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From Life-Filled Imagery to Dead Plazas – Why Cities Need a Place-Driven Future

Does anyone else pay attention to this: many times the renderings of new urban development projects include a plaza or similar open space, sitting somewhere in front or between the proposed new buildings. Scaling purposes aside, the glitzy visualizations paint pictures of future plazas teeming with life. People are lounging around, meeting each other and having a good time, actively engaging in public life.

Kankaan keskusta
The city of Jyväskylä organized an architectural competition in 2016 to compile ideas for shaping the central blocks of their landmark development project Kangas. This one’s the winning entry. Image: Schauman & Nordgren Architects Oy / ApS

But wander off to anywhere in Helsinki (or any Finnish city, really) and you will find dead plazas galore. Reality is far from the imagery. Most of today’s plazas were planned before digital tools came into play and made adding people easy, but the story has been quite the same for a long time: once materialized, our plazas typically end up being void of the public life they’re envisioned to support.

Ruoholahti Square
Helsinki’s Ruoholahti Square (Ruoholahdentori) represents the kind of experience you might expect with the average plaza. See the photo credit link for a 360° view. Photo: Vladimir Kourakevitch

Indeed, the contrast to, for example, the well-known festive atmospheres of Italian life-rich piazzas is striking. They underline how and why public plazas are vital to cities. Like streets, they act as venues for social interactions and activities. It would be superb to spread some of that piazza energy to plazas and squares across Finland, too.

Palermo night life
A snapshot of the weekend crowd in Palermo. The city’s piazzas are the most extreme people magnets I’ve seen. It’s like there was a block party going on throughout the city center every weekend.

Wishful thinking, many say: “forget about it, we don’t have the climate or culture for that kind of vibrancy to happen”.

No, in many ways we don’t. But then again, we do have some examples in our plazascape that are rather alive, too. In Helsinki, Senate Square is where tourists gather to absorb the city’s history. And in wintertime, there are periods with more people at the square than in summer. This is thanks to major events like the Christmas market and LUX Helsinki light festival. Some other plazas or plaza-like spaces are used as popular meeting places. Kallio’s Karhupuisto area and the “steps” next to Kansalaistori square, for example, attract people for casual lingering or to take part in one of many cool grassroots events.

Karhupuisto
The area around Kallio’s Karhupuisto attracts people throughout the non-winter period to chill out on rocks and in the plaza proper. It is also a center of attention to those wishing to take part in many of Helsinki’s new urban events. These folks are enjoying Restaurant Day.

Lifeless plazas are clearly not only about climate and cultural factors. People’s needs to be social are universal.

Obviously, not all urban open spaces are supposed to resemble Italian piazzas at night. But large amounts of paved surface throughout the city without anyone there is hardly a desirable outcome either. In most cases public plazas aren’t urban amenities that add value to neighborhoods if they don’t succeed in bringing people together.

Supporting public life is a topic we must discuss more about. The public and policy atmosphere is shifting towards a future of living in denser and more urban neighborhoods. This makes having high-quality public realms a top priority for livability.

The dead plazas are a symptom of our failures to have any strategies for creating quality places. Thus, thinking about why we have so many of them also helps advance the broader discussion for smarter urban planning.

At the Scale of Blocks

The starting point for our cityscape of dead plazas is that, in recent times, we have never genuinely figured out what to do with them in the first place.

The legacy of building monumental neoclassical squares, a deep love with modernist planning ideals, and the gradual decline of yesterday’s activities in urban open space (different types of markets, etc.), has left downtown Helsinki struggling with a stock of older plazas that are too big and/or not designed to support public life. There has been no real interest in repurposing or reactivating them.

Hakaniemi Square_Signe Brander
Hakaniemi Square in 1913. Photo: Signe Brander/Helsinki City Museum

One example is Hakaniemi Square, which was the main market place on the (then) eastern edge of the city. It was once filled with small shacks selling everyday items and food. Today, that legacy lives on, but the shacks are long gone and replaced by a handful of vegetable stands and cafes in tents. The market activity has diminished, and, unless there’s an occasional larger event, the gigantic space always feels rather empty.

rsz_hakaniemi_square_modern_times
Hakaniemi Square nowadays. Or how it has been for a long time, to be exact. Right now there’s a new temporary market hall in the middle of the plaza because the old one (the smaller red-brick building in the background) is undergoing renovation (see the difference). Following this, one of the tent cafe keepers told me many people now like the plaza and its tent services better because the temporary market has squeezed everything outside it closer together. The atmosphere is more cozy. Maybe it’s not a bad idea to make the concept permanent. Photo: Marco Hannukka

Today, plazas are obviously places that you choose to go rather than must for survival. William H. Whyte, one of the most famous public space researchers, concluded that in modern times a successful plaza is founded on careful user-centered design and programming work. He summarized that people are drawn to places that 1) are generous with inviting options for sitting and relaxing; 2) are easily accessible; 3) offer attractions such as trees, sculptures, food vendors, fountains, etc.; 4) and finally, offer a crucial element he famously put in the following words: “What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people.”

