TECHNIQUES OF URBAN SUSTAINABILITY
BY JEFF KENWORTHY
Photos by JEFF KENWORTHY
Characteristics of urban
The key characteristics of urban villages
In order for urban development to achieve the urban village qualities outlined in Box 1, increased densities are essential. However, increasing densities is a major problem in low density cities because of perceived threats to the existing quality of life in suburbs. It is important therefore to discuss the density issue in some detail and to see how it might be approached more positively in cities.
There are increasing numbers of architects and planners who say positive things about density eg David Sucher (1995) in 'City Comforts: How to Build an Urban Village' says:
'...density is simply a by-product of people trying to be at the same interesting spot' (p171).
However, the reaction to higher density housing, the most basic requirement of an urban village, is often because it is seen by local communities as a way of imposing poor quality flats onto low density residential areas in an ad hoc attempt at better utilising vacant, derelict or underutilised urban land, without any thought to the effect on surrounding single family housing. There are of course many examples of poorly conceived development of this type which justify people's fears, but there are also very many fine examples of high quality reurbanisation projects which put such fears and objections to rest. The difference is usually based on whether design guidelines are utilised that insist on developments being aesthetically consistent with the surrounding areas and having attractive, friendly street frontages rather than just garages and high walls.
The approach taken by us however, is that the positive qualities of density (and mixed land use), such as reduced travel and better transit options, are less likely to occur, or to be as effective in magnitude, unless development is designed to bring transportation and land use together in a very coordinated and consciously planned way. That is, to build Transit City or Walking City characteristics planners need to do a lot better than just scattering increases in density across a cityscape.
Town planning and the development industry need to work together to find centres and corridors to define as urban villages throughout the modern car-based cities we have constructed. Already a lot of reurbanisation has occurred in Australian inner cities and the focus could perhaps now shift to middle and outer suburb locations for such nodes and corridors. In US cities urban villages are needed across all parts of their cities, especially in abandoned inner city locations. All Auto Cities need to ensure that transit systems are built to the centre of each village. And they need to allow all the creative human forces of urban citizens who want to live, work and walk in these urban villages, to be channelled into the rebuilding of a human scale where density and mixed use are desired qualities.
Many cities, such as Vancouver, are finding that this approach of selective, nodal densification also helps to gain community acceptance of higher densities, because it focuses redevelopment at a number of confined points and along corridors, rather than spreading its effects across the entire landscape. The land that is redeveloped in this way also often needs upgrading (eg derelict industrial sites), such that the redevelopment, if well-designed, can be seen as a positive contribution to the local area (Gallin, 1996).
PHOTO 1 Nodal urban village development at Joyce Station on Vancouver's Skytrain line.
The urban village is primarily human in scale because walking (or cycling) is the best way to get anywhere. Car use obviously has to be restricted in such environments through pedestrianization, parking controls and traffic calming, and it is critical to link urban villages together, preferably with electric transit, in order for people to gain access to those needs that cannot be met at a local level. However, the hardest battle in Anglo-Saxon cities seems to be over density where often the smallest dual occupancy proposals are feared.
There are valid and invalid reasons why people fear density, as alluded to above. The valid reasons are that many cities in the developed world haven't done much good, organic, high density design - the 60's flats in many North American and Australian cities are about as organic and attractive as plastic flowers, and some of course, mainly big public high rise housing projects in the US, have been so bad they have been torn down. But there are, as suggested above, also some wonderful examples of good, high density to be found in these cities which can be a guide for the future.
For example, in Canada, the West End of Vancouver and so many parts of Toronto and Montreal are living examples of organic, high density, walking environments. In the US, the Brooklyn 'brownstones' and the San Francisco 'painted ladies' are testament to high density elegance, human scale and urbanity. In Australia, there are Fremantle and Subiaco (in Perth), much of inner Melbourne and Balmain, Glebe and Paddington (in Sydney), which show that we once knew how to live graciously and efficiently in cities at much higher densities. New development that uses the qualities of these areas are generally the ones that are successful economically and have community support. There are often government programs seeking to do just that (eg the Australian Federal Government's Better Cities program of urban villages).
