian zones in the center of the city, and
environmental health.

Comments by Jamie Learner offer an important vision in looking at the role of the environment in urbanized human life:[v]
There is little in the architecture of a city that is more beautifully designed than a tree. i
The dream of a better city is always in the heads of its residents.  Our city isn’t a paradise.  It has most of the problems of other cities.  But when we provide good buses and schools and health clinics, everybody feels respected.  The strategic vision...leads us to put first the priorities on the child and the environment.  For there is no deeper feeling of solidarity than that of the dealing with the citizen of tomorrow, the child, and the environment in which that child is going to live. I
There is no endeavor more noble than the attempt to achieve a collective dream.  When a city accepts as its mandate its quality of life; when it respects the people who live in it; when it respects the environment; when it prepares for future generations, the people share responsibility for that mandate, and this shared cause is the only way to achieve that collective dream. ii
The city of all of us ii
...cities need to be rediscovered as instruments of change. iii
The city [Curitiba] has become more intelligent and more humane. iii

[i] Selected aspects for a new urbanism neighborhood []
[ii] The American Institute of Architects [].
[iii] Congresses International Architecturea Modern (CIAM) ten Principles of Intelligent Urbanism [].
[iv] Donella Meadows, “The best city in the world? Making a solid case for better urban planning,” Good Medicine, Fall, 1994 and []. See also, “Orienting urban planning to sustainability in Curitiba, Brazil,” [] and Sustainable Communities Network Case Studies, “Brazil, Curitiba’s “voluntary sustainability,” [].
[v] Jamie Lerner quotes are from: iDonella Meadows, “The best city in the world?, Making a solid case for better urban planning,” Good Medicine, Fall, 1994 and [], ii.  “Orienting urban planning to sustainability in Curitiba, Brazil,” [], iiiSustainable Communities Network Case Studies, “Brazil, Curitiba’s “voluntary sustainability” [].

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