Architecture IO

Select a topic

Rethinking How People Move in Cities November 14, 2014

A Designer’s Perspective

The Foster + Partners Urban Design team headed by Bruno Moser consists of specialists from a range of backgrounds – including design, real estate, sociology and computation. By gaining a detailed understanding of context, the group helps to develop projects that are tailored to specific socio-economic, climatic and spatial circumstances. As project goals are defined, the Urban Design Group works with project teams to focus on issues such as spatial structure and hierarchy, the distribution of land uses and density of urban form, building typologies and passive urban design.

In this talk Bruno explains how our urban movement patterns are mainly driven by the distribution of functions, and as cities get denser, space is increasingly scarce and we need to re-examine how we use our public realm. Bruno goes on to develop the topic of urban mobility from a designer’s view point, exploring the relationship between land use, density, and transport systems.

Hi, good afternoon. Often, when we start a masterplan it starts with a trip down to the model shop where we find these boxes full of little plastic chips and it’s a little bit like Lego for urban designers. Each of those uses represents, if it’s a colour it’s represented, it’s a land use, in sort of a standardised colour coding and we count down the chips depending on how big the masterplan is or how big the brief is for the masterplan, and then go and play and try and test different layouts, and different ideas. And as we do that, sort of different things start to happen. It’s very easy to work collaboratively so, even though, we’re sort of usually known for a sort of high tech workflow, we actually quite like this sort of low tech workflow because it means that different people can work together much more easily and much more intuitively and it also means that working with clients becomes a completely different game.

We start to put down ideas with these chips, with these colours, but also, there’s things that are not directly apparent when we do that, such as issues around microclimate, for instance, more details, considerations, or questions around mobility because at the end of the day, it’s the relationship between the different colours on that map, that will determine how people will need to move and travel through cities.

This was an example for a Chinese client, for a municipality and we try to effectively figure out how we could use the space in a much more efficient way and trying to relate the land use much better to the existing infrastructure network.

We talked already about streets a lot, and the limit of space and I think this is an extract of Soho, in London and even though I get frustrated at times sitting on the “19” bus, trying to get home, along Shaftesbury Avenue, I think it’s quite a blessing that we have in European cities and with this historic course, where space is limited, because it forces us to think very carefully on how we allocate the spaces to different uses
on the streets.

This is Hermann Knoflacher, a German, an Austrian, sorry, transport professor who demonstrates with this very easy contraption some of the problems we still have in cities, and that we haven’t quite resolved. The part, the car and the amount of space it requires, both at the place where it’s parked all night, and the place where it’s parked during the day is causing serious troubles and challenges still in our cities. But luckily, even from the land of the car, there’s some interesting solutions to some of those problems, where activists started to reclaim some of those parking spaces and turned them back into spaces than can be used by the pedestrians.

Despite all that good news, I think we need to keep in mind that this problem is not quite solved yet. On the left hand side of the slide, you’ll find the average car ownerships in Berlin, London, and New York, and as you can see, those are quite a bit lower than the national averages in those countries. On the right side of the slide, you’ll see the number of car ownerships in Mexico City, Shanghai, and Johannesburg where the car ownership in the city is far higher than what we have in the national average. In those cities, the car still is a status symbol and cities are still places of affluence where those who can own a car, will own a car. I think we are in a lucky position because we could own a car but we choose not to because we have alternative ways of how we can travel around.

Another problem we got with the car becomes apparent when we look at this slide. On the left hand side you see that from standing still, I am consuming about 0.5 square metres space around me, if I walk, that space increases, if I sit on a bus that’s about 40% occupied, I am probably using about 8 square metres of city space. If I am sitting in a car and travel at 30 or 50 kilometres an hour, that space requirement suddenly explodes and this starts to cause serious problems in our cities and around our cities. And still if you want to live in the world that’s on the left, we will get always these enormous traffic contraptions that we see on the right.

The other important aspect that I would come back to quickly, is land use, as in how it relates to movement. These are maps from a service called “Walk Score” and they describe in green the areas where, that are supposedly easy to get around and that are more walkable, and they are generated by an algorithm which effectively works out the number of shops, pharmacies, schools, cinemas, in the catchment area from a given location on those plans. On the left, Seattle, on the right, New York City. And it is this important the relationship between these amenities and their accessibility that has a profound impact, I believe, on the quality of life and, for all of us who live in cities, and I think it’s also a quality why we want to live in cities.

We can make this point even more stark, the envision on the left, you might recognise, is Venice or the street grid of Venice with a little bit of the Canal Grande running through. On the right hand side is Phoenix. It’s 400 meters from one intersection to the other, that’s a 5 minute walk to get from one corner to the next corner where I could possibly change direction. It’s not a surprise that nobody would want to walk in these environments, also, it’s probably fair to say that it’s going to be more restaurants and cafés and other people on the left hand side of the image than we’ll find in the suburbs of Phoenix. And often, I think when we want to walk, it’s the excitement of the urban environment that we enjoy and running into other people, and seeing other people so it’s really important to think about how we organise these structures, and I think the challenge we’ve got still today is how we are going to retrofit these kind of environments.

Another city that’s well known for its street grid, for its rectilinear street grid is New York City. Here the blocks are a bit shorter, they’re about 200 meters wide, and this is a representation of the residential density in New York City. And when we had showed this image to the client from this Chinese project, that I showed you at the very beginning, there were sort of a moment of surprise where they realised that actually these places, to the left and to the right of Central Park are quite desirable locations and people paying a lot of money to get an apartment in these areas. And really, that high density, in the right circumstances can work. The hole that you saw previously on the map is filled by this, and this is the employment and what surprised all of us is the enormous concentration of employment uses in all of our cities and we saw a slide at the beginning, from London that showed these peeks in the centre of London and we find an even more extreme picture in New York. Out of the 3.4 million jobs that are in New York, 2 million of those are in Manhattan and about 65% of those are in the two black dots, which is midtown and downtown, the areas where the financial services cluster.

