In the UK, the ‘compact city’ model for urban development has heavily influenced Urban Renaissance planning policy of the last ten years. This ideal has been greatly simplified and selectively implemented throughout London.
In their paper for the recent 2nd Annual International Conference on Sustainable Architecture and Urban Development, hosted by The Center for the Study of Architecture in the Arab Region and held in Amman, Jordan, Jeff Risom, of Gehl Architects, Copenhagen, and Maria Sisternas, of MedCities, Barcelona, examines the guiding framework for this form of ‘compact city’ policy and offers a critique of some of the approaches to ’compact cities’, that have been put forward in recent years, and in some cases put forward without much critical distance.
In a follow up interview with Risom and Sisternas, by the German infoportal for sustainable business and policy, Nachhaltigkeit.org, the two authors underline that it is not the fundamental idea of a more compact city, that they criticize, but rather what seems to be an unholy alliance between urbanist, promoting densification, and developers aiming to make a buck on the individual site and failing to respect the larger urban needs and challenges of an area. This alliance, it seems, can lead to catastrophic results that eventually make neighborhoods less livable (and sustainable), rather than more livable (and sustainable), in spite of heavy investments in an area.
Some Urban Renaissance policies are reminiscent of the Garden City model put forth 100 years earlier. Jeff Risom and Maria Sisternas paper and presentation in Amman investigates these “sustainable” policies as they manifest themselves specifically through a proposal for a tall building in the Garden City suburb of Ealing.
"The key components of a mixed-use and integrated urban neighborhood", according to Lord Rogers of Riverside - illustration by Andrew Wright Associates
The analysis leads to a critique of regional policy used to designate the scope and scale of development at the local level as it fails to identify key socio-economic and spatial characteristics that contribute to the phenomenology of each specific location. This failure stems from an ideology that is largely rooted in convenient but overly simplified notions of what constitutes ‘urban’ and ‘suburban’ areas.
The paper concludes with two bundles of policy and urban design interventions that address the flawed relationship between the regional and the local, identifying new evaluation criteria, while maintaining the strengths of current policy’s main goals and aspirations.
Speaking about the 2nd Annual International Conference on Sustainable Architecture and Urban Development, Jeff Risom said that,
“In many ways the conference expanded the traditional sustainability debate to include issues of public/private space in predominately muslim portions of North Africa (Sudan and Libya), environmentally sustainable housing in Turkey, and the economic, social, and environmental impact on the sprawling refugee neighborhoods in Amman. This exposure was both a breath of fresh air and at the same time disheartening as it emphasized that several of the issues we tackle in high-income western cities simply aren’t relevant to a vast percentage of the world’s population. In addition to papers regarding technical design solutions to improve mobility and reduce energy consumption of individual buildings and city districts, conference presentations highlighted fundamental obstacles such as illiteracy, poor access to information, lack of democratic transparency and an abundance of corruption that must be addressed in conjunction with good design to achieve truly sustainable development. This notion of removing such obstacles to achieving quality of life as well as designing contextually sensitive interventions will only become increasingly important as we do more work in lower-income countries and in non-western cultures.”
Read the full interview with Jeff Risom and Maria Sisternas in Nachhaltigkeit.org here (in German only).
Check out Risom and Sisternas presentation for the 2nd Annual International Conference on Sustainable Architecture and Urban Development, held in Amman, Jordan, here:
Jeff Risom is MSc of City Design and Social Science, LSE, and is an associate at Gehl Architects in Copenhagen.
Maria Sisternas is MSc of City Design and Social Science, LSE, and works as Urban Development Project Manager at MedCities, Barcelona, a collaboration of Mediterranean cities formed in 1991.
Senior Consultant and Culture & Communications Manager Henning Thomsen from Gehl Architects was on the Scientific Committee for the conference.