While Whyte underlined the key to sustaining life in plazas is a combination of these elements, ours typically lack most of them, regardless if they’re old or new.

For example, Vaasanpuistikko, the plaza right across the street from my building, is highly accessible and always quite full of people. But not in the same way as at the Italian piazza. Most people are there to rush through the space, not to linger. They’re going in or out of the metro station, visiting the supermarket, or pass by to be someplace else. Or well, some do linger. Vaasanpuistikko is better known as “Piritori” (Speed Market) because drug dealers and junkies, among other marginalized groups, are not easily driven away from these types spaces.

Piritori
Vaasanpuistikko, Vaasanaukio or Piritori, whatever you want to call it, is a plaza I observe every day. It holds great potential to get transformed it into a hangout for a wider group of users. It has very good accessibility, it’s fairly small and the neighborhood is densely populated. It could be popular throughout the year with the right kind of attractions.

Many generally won’t stick around because there are zero places to sit down and activities are scarce. And the local grassroots events scene stays away because it’s too burdensome to get permits etc. for organizing activities.

This obvious lack of attractions, seating and active management isn’t any different from most modern-day plazas. Many of them are built with an emphasis on aesthetics over thinking about their use.

Porvoo Taidetehdas
A random example of an envisioned plaza. This is from the city of Porvoo’s plans to extend its downtown to the west. Note the minimalist design in the rendering. If built as such, experience from elsewhere suggests you’ll find far fewer people here in the future than in the visualization. Image: City of Porvoo

They often end up being large and barren, only covered with stone pavement. A few are more artsy or detail-rich, like the expensive-to-build but no-one-ever-uses-it Tapio Wirkkala park (which I’ve written about before). I mean literally, I’ve yet to see a single person use it for anything other than to take a shortcut through it. Even kids seem to keep away. But hey, it looks nice from high above!

Tapio Wirkkala Park
Tapio Wirkkala Park is a kind of a mixture between a park and a plaza. It’s not really usable either way. The space is an extreme example of what can come out when the design professions are in control.

The problem is that the process of designing or managing public spaces is dominantly a top-down exercise. The user perspective isn’t truly included. Often this approach fails, no matter how much money you pour into the (re)creation of a plaza.

Gdansk Tactical Urbanism
The Targ Weglowy Square in Gdansk, Poland, was a long-standing parking lot until the city decided to get rid of the cars. Later on, the local Gdyby group launched a project to take over the barren plaza with light urban furniture and activities to begin iterating future possibilities. Photo: Gdyby group

A better strategy would be to focus on the opposite: to work through community involvement and trial & error. This entails starting with small and temporary interventions to iterate for site-specific solutions. Probably minimalist landscaping design isn’t one. Especially when enlivening existing plazas, their programming and management should be handed over to local actors as much as possible.

Some form of design policy would also help to, for example, ensure new plazas aren’t built too vast to sustain a cozy atmosphere in them.

At the Scale of Neighborhoods

Just focusing on enlivening our current plazas and making sure we create people-friendly new ones isn’t going to be enough. Another dimension to the dead plaza problem is that we may be building too many. This might sound a bit odd, but bear with me.

Almost any random plan proposing more than one or two buildings could be chosen as an example, but let’s look at a well-known one from Arabianranta. In this new-ish suburb the real estate owner has an ambitious plan to make the heart of the area, the Arabia factory block, more downtown-like by adding apartments and offices. An architecture competition was launched to get ideas for the intensification. Unsurprisingly, all finalist entries suggested the establishment of a new (vibrant) central plaza. (I’m not sure if including a plaza was a competition rule or not).

Arabia renderings
Plaza and public life scenery from the winning entries of the Arabia 135 competition. Left is “Kilta” by Verstas Arkkitehdit and on the right “Frank” by Anttinen Oiva Arkkitehdit.

And why not? Most entries did suggest adding highrises to the very large and already built up block. A plaza would soften and balance the infill. It does sound like a smart idea.

However, when you zoom out a bit, the question of adding a new plaza becomes more complex. The surroundings of the competition area aren’t exactly lacking plazas or urban open spaces. By only circling the block you will find at least 10 of them (this includes Tapio Wirkkala park). Many don’t have a clear purpose or any users in sight.

Arabia Plazas gallery 1
Some of the plazascape attached to the Arabia Factory block. I kind of felt sorry for that foodtruck guy. Most of the time it was just him and that very strange plaza.