The areas shown in red here then, are the places where there’s more jobs rather than residence and you see a part from, sort of, the airport side and some industrial areas in the outer boroughs, it is these focal points in Manhattan that really attract these enormous amounts of people and naturally a transport has to be developed that serves these levels of traffic demand, where 1.5 million people need to go in and out and everyday just to travel, and it’s logical that these people could not do that all by private cars. And this is how New York arrived at the impressive numbers of 70% of jobs that are served within a 400 metre radius from a subway station, so that’s a 5 minute walk, or a, almost more than 40% of the people who live within a 5 minute walk of these subway stations.

Now, as masterplanners we don’t always have the chance to build a whole city and a lot of the issues that are talked about really require a lot of scale, so while we’re not planning subway schemes on a daily basis we get to look at transport infrastructure on a slightly smaller scale. And one of the examples we heard about already today is the tube station in Canary Wharf, which together with the DLR which arrived a few years earlier, really makes this proposition of Canary Wharf workable, as previous developers struggled to let their flow spaces, as the companies could have no way of getting their staff to their workplaces.

In 2018, we also heard about Crossrail, Crossrail will arrive in Canary Wharf and we’ve had the chance to design a station on top of that Crossrail infrastructure. And in this case, we have a bit more space and we devise sort of a garden structure, that’s on a semi-open roof, a timber construction, to really celebrate this notion of public space, and to give the space back in a place where it’s a lot of steel or glass already. This is a shot from a couple of weeks ago, there’s a timber roof with ETFE pillows that help to keep the rain out that we ever suffer here in London. If yew years prior to Canary Wharf we were doing a metro system in Bilbao, and in this case, the focus really was trying to make an environment that was suitable and confortable for the passengers to be in. Because in reality, a metro-system can be something quite disorienting as you descend into a tunnel and into the darkness, and a lot of the architecture try to bring in both very legible stations, also bring in daylight, wherever possible, because I think both at the centre of our master plans, but also the centre of our buildings, we try and design for the users of those spaces.

One of the spaces in London that, until, well probably now 20 years ago, was frequented more by pigeons rather than by people was Trafalgar Square, and those of you who haven’t been in London that long won’t remember, but effectively this square was a massive roundabout, as the traffic went all the way around including the northern side, in front of the National Gallery.

And probably, one of the most difficult projects in terms of urban invention, but also, one of the most modest ones, I think this is a particular good example, where we managed to transform a space that was dominated by cars into an environment that suddenly linked Trafalgar Square back to the National Gallery and creating an open space and a civic space that today is used by a lot of Londoners for all kinds of interventions. And somebody in the office was telling me this story the other day that, because closing a road is probably one of the most difficult things to do, particularly in that central part of London, we actually set up a mock construction site outside The National Gallery to see whether London will come to a standstill, but luckily it didn’t, and the transformation went ahead.

But it’s not just London that’s shocking with these leftovers of sort of excessive transport or car based infrastructure. This is a picture from Slussen in Stockholm, where the only bits of open spaces again, were sort of marginally or closed off pieces of land between major arteries and wide roads. The proposal here was, looking from the other side, to effectively tidy up the overall route network of cars. And being an outsider in this point was quite helpful because it allowed us to come in and ask, the sort of stupid questions that the local person maybe not have been able to do, and we managed to get to a point where we keep the city running, where the car infrastructure is needed, but really give the space back to the people, and integrate an interchange that’s underneath the plaza and that green landscape there on your left, with a rail based transport system. And this is a view then looking back towards that side, there’s some commercial activities integrated there as well. But the notion of an interchange I think is an important one and looking back into our archives, this was an image that I dug off from a project we did for Hammersmith, and as you probably know, we haven’t built it and I think it’s a good reminder that sometimes we need to keep pushing ourselves as architects and designers, and unless we try new things out, even if they don’t go ahead, we’ll keep stuck doing the same things over and over again.

And one man who pushed thinking and ideas was Buckminster Fuller. You’ll recognise the car on your right, the Ford Mobile T. Some of you might know the car on the left, it’s a Dymaxion Model 3 that was devised by Buckminster Fuller, who just was not satisfied with the way that the cars were devised as a vehicle and completely reinvented the automobile, putting the wheel in the back, creating a much larger cabin for more passengers and also create a much more streamlined body of the car to have something that uses less energy as it travels around cities.

As we were doing the research on that Dymaxion, we came across the sketch on the left, which is called the Dymaxion 4–5 and interestingly there’s never been a physical prototype built of that Dymaxion, but we thought it would be interesting, as we think about cities, mobility in cities, to take that sketch and take these ideas and turn it into a 21st century prototype.

The car has three wheels again, they are all individually powered, it means there’s a very tight turning circle, and there’s all kind of things that with the technology that we’ve seen again, in the very first talk, now become possible.

The image on the left, you’ll see the spacing between the traditional vehicles, which is much wider and if we had a fleet of more intelligent vehicles, we can actually, where this private mobility is required, get these vehicles to talk to each other and drive much more closely and use this space much more efficiently… if you remember that space with 160 square metres that a car traditionally uses when it travels through a city.

Now this is a short vision of what that might look like. Thank you!

Bruno Moser

Bruno Moser

Trained as an architect and urban designer, Bruno heads up the Urban Design team at Foster + Partners. His team applies a holistic approach to the study of the city, exploring patterns of behaviour, demographics and the hidden systems that influence the built environment, from the property market to underground infrastructure.