Essay: How Copenhagen is providing a blueprint for the future of sustainable cities

As cities grow larger, urbanization exponentially expands through the world and a consumerist economy prevails, human species is constantly putting more pressure on the planet. Advancing climate change and our dependence on non- renewable fossil fuels are urging us to take action, which is where sustainability comes in.

Introducing the key aspects laid down by various theorists on urban sustainability, this essay will look at the specific case of the city of Copenhagen, which has been a milestone in applying these principles. Taking three projects of urban development, namely the Amager Bakke Resource Centre, the plan for future growth of the Copenhagen area ‘Loop City’ and the urban transformation project of Nordhavn, as examples, the aim is to evidence how architects, planners and governmental institutions are acknowledging sustainability as key to bring along a positive future. Continue reading

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The Future of the Megacity

When looking at the definition of the term ‘megacity’, we can observe an upward trend in numbers, again the development of our world is described by the word ‘more’. What was ‘mega’ 30 years ago, is to be considered only relatively big today. In the 1980s, a city with a population of 5 million people was accepted to be big enough to be called a ‘megacity’. Today the number doubled and a megacity has 10 million (or more) inhabitants.

Interestingly, poorer cities are growing far more rapidly than the more established and wealthier megacities, leading to a geographical shift of most meagcities being located in the global South. We can observe a difference in the social and economic drivers behind the growth of the cities: if in the 19th and 20th century the largest cities in the North placed their focus on major infrastructure by building roads, schools and hospitals, today the cities in the global South are growing exponentially in their informal parts, where there is no access to education and healthcare, and attract people who escape from rural poverty and conflict. Hence, it comes to the formation of a social and economic barrier between the formal and informal parts of the city, with the latter often being even more numerous than the former. As a consequence, ‘informal citizens’ often develop alternative and illicit forms of economy, and communities establish their own rules – unconventional ways of living emerge. We may judge them as chaotic but they still seem to function in those realities.

Cities such as Mumbai and Lagos, also referred to as ‘immature megacities’, are prominent examples of cities facing the split between irrational and rational, raising important questions on urban planning and the future and consolidation of megacities. In the article El Sur Global: Future Resilient City Brillembourg, Klumpner and Kalagas (2015) reflect upon how to tackle the struggles cities are encountering in responding to the unfolding realities of informal cities and favelas. Questioning the role of the architect in such cities, they embrace the vision of John Habraken “a future where architects would design building frameworks while residents assumed responsibility for customised infill development over time”. When discussing sustainability, they address the social dimension of it, stressing that social needs must be “translated into physical form” (Brillembourg,Klumpner and Kalagas, 2015). Therefore the answer lies in the concept of open buildings, mixed-use, reversible structures able to adapt and respond to the constant changing needs of the city inhabitants. Ultimately “a design mechanism to create and foster productive urban growth.” (Brillembourg,Klumpner and Kalagas, 2015).

I found the arguments and solutions suggested by Brillembourg,Klumpner and Kalagas thought provoking and many were new to me. I had never thought of the social component of sustainability, probably because environmental issues generally shout louder at me than social ones. Although informal cities and favelas are a reality far away from our daily lives, they are still present and the social inequalities within many big cities are becoming greater. We have to think about how to solve the already existing problems and carefully plan to avoid them in the future.

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High Rise City

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20 Fenchurch Street, or the ‘Walkie Talkie’, ‘Walkie Scorchie’ or ‘Fryscraper’ – call it how you wish, is a 160 meters high skyscraper located in the City of London. Designed by architect Rafael Viñoly and completed in 2014, it offers 34 storeys of office space and other top three floors dedicated to the ‘Skygarden’. It raised many controversies concerning its design, considered to be particularly bad by many architecture critics, and also for the accessibility and organisation of the Skygarden in particular.

Due to its distinctive top-heavy form which bursts upward and outward, floor space towards the top, where rent is typically higher, increases. To access the ‘public’ roof garden, online booking is mandatory, and sometimes a few days in advance are not enough to secure one’s visit. Security check and metal-detectors at the entrance and a long list of The Skygarden vistior rules and regulations , including point such as:

“Visitors arriving early may not be permitted to wait in the Sky Garden entrance lobby.”

and

“the length of time visitors without restaurant reservations may remain in the Sky Garden to 1 hour after their booked entry time.”

may transform a visit to the space in something rather resembling a luxury prison.