The new project will eventually add more people to the area, but, by also adding another plaza, the plaza-to-people ratio will remain unfavorable. It’s difficult to see how the public life in the renderings will become a reality with all this plaza space and low density.

Arabia Plazas gallery 2
More of the plazascape attached to the Arabia Factory block. The second one from the left is a bit iffy to include in this collage: it’s an empty lot that some people use for urban gardening.

Arabianranta is of course one example among many. I touched upon another similar case when writing about an idea competition to transform a big parking lot into mixed use urban blocks in Myyrmäki:

“And while on the topic of plazas, there really is no shortage of them in Myyrmäki. Just around Myyrmäki railway stop there are altogether four different plazas – or five if you count the temporary event space created by the community. On a sunny end-of-summer Saturday afternoon most of them were completely empty. Regardless of this, some of the retrofit proposals include renderings of new plazas. Makes you wonder if they’ve actually been to the area. No more underperforming squares, thanks!”

Myrtsi_Tori galore
Plaza galore in Myyrmäki.

The underlying problem is that the managers of urban infill projects have good intentions to provide new public spaces, but no one effectively manages public space at the scale of the entire neighborhood. Currently it’s not very clear what urban form or community-related goals (beyond adding housing, jobs, and services) individual projects should help to accomplish.

Myrtsi_No more plazas
Of course the Myyrmäki competition entries all pretty much suggested to add a plaza or two. In this winning one, a new plaza would be added even though there are plazas already around. To be sure there’s enough open space,  they’ve also designed parks and open courtyards. And in the renderings, naturally, all are filled with life. Base image by Innovarch Oy

As a result, architectural competitions and detailed plans are reviewed and processed individually. This increases pressure for each of them “needing” to prove the public good is not forgotten. It may be tempting to include that wonderful plaza.

Something like strategic neighborhood-level visions would help, but they don’t exist. With every new development project, it’s worthwhile to stop and ask whether that new plaza in it is really needed. Likely, the neighborhood already has a few lifeless plazas waiting to benefit from an increase in density. Some form of catchment analysis is usually done with other services, why not extend it to plazas as well?

In some rare cases, it could even be considered that an existing underperforming plaza gets developed or repurposed for the sake of the whole. This will of course not be an easy task.

At the Scale of Cities

The things we build around plazas must also be considered. With completely new neighborhoods the number and location of plazas at least should be easy to solve, right? Maybe in theory, but practice shows that also these masterplanned projects often fail to establish frameworks that support vibrant public life.

The brownfield site Jätkäsaari is a good lens to look at this. Especially because it is built as a direct extension to downtown Helsinki and with an ambition to make the area also feel like that. The foreseen hustle and bustle is facilitated by e.g. increased density and attempting a revival of the perimeter block.

Jätkis1
One of the new plazas in Jätkäsaari. At least there is a bench for sitting down. Not sure why many would, though.

The feature of interest there is a pedestrian alley that runs between a few of the blocks and connects a string of four small plazas. In terms of massing and plaza dimensions there is a true sense of cityness in the air. Many local urbanists consider this setting a sign of hope that the urban is finally returning into urban planning.

But there’s a problem in paradise. The plazas are just as dead as elsewhere. I of course don’t expect to find Times Square here, but getting some “urban feel” would need a little public life around, too.

Jätkis2
Up the alley, another exciting plaza.

The entire area is not yet finished, but already now it’s quite evident that the vibrancy is unlikely to emerge. The dimensions of the plazas may be spot on, but their edges are mostly blank walls. I mean there are doors to apartment buildings, bike storage, and other technical facilities, but few possibilities for establishing services to make the plazas a destination people would want to reach.

Passersby will also be few. Jätkäsaari may be denser than most new neighborhoods, but the area around the plazas is overwhelmingly residential. Areas without a diversity of uses are likely to be empty for most of the day. There is little reason to be in Jätkäsaari unless you live there.

Jätkis3
This one’s got the most promising shop space on one of its edges for adding some chairs and tables to the plaza. To have at least something other than a big sliced egg. Now the shop space is occupied by a beauty salon.

The number one fan of chaotic street life, Jane Jacobs, warned not to approach planning with simple or piecemeal solutions. To create or sustain urban vibrancy, she argued for a deep understanding of many interrelated elements like a mix of uses, small blocks, density, and many more. Jacobs’s teachings are a bit like scaling Whyte’s analysis of successful plazas to the neighborhood level.

From this perspective, Jätkäsaari’s development doesn’t look very promising. First, architects and planners designed an entire area for 18 000 residents in their separate offices (and made sure it will become helicopter-view friendly). Then developers/builders took over, opened an excel spreadsheet, and started working with pre-destined land uses, gross floor areas, and parking. Urban life has a low priority, if a priority at all.