PHOT0 2 A human scale streetscape in Vancouver's West End, the densest neighbourhood outside of Manhattan.
The invalid reasons for fearing density are those outlined above that suggest it is something inherently evil or alien to the human spirit. One part of the nineteenth century town planning movement (primarily in England) identified all the environmental and social ills of industrial cities as being associated with density. They thus put all their effort into designing new low density 'garden suburbs' and low density New Towns, which were in fact not in keeping with Ebenezer Howard's original Garden City vision. They gained some positive environmental features such as the green 'commons' and the original garden suburbs in London were close to railway stations and somewhat denser than their more automobile-based descendants. However what they lost was the human scale, as too little remained accessible by walking.
Drawing its basic inspiration from the original garden city movement, Milton Keynes outside of London is typical of the later, car-based totally planned 'garden city' New Town with low density, strictly zoned, urban parts that are set in a sea of heavily-watered, grassed open space. The result is a town where few people ever seem to be visible, the carefully designed walkways and cycle paths are almost unused, whilst the roads and car parks are full. Milton Keynes has been studied in comparison with a Dutch New Town called Almere, typical of a European tradition of building at a density that enables walking and cycling to be the central transportation function (Roberts, 1992). The data are compared in Table 1.
|Walk||18% }24%||20%} 48%|
|Average Travel Distance||7.2 km||6.9 km (much less for non-work)|
|Form||'scattered', separated use.||'organic', mixed use.|
|Proportion who see a car as 'essential'||70%||50%|
|% Households with children under 12 years who are always supervised outside home||52%||16%|
|% of children under 12 who are never supervised outside home||8%||48%|
Table 1. Comparison
of two small New Towns, Milton Keynes (UK) and
Almere (Netherlands), in travel and land use characteristics
Source: Roberts (1991)
Although both cities are claimed to be influenced by the Garden City tradition, only Almere has anything like the density recommended by Ebenezer Howard 100 years ago. The British Town Planning profession (after Howard) believed they could have a green city without the higher densities needed for convenient pedestrian qualities - they were wrong and the differences in Table 1 show it quite clearly. The rather sad differences in the freedom of children are particularly marked.
The 'nothing gained by overcrowding'/abhorrence of density tradition was exported to all Anglo-Saxon cities by the Town Planning profession (King, 1978). It is rarely questioned, even though the evidence of problems associated with density has been shown to be false (see myths Case Study and Newman and Hogan, 1981).
Canberra, as suggested earlier in this discussion, is Australia's greatest contribution to the 'nothing gained by overcrowding' tradition. The city is very green in the mechanistic, formal sense, as it has a high amount of green space, but a large part of it is along and between its extensive road network and so is not particularly usable on a casual basis. The density of the city at 9 people per hectare is about as low as it is possible to build a settlement and still call it a city. As a result, it is Australia's second most car-dependent city (behind Perth), despite its smallness (300,000 people compared to 1.2 million) and heavy commitment to the planning of ostensibly self-sufficient sub-centers and neighbourhoods (Newman and Kenworthy, 1989; 1991). Its suburban sprawl now extends over 30 km and its need for new freeways is as endemic as in Los Angeles.
Tranter (1993) found that children in Canberra were largely unable to move around with any freedom, despite the city having relatively low crime rates. The sheer distances and car dependence have created a culture of chauffeuring; and now most children are even driven to school because the 'traffic is so bad' and parents 'fear for the safety of their children'.
PHOTO 3 An example of the green, but somewhat sterile and isolated approach to urban planning in Canberra.
Cities clearly need to become more creative about densities. Urban villages can be developed where children are free to run around in attractive, traffic-free space, where people can live conveniently in communities that meet most of their needs without a car. People need to become involved in designing, building, landscaping and filling such urban villages with all kinds of urban activity. This is the approach adopted by Jan Gehl in his studies of how to make central cities more human (Gehl and Gemsoe, 1996) and it tends to be the approach of the New Urbanists, though few examples yet approach the necessary densities. The technology for dense, solar-oriented, ecological, urban villages is available to assist this process (see Green City case studies and Woodroffe, 1994) and town planning can ensure that it occurs in an equitable, aesthetic and sustainable way.
