Photo by Julius Yls on Unsplash.com
ARoS Art Museum, AArhus, Denmark.
Rethinking space and time in the contemporary cityNew patterns for urban regeneration
It’s well-known that most of the greenhouse gas emissions in the world come from towns and cities. It’s also well-known that urban population will increase further in the coming decades. How can sustainability and the intelligent use of resources, space above all, be reconciled with urban development? We spoke to Jacopo Ognibene, an architect specialised in Traffic and Sustainable Mobility planning, and Andrea Riva, Project Leader at the architectural firm Park Associati.
FLOWS – Carlos Moreno, Professor at the Sorbonne in Paris, who was also the first to coin the ’15-minute city’ concept, put forward a new idea of proximity in urban contexts saying, “It’s time to move on from urban planning to planning urban life. That means transforming the space of a city, still highly mono-functional with various specialised areas, to multi-centred based on four main components – vicinity, diversity, density and ubiquity, to offer the essential social functions at a short distance”. Prof. Moreno maintains that, in cities, people should be able to reach anything to do with every moment of their daily life (work, shops, health services, education and free time) in 15 minutes on foot or by bike from their homes. The aim is to have a positive influence on the pace of life in cities and reconnect people with their area.
How are urban regeneration processes trying to respond to this aim?
JACOPO OGNIBENE – Rethinking the places in the cities of today and the future means, firstly, accepting that the model of Functionalism has definitively ended, both because the physical size of historic cities was never really compatible with the uncontrolled growth of individual mobility (studded throughout many 20th century rationalist views), and ‘social groups’ have grown to an impressive extent (‘young mother of 2020’ v 1950s housewife’) and the lives of townspeople have gradually filled with myriads of things to do outside the home. Work itself has changed radically for many, scaling down the pattern of commuting. At the same time, urban sizes are increasingly incompatible with the idea of being able to do everything everywhere.
Smart working during the pandemic has explosively highlighted a radical transformation – a multi-centre and polymorphic model, where the ‘centres’ are the lives of the individual citizens, has slowly superseded the ‘monocentric’ model (which seemed to survive in metropolises for some functions, think of the head offices of multi-national companies and financial Milan). Redeveloping the city used by everyone (not just that perceived from the car window!), especially in the neighbourhoods, is and will be a fundamental necessity on all scales, particularly considering that some functions, historically only inside residential units or that did not even exist (nomadic work, co-working, allotments, children’s activities, etc.), are now also (or only) available outside.
The separation of functions has already been surpassed in many neighbourhoods, in each of which an increasing number of services and functions are progressively being integrated. In addition to the services offered, the accessibility of each area of the city is also a competitive element that certainly attracts from outside but, above all, qualifies and impacts directly on the residents’ lives, allowing them to revise their own mobility model (i.e. how they live), reinvesting time, space and money within the isochrone of 15 minutes. This aspect can have a tremendous impact on the quality of life locally and the demand for urban quality in the neighbourhoods. Urban regeneration, embracing and acting on opportunities, is certainly able to sustain and amplify this change but only if there is timely intervention and by flanking stakeholders through participation and listening, even when a project has been finished.
A huge regulatory and cultural leap is required for people working on the city – extending capacity, techniques and interpretative and design tools, even if the work is on neighbourhood scale, integrating architecture and urban planning with sociology, participation, mobility, environment, landscape, discomfort management, risk management, economics, marketing, communication, etc.
ANDREA RIVA – It’s important to state that the concept of ’15-minute city’ is not a return to the past or a form of downgrade compared to the model of the current city. It’s not even a rejection of the values and positive aspects of the metropolis in favour of a system of small independent centres. The 15-minute model aims at a transformation of urban spaces in accordance with the new requirements of the 21st century. Although our way of living and using the city has changed radically in the last 50 years, the same can’t be said of the space we live in, more or less tied to the standards and ideas of the post-war boom. It’s a question of imagining a single city situation, in turn organised around different interconnected centres. The scale of the neighbourhood and metropolis must focus on co-habiting, enhancing the potential of both and co-operating in the elimination of the weak points.
The second consideration on the 15-minute city concerns the range of influence of this view. It’s not a process involving only town planners, architects and mobility experts but a choice of change of pattern in the city that aims to put the individual at the centre, involving all the disciplines found in urban centres. It’s a question of finding new formulae and alchemies of environment, economics, management of environmentally critical points and valorisation of public space.
The 15-minute city concept must be taken as an appeal for all professionals to take part in redesigning the urban space we live in every day.
F. – Sustainability is one of the central topics in the ‘15-minute city’. How do urban regeneration initiatives deal with the reduction of consumption through the synergy between architectural design, urban planning and mobility?
A.R. – We need to talk about well-being rather than sustainability because, over the years, the latter has acquired a value linked essentially to engineering and performance without taking into consideration the dynamics of use of public space and the effects on the lifestyle of the inhabitants. The word well-being is based on an equation that correlates both technological performance and other factors linked to users’ behaviour. There are many beneficiaries of this approach – the planet, the community and also the individual.