Jätkis4
The plaza closest to the harbor is more like a widening of the street or an intersection. I don’t know if that has been the plan or not. But someone drew it in line with the other plazas.

Ideally, the process would begin with the consideration of the public realm and what’s needed to ensure the neighborhood becomes attractive for 21st century urban dwellers. Designing the rest will follow later. An even better idea would be to get rid of the centralized design-and-build-from-scratch model altogether. And begin building cities in small increments and with small developers.

A Shift Towards Creating Places

There are surely many other things that contribute to the landscape of lifeless plazas as well. But the main point is that it’s not a very easy problem to solve with today’s planning methods.

The plazas that do manage to bring people together or have the greatest revitalization potential are in the older parts of our cities. These neighborhoods have grown organically and through times when street life was abundant due to necessary everyday activities. Public life was at the core of city shaping.

Now urban spaces are generated following a very different logic. Today’s city and plaza-building would benefit greatly if there was more multi-scale thinking involved. And at each scale, our priorities must be reconsidered, too. “Italian piazzas” are unlikely to happen if we don’t center having them as a goal and align everything else to work in that direction.

HBP
In Helsinki’s Herttoniemi neighborhood, I’m currently working with a project where we’re testing what happens if we try to apply a more place-led approach and create a vision for the area together with the community and public officials. Ideally, the conditions for having more public life and things like Herttoniemi Block Party will improve in the long run. Photo: Herttoniemi Block Party Instagram

It’s not going to be easy or quick. A place-led approach will require making our governance and planning models more horizontal. Otherwise we won’t be able to tackle all the interrelated dimensions that feed into the process of creating places. Helsinki’s new organizational structure, based on squeezing around 30 isolated departments into four thematic divisions, is a welcome step in the right direction.

To deliver great public plazas, we’d still need the divisions to work together and to partner up with community members and the development industry. Placemaking is a collective effort.

Until then, it’s healthy to be skeptical about the future those renderings of bustling public plazas promise to deliver.

Urban Lessons from Naples, Potenza and Matera

This summer’s visit to southern Italy for a project meeting was a great opportunity to include a few extra days for absorbing local urban experiences. Italy is one of the most-studied scenes in the world among urbanists. Not to mention architecture lovers.

Like so many after their travels to Italy, I also felt compelled to share my experiences and continue my article series on ideas worth stealing (or not) from other cities around the globe. (See the previous ones on Tokyo & Hong Kong here and Istanbul here). Continue reading Urban Lessons from Naples, Potenza and Matera

Global warming is slowly changing life in Finnish cities

Fighting climate change is unavoidable to save the planet. But for everyday life, the future has already arrived in urban Finland. To soften global warming’s impact on social sustainability, cities need to get active about adapting and keeping traditions going.

Finland’s chilly temperatures this summer have inspired many to talk about global warming. They’ve called it off, the typical joke goes. Obviously, they have not. While us Helsinkians needed to resort to our spring jackets in June, globally it was the fourth-warmest June in 137 years of modern record-keeping. Continue reading Global warming is slowly changing life in Finnish cities

Urban Lessons from Hong Kong and Tokyo

One of the best things is flaneuring across cities around the world. They’re all different, yet remarkably similar. It’s the perfect opportunity for reflecting how your own city or cities compare. Two places I’ve recently had the pleasure of exploring are Hong Kong and Tokyo.

These Far East mega cities may seem an odd couple at first, but there’s a key theme they share: they’ve been built over and over again. Hardcore redevelopment is part of their DNA. Continue reading Urban Lessons from Hong Kong and Tokyo

The Quest for Terrific Courtyards in Creating High-Class Density

Kallio, my neighborhood in central Helsinki is a fantastic and lively place to live in. Most services are within a couple of blocks, there are plenty of bars and restaurants to choose from, you can hang out in a number of characteristic parks, and the connections to elsewhere in Helsinki are superb. There’s little to complain about.

Except there’s one thing. When I’m feeling too lazy to go out to the park or the weather’s a bit unpredictable, I often envy my friends who have the luxury to lounge on their balcony or in their yard. I live in a building from the 1930s that doesn’t have balconies and I can’t really resort to the yard option either. Continue reading The Quest for Terrific Courtyards in Creating High-Class Density

Making Downtown Helsinki more Walkable – It’s Time for a Grassroots Revolution

The latest episode in my series of DIY urban planning efforts is out.

With my Urban Helsinki team members we’ve already crafted urbanist proposals on a detailed level for a site in the future expansion zone of Helsinki’s inner city. And on a city-wide level with an alternative Helsinki master plan.