One of the obvious differences between pre-modern cities and Auto Cities is the degree of mixed land use. Old cities, particularly the inner areas of many cities that were built around streetcar systems (eg inner Philadelphia, San Francisco or Sydney), and even late 19th century transit suburbs, have highly mixed land uses. The result of this fine-grained, diverse urban fabric is that auto travel is kept to a minimum through shorter distances that reduce the need to travel by all modes and which favour non-auto modes. Short distances mean greater opportunities for walking and cycling, as well as transit; there are simply more activities accessible within a small radius so that it is feasible to walk or ride a bike, or even to conveniently hop a few stops on a bus or train. Different trip purposes such as shopping, work and personal business can also be strung together into a single trip in areas of mixed land use, often through just combining transit and foot travel. In zoned suburban areas these same trips would require separate, multiple car trips, adding up to many vehicle kilometres of travel.
PHOT0 4 The richly mixed land use and excellent LRT service along Spadina Avenue in Toronto's inner city.
Holtzclaw (1990) and Neff (1996) have quantified the travel advantages of such trip-linking in mixed use, dense environments by showing that there is a 'transit leverage' or 'transit substitution' effect at work where one kilometre travelled on transit can replace up to 10 kms of car travel depending on conditions (the average appears to be more around 5 km). Part of the mechanism for this appears to be the 'hidden' non-motorised mode use that occurs in transit-oriented, mixed use environments.
The distinct influence of mixed land use on reducing automobile use, has also been clearly identified by authors such as Cervero (1995) and Holtzclaw (1994) through careful analyses of automobile and transit use in neighbourhoods with mixed land uses versus those with zoned, separated land uses.
Despite these obvious advantages in terms of travel efficiency, for the past 50 years town planning has been unmixing cities by the use of rigid zoning that separates single uses into each differently coloured part of the city's town plan. The rationale was to prevent pollution from industry getting to residential or other areas but that is now largely unnecessary as controlling industrial impacts is always best achieved by simple health regulations or through environmental control and most new employment in the cities of the late 20th century is information-oriented.
In order to demonstrate that cities can become more creative about densities and that the urban village approach works, the following provides a brief overview of some good examples of urban villages in Munich, Stockholm, Vancouver and Portland.
Arabella Park, or the Bogenhausen District Centre, is a major sub-center in Munich and is an excellent example of the concept of an urban village both in the intensity and mixture of the activities and in the extremely high quality of urban design and human scale, traffic-free and traffic calmed public spaces in which the development is set. There is a particularly strong emphasis on landscaping and general greening of the environment. The whole development is based around an underground rapid transit station located in the centre's Market Square and a complex of 8 to 10 storey offices is sited right adjacent to the station. The development is approximately 5 km from Marienplatz in the heart of Munich's pedestrianised core. Arabella Park has excellent accessibility to other parts of the city on Munich's newest and most attractive U-Bahn line, which is an important selling point of the centre.
Arabella Park consists of homes for 10,000 residents in rental and owner/occupier apartments, employment for 18,000 workers and 2,000 hotel rooms. The result is a fine grained, lively mixture of land uses including offices, shops, restaurants, hospitals, movie theatres, night clubs, an adult evening school, a city library, post office, swimming pool, recreational centre and sports facilities, as well as a multitude of peripheral facilities and service companies.
PHOTO 5 Arabella
Park district centre in Munich. This development represents a fine example of a
mixed use, traffic-free urban village connected to the rest of the city by a quality rail system.
In the public spaces of Arabella Park there is a lot of social interaction with people of all ages on foot and bike making use of the greened boulevardes and market areas to talk and relax. Some of the urban design elements such as small areas of running water and sculptures provide useful focal points for activity. There is also a steady stream of business people walking through the area. The number of parents and grandparents with children on bikes and playing in the public areas is particularly striking.