I think that the true principle behind the ‘15-minute city’ concept is the inhabitants’ quality of life and not simply the distances or journey times between the different centres of a city. Investing in the idea of a 15-minute city means believing in the creation of a public space and consequently a community able to respond more quickly and effectively to everyday needs.
In relation to the topic of consumption, this model offers notable advantages and also opens new development scenarios. The reduction of journeys enables new forms of mobility and turns the time spent in the car into opportunities for more gratifying, relaxing activities. The reduction in polluting emissions and noise turns into a better quality of the area and, as a result, the availability of outdoor spaces. The reduction in road congestion allows new scenarios of less car-centred use of public space and more oriented to the quality of life of the inhabitants of large cities to be imagined. Thus, consumption of time and space become elements of analysis just like the consumption linked to the industry of transport and polluting vehicles. One cannot be separated from the other.
The elements listed show how there are many, many opportunities and it’s legitimate to trust in a conception of the modern city. At the same time, it is clear how there must be synergic work of different stakeholders, and particularly different disciplines, behind every process of urban regeneration. It’s no longer possible to imagine an intervention as the addition of single independent components but the key to the success of these initiatives lies in the ability to understand and valorise the interconnections between architecture, urban planning and mobility (and others) favouring the creation of a new model of space centred on the individual and the possibility of setting up formal or informal interactions between inhabitants.
J.O. – The terms ‘Sustainability’ and ‘Environment’ have been so abused by local and global politics that they are no longer carriers of an unambiguous thought-action. Fortunately, Greta Thunberg’s speech at the Austrian World Summit on 1 July swept away many ambiguities. Nevertheless, it’s very interesting to see how ‘Sustainability’ and ‘Environment’ can be interpreted locally.
Sustainability (social, economic and environmental) is not just a global request but an interpretative key in people’s lives, and so can only be a planning tool for the decisive orientation of urban regeneration. Let’s think about mobility (or broadband access) – it’s the availability of (new) services that create opportunities for individuals. Locally, planning with sustainability means, first and foremost, listening to people and including the standardisation of the different needs of a community.
The local environment is not just air quality and noise but also the urban environment. It’s everything outside the house which, at the same time, is also an extension of it because, living there, it’s a space that’s also ours. Perceiving it, crossing it, enjoying it and feeling you’re part of it so you take care of it (just as you do with your own home) has now become undeniable, all the more if our city is closer and closer to the 15-minute model. It’s a context where most of the time will be ‘spent’ (i.e. reinvested) locally instead of just crossing it.
F. – Sharing resources, whether services or spaces, is central to rethinking the city – co-housing, sharing mobility, etc. become inescapable planning standards. How are architecture and mobility interpreting sharing? What synergies can be found for an effective answer to contemporary needs?
J.O. – New methods of movement, new individual, public and shared services that cover different distances and lead to a ‘new’ use of collective space have flanked the new needs and activities for citizens and the consequent new demand for mobility. We must realise that the line between public and private space is gradually disappearing. For example, the green area and pavement outside the house can now host different functions of contemplation and pedestrian transit; the ground floor of buildings (just like some spaces in the interior of residences) now host different community activities every day in a growing mixture. Work spaces extend outside the company ‘block’, involving the outside areas for informal events, relaxation and nomadic work.
Acceptance of a new, fuzzy definition of spaces intended to host different functions (or rather, the new mixes of functions) is decisive, and the planning of public space, first and foremost the road, must consider the whole local universe, adopting the standard ‘from façade to façade‘, or rather, taking a step further, ‘from ground floor to ground floor’ as a minimum. The fuzziness of borders gradually decreases moving from the collective space to private space which, in turn, has taken out some functions traditionally performed inside a house and has welcomed others, previously relegated to the outside.
A.R. – The development of a new model of use of resources, less possession-focused and more sharing-centred, is the result of a rediscovery and valorisation of the social aspect of the human being. Society, the use of public spaces and the desire to interact are increasingly important in the model of current living. The value of experience has superseded the importance of ownership.
On mobility, for example, it’s important to be able to move from Point A to Point B in the most convenient, effective and fast way. That’s why new aspects such as availability of parking, parking fees, traffic and frequency of movement have entered the assessment parameters in addition to the comfort of driving your own vehicle. All these factors have led many people to prefer car-sharing to the cost of buying their own vehicle. Sharing is also the consequence of another situation corresponding to the pace and opportunities of a globalised system. Today’s dynamism, especially for the younger generations, sees the possibility of frequent changes in the city of residence and place of work. As a result, the flexibility and option of choosing the best service for personal needs each time have become driving factors of this sharing system.
Lastly, it’s important to stress that this new model is an enormous opportunity in terms of sustainability and progress. Sharing means both optimising use of the spaces and tools available, reducing the times when they’re not used, and offering the chance to use continuously evolving services able to respond to the extremely rapid transformations that today’s urban speed demands.