The focus has dominantly been on questions related to new neighborhoods. As many choose urban living over suburbia today, we’ve emphasized the need for high-quality urban environments for a new generation of city dwellers. Not to mention the need for decreasing mobility footprints by increasing the “walkability” and “bikeability” of our urban areas (= more walking and biking, less driving). Continue reading Making Downtown Helsinki more Walkable – It’s Time for a Grassroots Revolution

Could Your City Benefit from DIY Urban Planning? Yes, the Experience from Pro Helsinki 2.0 Suggests

It’s been a bit more than a year since I and my urbanist comrades accomplished one of the most exciting things ever – well, at least as far as urban planning goes. Following about 10 months of work during evenings, weekends, and holidays, in October 2014 we finally published Pro Helsinki 2.0, the alternative master plan for Helsinki.

For those not familiar with the project, head here to learn more about its contents. But in short, it’s a DIY urbanism initiative that emerged out of a need to diversify discussions around Helsinki’s official new master plan project. And, essentially, to propose something better than the city administration is. Pro Helsinki 2.0 illustrates how Helsinki could develop in a more sustainable way than its counterpart and offer more choice to the housing market by reviving the urban block. Continue reading Could Your City Benefit from DIY Urban Planning? Yes, the Experience from Pro Helsinki 2.0 Suggests

Retrofitting Suburbia – A New Life for Vantaa’s Myyrmäki

Goodbye underperforming asphalt. Bringing urban feel to the suburbs is now officially on the horizon in the Helsinki area.

In September a community-based do-it-yourself initiative called Myyrmäki-liike (Myyrmäki Movement) invited me to talk about contemporary urban development trends. They had staged an event to generate discussion around a set of nine proposals to transformation the commercial center of Myyrmäki, a 1970s & 80s railway suburb in Vantaa. The goal is to retrofit a big parking lot into mixed-use urban blocks.

I didn’t hesitate to accept the invite because there’s a lot to get excited about in this project. Continue reading Retrofitting Suburbia – A New Life for Vantaa’s Myyrmäki

Could Europe’s Refugee Influx Trigger a Shift Towards Leaner Urban Policies?

The sudden need to make room for asylum-seekers may gather momentum for inventing new ways to solve housing shortages in Finland’s growth centers.

Urbanization is a highly transformative force in Finland. Our seven biggest urban centers are projected to grow by one million new residents by 2050 thanks to rural-to-urban migration, the geography of natural population growth and immigration. This means cities are facing a need to find strategies for realizing about half a million new dwellings already by 2030. Continue reading Could Europe’s Refugee Influx Trigger a Shift Towards Leaner Urban Policies?

Intelligent Mobility and the Long Walk to Freedom from Cars

Finland’s revolutionary aim to curb car ownership with driverless cars and MaaS mustn’t evolve into an excuse for not making better cities.

Finland and especially Helsinki have lately received a fair share of global media attention thanks to ambitious plans for bettering urban life by making car ownership obsolete in the next decade. Or “to fill in those gaps in door-to-door mobility which lead us to choose our cars“, like Anne Berner, Finland’s Minister of Transport and Communications recently summarized the aim.

The number one avenue for making this vision real is revolutionizing the transportation system through welcoming digitalization and new technology. Going high-tech and getting serious with intelligent mobility.

The timing is certainly ideal. The nation’s youth seem more interested in smartphone ownership than car ownership – or even getting a license in the first place. Furthermore, servicization has changed the way we do business and the more recent phenomenon known as the “sharing economy” is altering the value of ownership. Not to mention that open data platforms are popping up everywhere to fuel the smart city progression.

To get on the intelligent mobility bandwagon, the focus within Finland’s transportation policy circles seems to be buzzing around two main pillars.

Kutsuplus Service.
Helsinki’s Kutsuplus service is an on-demand minibus. A bit like a public taxi. It’s one of the first experiments in Finland that tries to make transportation more connected to your smartphone. Image: HRT.

First, there’s an idea to transform the way we consume transportation services called Mobility as a Service (MaaS). It was introduced to the wider public in 2014 by Sonja Heikkilä as a new model how Helsinki could upgrade its transportation system. The idea has quickly diffused to other cities around the country, too. And this summer, Finland’s new central government is already thinking about how the state could help with advancing MaaS.

The main idea behind MaaS is to introduce one stop shops for transportation services. For customers, a single interface (an app or website) would thus serve as both travel planner and payment platform, integrating for example the use of public transportation, city bikes, shared rides, rental cars, and long-distance trains to one seamless mobility chain. Moving around could be sold based on usage or in bundles, much like the services on your mobile phone plan. Even delivery services could be included so you wouldn’t need to travel to get something if you didn’t feel like it.

Autonomous vehicles in Vantaa.
Autonomous vehicles were experimented in Vantaa this summer as part of the CityMobil2 project. I got to take a ride too. The setting in this photo displays one problem we may have with driverless cars in the future: we’ll want to keep them separated from people.