PHOTO 6 Public space in Arabella Park is rich in human interaction and provides equality of access for all ages.
The office sections of the development are set on a mixture of traffic-free areas and small roads on the periphery. There are attractive undercover bicycle storage facilities and ramps incorporated into steps for people with bikes or strollers.
PHOTO 7 and 8 Emphasis is placed on walking, cycling and public transport access through quality public space in Arabella Park.
Not all urban villages are of the size or diversity of Arabella Park which is a genuine sub-center. Others such as Zamila Park in Munich are more residential in character with some mixture of land uses.
Zamila Park is located on Munich's S-bahn system and is a short walk from a rail station. It is a 19ha site which contains a mixture of 1300 dwellings of different types (ranging from 2 storey homes and units with private gardens, up to 6 storey quality apartments), 50,000 square metres of office space, as well as a centre within walking or bicycling distance of all dwellings (the centre contains local facilities such as restaurants, food shops, newsagent, laundromat and so on). There is also a large lake area on one side of the development and a good complex of sporting facilities a short walk from all dwellings.
PHOTO 9 Zamila
Park from the air showing the dense clustering of residential and mixed
commerical and retail uses along an S-Bahn line in Munich.
The emphasis in the design is on traffic-free or traffic-calmed public areas, including quiet inner courtyards, pedestrian and bicycle spines and park-like green areas which link the development together into a contiguous whole. There is minimal penetration of roads and traffic onto the site and parking is underground and along a few traffic-calmed streets. Dwellings of different styles and colours add a large amount of visual variety to the project and avoid any sense of a monolithic environment. The public spaces within the area are characterised by children playing and parents and adolescents strolling or sitting on the seats provided.
PHOTO 10 and 11 Traffic-free public space with a sense of ownership by residents characterises the common areas in Zamila Park.
There is a noticeable amount of interaction between balconies and the public spaces. The number of families living in the development is clear from the amount of children's play equipment visible in the yards of many dwellings, the formal playgrounds built into the development and the number of small bikes parked in courtyards.
12 and 13 Zamila Park clearly demonstrates some of the advantages of generous traffic-free public environments for all ages.
It appears from observation that a sense of privacy and ownership over private territory is maintained but that this does not limit the opportunities for interaction where residents decide that is what they want and play opportunities for children are many. By building in opportunities for sociability in well-designed, inviting public areas, it appears that the likelihood of isolation, and probably crime, would be considerably reduced in Zamila Park.
It has long been policy in Stockholm to focus urban development around stations on the rapid transit system. One of the first and best known examples of this was the development of Vällingby in the 1950's. Since then numerous other satellite centres have been added such as Kista, Akalla, Tensta, Rinkeby, Skärholmen and so on. The centres are strung together like pearls on a bead along the railway system (tunnelbana) and are all of a high density, particularly around the station core. All these sub-centers show the characteristics of urban villages, though some are predominantly residential while others are highly mixed centres.
PHOTO 14 The centre of Vällingby around the rail station. Vällingby was Stockholm's first urban village built around the new rail system.
PHOTO 15 Looking from Kista along the tunnelbana line towards the next nodal development.
premises easily convertible to meet new service needs as times change;
Centres to be linked and permeated by a coherent network of foot and bicycle facilities separated from roads with the convenience of invalid users in mind.
Stockholm's centres are compact and walking scale with a rich array of facilities clustered together within a relatively small area. In Kista for example, the rail system delivers passengers directly into an enclosed large shopping mall which opens into a car-free town centre surrounded by community facilities, shops and housing and the excellent network of footpaths and cycleways feeding into it makes these modes the easiest and most convenient way to move around. The shopping centre forms a bridge between the rail station and the predominantly residential development on one side of the railway and the commercial/office development and high-tech businesses on the other side. Kista is Stockholm's 'Silicon Valley'.
PHOTO 16 Kista sub-centre looking across the shopping centre to the side dominated by residential development. Note the preservation of natural areas around the station node.
PHOTO 17 Within the Kista centre circulation is predominantly by foot and bicycle.