A parallel, but profoundly connected, idea to MaaS is the adoption of autonomous vehicles. In terms of urban transportation, driverless cars are specifically envisioned to be the primary provider of shared rides in the future. These may either come in the form of on-demand public transportation services, such as Helsinki’s already-operating Kutsuplus mini-bus service, or smaller private vehicles like taxis and/or via Uber-like services. Or all of them.

The vision for going “car-free” is based on assumptions that ride-sharing and car sharing could take cars of the streets. And driverless cars could amplify this with their promise of super efficiency. Now our non-autonomous cars are idle for 96% of their time. According to OECD estimates, a scenario like this could result in a 90% reduction in the number of cars on the street. This would leave 80% of the parking space we now need obsolete. An added benefit is that autonomous vehicles are also predicted to decrease the amount of accidents. There would be less human involvement messing things up.

Cars are idle much of their time.
This is how cars spend 96% of their day.

The benefits of Finland’s digitalization plans stretch beyond the issue of car ownership. For people, it could offer seamless multimodal trip-making, better way-finding, and thanks to increased competition between transportation service providers, personalized and more user-friendly services.

ICT companies are looking at opportunities to make big bucks. The value of the Finnish transportation sector is estimated at about 50 billion euros. Digital services have largely yet to enter this market. So figuring out a successful business model can take you to the stars.

For the public sector, new business of course means more resources. But intelligent mobility could also cut costs with more efficient infrastructure usage and better system management. This would enable allocating resources for services that need most support.

The cherry on top of the intelligent mobility vision is the urbanist’s daydream. A city with fewer cars and less traffic opens up avenues for giving more space to people as e.g. valuable urban space needn’t be turned into parking lots anymore.

The transportation people certainly have ambitious plans and with good goals. Digitalization and new technology are definitely one side of going car-free. But just one. There’s a low-tech side, too.

Prioritizing walking to discourage driving

This summer I toured the Philippines and got to experience the streets of Manila. The megacity infamous for its traffic problems. The Lonely Planet puts it well when they warn that “traffic is the big annoyance in Manila: you’ll probably spend half your time either stuck in it or talking about it”.

Traffic gets bad in Manila.
Traffic gets bad in Manila. And it’s at times very difficult to get across these monster streets.

It’s very hard to walk to many places, because there are cars everywhere. But it’s equally hard to get anywhere by car because there are cars everywhere. If traffic would get any worse, the city would just be one massive outdoor car park. Undeniably, Manila is a prime example of how a city gets completely choked if there is no efficient and comprehensive mass transportation for everyone.

Asking around, the traffic problems also very much irritate locals. Especially the dreadful commutes that mean early mornings, late evenings and a lot of time wasted sitting in vehicles of different sorts. However, at a canyoning adventure in Cebu, I ran into one exception. A woman from Manila told me she is happily free from much of these commuting worries because she has the luxury of being able to walk to work. A privilege she wouldn’t give up for the world.

Indeed, as it was for her, for many people walking is the most convenient form of transportation. Walking is the oldest and most natural way for humans to move around. All you really need is shoes. There is no need to find parking, no schedule to figure out, and no tickets to buy. Walking is true freedom.

Kallio Block Party.
This summer Kallio Block Party transformed closed down the streets close to where I live. This kind of Tactical Urbanism is a good way to remind people how space could also be used if it wasn’t just in the use of cars all the time.

Just like apps and self-driving cars, also “walkability” is creating excitement as an idea to curb driving. The walkable city is a strategy where the work of land-use planners, urban designers and transportation planners are integrated to create dense, mixed-use development patterns.  For many, car ownership becomes pointless because everything you need is within easy reach.

The benefits of prioritizing walking, cycling and transit over driving are essentially the same as in the intelligent mobility visions: moving more people using less money and less space.

With walkable cities, emphasis is not in the digital but the physical. And that’s a whole art of its own. Because cities are complex, there however is no single blueprint for creating walkable places. Multiple aspects contribute to a great walking experience. In his “General Theory of Walkability”, Jeff Speck  tries to crystallize what it’s all about by summing up that walkers are attracted by places which provide a walk that is simultaneously useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. Each of these qualities is essential and none alone is sufficient.

The walkable city concept is also catching on in Finland. Helsinki for one has ambitious goals in the air for making it possible to reach destinations with just your feet. In its new draft city plan, Helsinki views for expanding the inner city and retrofitting a number of cars-only highways to walkable boulevards.

Helsinki's visions for the future.
Helsinki dreams about transforming a bunch of highways into boulevards in the future. If all goes well, they should definitely enhance walkability. Image: City of Helsinki.

So all in all, looks like all is well and Finland’s urban landscape has cozy, car-ownership free cities on the horizon. Right?

How high is walking on the intelligent mobility agenda?

I can’t say I’m fully convinced. A massive part of the great visions for making car ownership obsolete is fixing the original problem of why so many need to own – and use – cars in the first place. Otherwise the situation is like Brent Toderian wrote in his open letter to Perth: “It’s kind of a cruel joke to design a suburb for cars and then tell everyone they should be walking, biking and taking public transportation more.”

And there’s work to be done on that side of the field. The truth is that thanks to a long era of making life easy for the automobile, only a tiny fraction of our urban areas constitute as walkable places. And similarly, our planning culture has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to progressing walkable cities – especially for those parties in the planning sphere who deal with mobility.

Just a couple of weeks before taking off for the Philippines I took part in a workshop set up by urban planning activists to generate ideas for designing downtown Helsinki  to become more attractive. Even if Helsinki is no Manila, the number one issue that was discussed was the need to prioritize pedestrians over cars.

Many deemed the pedestrian experience unpleasant due to noise resulting from unnecessary through traffic in several places around the center, poor pedestrian access, surface parking lots, and generally, the excess space allocated just for cars.

In Anna's doctoral thesis, the areas around Jumbo where found least walkable.
In her new PhD thesis, Anna Broberg’s research concluded that the areas around Jumbo shopping mall in Vantaa were the least walkable. The image tells more than a thousand words. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

And it’s not really unclear why. In their study on the utilization of cycling and walking potential in Finnish cities between 2009 and 2013, The Transport Research Centre Verne of Tampere University of Technology notes that: “Yet, even today, walking is not seen as a transport mode in its own right with a legitimate role in modern transport systems and urban planning. Equally surprising is the fact that there is not a lot of support material available for the pedestrian area planners.

Helsinki’s most recent report analyzing the development of traffic in the city paints a good picture of how close those working with transportation are to the idea of progressing walkable cities: it mentions pedestrians once. There are 52 pages. Cycling gets awarded four pages and  the rest is centered around motorized traffic.

Measure what you treasure, the saying goes.

And it certainly doesn’t get any better when you climb up the ladder of transport modes. There’s only one modern-ish bike share system in Finland. The Tampere City Bike system was installed in 2013. Yes, that’s right. Just one emerging system.

Sometimes even already approved plans for building proper bike lanes get built as something completely else.
This street in Helsinki’s Kalasatama was supposed to have separated one-way bike lanes on each side of the street. The kind all cyclists pressure the city of Helsinki to build. The plans were approved and all, but what materialized was one two-way bike line that cuts the sidewalk into half. This was in 2013. I wonder what would happen if we just decided not to build a couple of lanes on a highway?

Cycling advocates around the country have tirelessly tried to fight against traffic engineers for decent bike lanes and paths. This is especially a problem in denser urban contexts where the conventional suburban style of excessively separating vehicular traffic and walking/cycling to their own roadways can’t be done due to space constraints.

To my experience, despite the pretty outspoken goals of freeing us from the nuisances of needing to own cars, much of the tech visioning within the transportation circles is way too disinterested about integrating the enormous amount of work that still needs to be done with the physical realities of our cities to their future scenarios. Apps are not going to help you ride a bike to the nearest transit stop if the physical infrastructure doesn’t exist.

This also casts a shadow over the walkable city ambitions. We know from the auto-era that transportation policy-makers need to be on board if we are to encourage inwards-directed urban growth. Otherwise things can go very wrong.

Integrating the high-tech with the low-tech

Before moving on, I first must stress that to some extent this whole discussion on technology revolutionizing the transportation sector in the ways described, is theoretical. Who would have guessed we now have smartphones but still don’t have electric cars even though the technology was invented in the 19th century? In the same way, we don’t know what will happen with e.g. the driverless car. But it is nonetheless fun to speculate. And anyways, official policies are already made based on assumptions that all this new transportation-related technology will be ubiquitous sooner than we know it. So we also better be proactive with designing control measures to keep things going so that everyone wins.

University of Michigan.
This is a ghost town, built just for testing driverless cars. Image courtesy of the University of Michigan.

So, back to my story. What should we be doing then?

Along with the obvious must-haves of prioritizing transportation the right way (walking first) and making sure we’re making dense, mixed-use neighborhoods that can support transit and services, here are some ideas of what I gather we should be thinking about when adapting our urban policies towards the walkable city in the new age of transportation:

Overhauling zoning and building regulations

A huge obstacle for creating cities where you don’t need to own a car is a bunch of norms and regulations that make the creation of walkable cities impossible. At the moment it would be illegal to build anything comparable to Helsinki’s most walkable neighborhoods. The national and local regulatory frameworks have been summoned by well-meaning authorities from various departments to solve singular problems in their line of work. But when these regulations are put together, they effectively block all attempts for applying time-tested urbanism. The kind that will attract people to walk.