The total segregation between motorised and non-motorised traffic in Stockholm's centres together with traffic-free town squares and well integrated community spaces, such as children play areas, help make the environment of a human scale, despite being high density. Stockholm's centres are also well endowed with open space networks weaved throughout the housing areas and a comprehensive network of natural open spaces (lakes, forests, fields etc) are in direct contact with each centre.
PHOTO 18 The pedestrianised centre of Vällingby station showing segregation between motorised and non-motorised transport.
PHOTO 19 A quiet place within one of Stockholm's centres. When less land is taken for roads and car parks it is possible to built in quality natural spaces into urban villages.
While there is an emphasis on local self-sufficiency within Stockholm's sub-centers, the broader need for good transit connections to the rest of the city is seen as being paramount. It is recognised that the smaller satellite centres cannot contain all the diversity of typical central city functions and people will always want to travel beyond their local centre for a range of needs. There is an assumption in Stockholm that feeder buses and the rail system, rather than cars, will be used as a major way of getting to Stockholm's core and other areas across the city in peak and off-peak periods.
PHOTO 20 Feeder buses operating at the centre of Vällingby. Note the clustering of higher density uses around the rail station.
There are also examples of urban village style developments in Canada and the United States, but Vancouver has a few of particular note.
Since the introduction of Skytrain to Vancouver in 1986 a lot of development has clustered near to some of the stations. This is particularly noticeable at New Westminster which was the end station on the line prior to its further extension a few years after opening. At this site, 22km from downtown Vancouver, there is a mixed commercial, office, residential and public market development along the Fraser River within a short walk of the station. The new housing is extensive and ranges from quality high rise towers, 3 to 4 storey condominium style developments, down to townhouses. The housing consists of a mixture of individual housing cooperatives and market housing. The public environment in which the housing is set is of a high standard of urban design, including an extensive, landscaped, garden boardwalk along the riverfront onto which some of the housing units face. The area is maintained as a public park. There are also some community facilities such as tennis courts.
PHOTO 21 New Westminster urban village is served directly by Skytrain, pictured through the arch.
PHOTO 22 The boardwalk that knits together the New Westminster urban village.
The public market, which is in a multi-level building, has a wide range of goods and services under one roof and is within walking distance of much of the housing. It also has a direct link to the Skytrain station. The market provides something of a focal point for the centre with entertainment and somewhat more human appeal than most suburban shopping centres. The new compact, mixed use development which has been spurred on by the rail system, in combination with the older centre of New Westminster, means the area has achieved a new sense of vitality and attraction.
PHOTO 23 People walking back to their apartments in New Westminster after shopping at the markets.
Approximately 15 km along the Skytrain line from downtown there is major new mixed use development connected via a raised pedestrian concourse directly to the Metrotown station. Metrotown is a strong, mixed use nodal development which has greatly strengthened its town centre status in response to the added accessibility offered by Skytrain since 1986. Some of the uses within the centre include a major hotel, office tower, department store, cinema complex, apartments, and a variety of shops and other uses. The Metrotown centre is tightly ringed by a variety of medium to high density housing which maximises walking and cycling access both to the station and centre. There are also cycleway connections and a large bus/rail interchange which facilitates cross-city movement on buses to a variety of destinations. Metrotown in 1996 contained 18,000 residents (urban density of 60 people per ha) and 20,000 jobs within a 298 ha area (a total activity intensity of 128 per ha).
PHOTO 24 Metrotown sub-centre built around Metrotown station on Vancouver's Skytrain.
There are numerous other stations along the Skytrain which have progressively integrated a mixture of high density residential and commercial development within a few hundred meters of the trains. Vancouver is gradually starting to re-shape itself into a more transit-oriented metropolis through this very visible process of quality high density nodal development (see Vancouver case study in section 4.5.4 for a discussion of this process).