Reducing asphalt

Cars once took us to our destinations much faster and conveniently, but we took it too far (just ask the folk in Manila) and are now trying to get rid of them. With the advent of autonomous vehicles and more efficient vehicle-based mobility in general, we need to be careful that we’re not repeating the same mistakes again.

We know from experience that more asphalt leads to more cars and traffic. While we’re trying to make today’s traffic flows more efficient by having commuters share rides, there’s a chance we may be making room for other kinds of traffic. Moreover, with driverless cars also those who don’t have a license could theoretically become “drivers”. And as a safety measure, authorities may be inclined to segregate pedestrians and cyclists from the robocars to keep their flow undisturbed.

Things may go wrong with driverless cars.
Things may go wrong with driverless cars.Image by Copenhagenize.

We know how this ends. Soon we’ll be demanding for new roads and real-estate developers will start taking advantage of easily accessible cheap land. This will all encourage further dispersal and, ultimately, we’ll have even less reasons to walk.

Getting rid of car ownership through digitalization and technology is not enough on its own. We need to couple the vision with a strategy to stop building new road capacity and gradually plan for road diets where it makes sense.

Incentivizing smarter ways of getting around

Besides just making cities denser, we also need to streamline our institutional approach to driving. Key is to incentivize transportation modes based on their cost and space efficiency. Right now there is institutional support for driving in the form of tax breaks, allocation of infrastructure investments and so on. At the same time, driving is causing environmental damage and has negative health impacts. Altogether, driving appears much cheaper than it is. This needs to be reversed.

And while on the topic of public transportation, we should also think where it makes sense to use on-demand public transportation. Here in Helsinki, Kutsuplus is now for the most part servicing the densest and most walkable corners of the city. But only a few use it. This is not because people aren’t fond of the concept. I find that most people don’t use it simply because they don’t need it. I for one never do. All my destinations are within easy reach by either walking or scheduled mass transit. Both options are more convenient than using Kutsuplus. A point-to-point service is inconvenient especially if you want to get a coffee on the way or just experience the city. So maybe we ought to be figuring out what are the geographical areas where the concept is most useful.

Sometimes you may want to sit down while going from place to place.
Sometimes going from A to B can get distracted by something on the way. I wonder how they try to anticipate this in all those traffic models? The more we have walkable cities, the more complex our mobility becomes.
Encouraging infill development

For years, there has been a lot of talk about intensifying already built-up areas all around Finnish cities. But in large scale this has never happened and most new construction is still further dispersal to greenfield sites. The promise of fewer cars will however open new avenues and needs for making it happen. There are at least three transportation-related things we could do.

First, since we don’t need to build new roads, cities can let go of old road infrastructure reservations. Every larger city has a road project or two that are freezing attempts for adding density.

Second, we can reduce surface parking. We should start with places that either have most potential for infill purposes or for increasing high-quality open space in the city.

One of Helsinki's top tourist attractions, the South Harbor area and Market Square are now in very smart use.
One of Helsinki’s top tourist attractions, the South Harbor area and Market Square are now partially in very smart use.

And third, we should uncouple parking from building. Underground parking can cost as much 50 000€ per parking spot in an underground garage.  Overall, the math is simple. Building dense is just not possible, because the more you build, the more parking spaces you need to build. And that gets expensive for everyone. Except superficially to those who drive.

Figuring out a model to keep delivery traffic in control

E-commerce is on a path towards creating unnecessary traffic, pollution and nuisance. If we were to have further automation in the delivery process and will continue to have free return policies, the parcel business could boost traffic flows considerably as stuff would move in and out of homes favoring online shopping much more often.

We need to invent and pilot smart models for accommodating this in the walkable city. Maybe bike or other low impact kind of messengers? And of course there’s PiggyBaggy, the Uber of deliveries to help.

Whatever it may be, if the digital vision does in fact create less need for parking facilities, emptying underground parking garages in city centers could connect to the world of delivery traffic.

Getting serious about cycling

This is part incentivizing, but I wanted to give bikes their own point. Because the issue is simple: there is no way out of pulling the brakes on discouraging cycling. If the bicycle is an integral part of multimodal traveling, we need to make them happen. This means bike share systems, building cycling-friendly urban infrastructure; including making all transit stations bike-interchange friendly.

This list could probably go on endlessly, but my point is that the well-known wisdom of the trade is that land-use planning and transportation planning are not different things, but the essence of city planning.

If we want seamless mobility and livable car-free cities on the horizon, we need to be making sure there’s enough brainpower, energy and resources being invested in both the low-tech and high-tech dimensions of those places. That means progressing world-class pedestrian, cycling and transit conditions – not just new apps and driverless vehicles.

I don’t want to see MaaS, driverless cars or any other intelligent mobility vision evolve into another excuse for not making better cities.