Not on Skytrain, but linked to frequent trolley bus services, False Creek is a major inner city housing area set on the waterfront opposite to downtown Vancouver. This very compact site, commenced in the 1970s, is presently home to around 10,000 people and is being actively extended. False Creek provides an excellent example of how to build a high density urban village in the context of extensive and beautifully designed open space together with adjacent mixed land uses such as markets, hotels, cultural activities, community center, shops and restaurants (located at Granville Island). The extensive open spaces and children's play areas are traffic-free as road access is from the rear of the development via a 2 lane road and parking is mostly under the buildings at the rear. The False Creek urban village looks onto and runs along the waterfront opposite the central city area and water forms an important part in the design of the open spaces.
PHOTO 25 A view of False Creek urban village showing the attractive relationship between the extensive public gardens, pedestrian thoroughfares and high density housing.
PHOTO 26 False Creek is one of the best mixed use inner city urban villades in the world
There is an enormous variety in housing forms and styles including townhouses, terraced units and medium rise apartments, many of which are early cooperative housing ventures facilitated through the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation. False Creek is linked together by a generous, meandering boulevarde for pedestrians and cyclists along which there are some local shops and facilities built into the housing areas.
PHOTO 27 A typical scene within False Creek showing the emphasis on non-motorised transport.
PHOTO 28 People with children move freely and comfortably through False Creek on their way to and from the variety of shops, businesses and community facilities.
In many ways False Creek is something of a model in terms of planning and urban design which demonstrates how to combine the elements of urbanity, convenience, beauty and spaciousness into a dynamic and exciting urban environment. This is all the more important because it has been achieved in a relatively high car owning metropolitan area.
PHOTO 29 False Creek, whilst having abundant gardens and open space, is set within a truly high density, but people-oriented urban environment.
The success of False Creek is confirmed by the ongoing extensions to the area on vacant land used for the 1986 Expo. The approach here, as in the early development, is to ensure that the public areas of the new high density housing complexes are a positive addition to the city which can be used by all residents. They consist of parkland, gardens, boulevardes, cycle facilities, seating and viewing areas on the water and so on, and are linked in a continuous way with other parts of the city so that movement by pedestrians and cyclists can occur with minimum interruption. This extensive public infrastructure is critical to the success of such high density environments and is the first to be laid out and constructed. In the new extensions of False Creek, urban densities will reach over 800 persons per ha, testament to the desirability of the location and the high quality of public environments they will offer.
PHOTO 30 False Creek is being extended and has become one of the world's finest examples of urban village development that delivers, high quality of life, efficiency and greatly reduced auto-dependence.
This development is located in downtown Portland overlooking the Willamette River and consists of a complex of up to 5 storey attractive apartments, small shops and businesses, and a hotel built in the same style as the housing units. The apartments are set amidst good quality gardens and the shops are located under apartments on a pedestrian and cyclist boulevarde overlooking the river. River Place is part of Portland's planning commitment to encouraging greater residential development in the central city area. It shows what can be achieved in terms of good quality compact housing in an urbane, well designed total environment on a very constrained site (which once served partly as a car park).
PHOTO 31 Portland's River Place with its emphasis on walking and cycling and residential development mixed with shops and other uses.
These examples of urban villages are of course not exhaustive. There are many other cities which could have been elaborated. Many sections of Toronto have been built on urban village principles, San Francisco is developing an increasing number of urban village style developments around BART, and Washington DC is also of particular interest as it has reshaped itself in the past two decades around a new rail service with high density urban villages. Most Canadian cities such as Calgary and Edmonton are actively pursuing the development of urban villages around their rail systems with varying degrees of success and Melbourne has an excellent 'Urban Villages' program sponsored by a number of government bodies (Energy Victoria, Environment Protection Authority, Department of Infrastructure, Energy Research and Development Corporation, 1996).
These examples show the extent to which automobile dependence can begin to be substantially altered by a commitment to higher densities and mixed land use based around transit.
 Even though False Creek is presently not linked directly to a rail service, its proximity to a variety of trolley bus routes and its walking/cycling distance to downtown, ensure it works well from a transportation perspective. There are, however plans to link it into a light rail system via an old freight right-of-way which runs at the rear of the development.