In 2015 the building was awarded the Carbuncle Cup, an annual architecture prize, by the magazine Building Design to the ugliest building in the United Kingdom. It was particularly judged as ‘bad design’, because in Summer 2013, while still being under construction, the building acted as a concave mirror when the sun shined directly into it. As a consequence, the reflected light was up to six times brighter than direct sunlight, making the temperature around it rise ridiculously and causing severe damage to parked vehicles in the streets underneath.

Given this information about the building, broader questions arise, which fall into the wider context of the future of our cities. Two major aspects must be taken into consideration when talking about city planning: responding to the housing crisis, which is beyond critical, and sustainability.

A common belief is shared that dense cities have a lower ecological footprint, therefore building towards the sky and concentrating more people on less land, seems like a straightforward answer to sustainability within urban spaces. However, this is true to a certain extent. In fact, as Jane Wernick (2012) argues, “density isn’t a valid excuse for tall buildings”; on the contrary, tall buildings make a greater use of resources both for its construction and functioning in proportion to shorter ones. Moreover, high buildings have negative effects on their neighbours and life on the street level around them: they cast large shadows, produce wind tunnel effects and ‘Canyon Effects’ (pollution from motor vehicles are trapped and concentrated at street level).

When visiting the Skygarden what I really wondered was the usefulness of the space and the building as a whole. The Skygarden is a anything but a public garden; it is just a fancy place like many others to have a coffee and enjoy a beautiful view. Which is fine, but is a  project like really worth £200 million?! What has it given to the city and to the people that live in it? It is just one more entry in the list of iconic postmodern buildings in London that strangely enough attract unreal investments when normal people, not just lower working class, are struggling to find affordable places to live in. Besides, what is the effect of the Carbuncle Cup? Ultimately, it just contributed to increase the building’s notoriety, but in the end the building is still there, pompously standing in the city’s pulsing heart.

So, when commenting on the ‘victory’ of 20 Fenchurch Street, Ned Beauman (2015) could not be more right when he says “It’s an acknowledgment that opinion, taste, criticism and debate are really no more than epiphenomenal spume. That is almost universally the case, but architecture is the field in which it’s most obvious, for the simple reason that architecture involves the erection of gigantic physical indicators, visible for miles, unignorable, undeniable.[…] What the Shard proves about money is only that there is a lot of it around. What the Walkie Talkie proves about money is that we have lost the ability to say no to it, even when it howls giddy demands at us like an addled drug lord riding a zebra through the corridors of his palace.”

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Big Bang Data

“New technologies can’t solve what are essentially political questions about power and rights” (Marshall, A. 2014 p.87).

In fact, technology and the data it produces can give new tools to political power and poses threats to civil and personal rights. This is among some of the aspects challenged and  questioned by the work of over fifty artists, designers and innovators at the exhibition Big Bang Data held at Somerset House. The Digital Age we are experiencing today shows a change in how we are living our lives: we are using technology more than ever and the data produced daily has reached unprecedented rates – leading to a ‘Big Bang’ of data. Both our relentless online activity and the signal released constantly by the sensors of our smart devices, have given a new scope to the variety and speed of the data produced. At the heart of the issue lies the dichotomy of the opportunity we are given to make our lives “smarter” and how data can also be used against us and influence our future negatively. What is our relationship to data?

The exhibition is organised in sections, all showing work related to a more specific aspect of data. I was particularly struck by The Weight of the Cloud – Emerging geographies of data; the pieces displayed here aim to dismantle the common belief that ‘the cloud’- the generic term indicating services that store photos, document, emails etc. – is something intangible, “perhaps one of the most deceptive metaphors ever coined” (Somerset House, 2015). Two separate works were paired in an interesting way: on the floor the digital print of Submarine Cable Map by Markus Krisetya, Larry Lairson and Alan Mauldin pictures the fiber optic internet cables that lie deep below the sea. Printed postcards of José Luis de Vincente’s From Secret to Monument hover from the ceiling. Giving various examples of “monuments of our digital age”, i.e. data centers, it aims to show how data in fact involves a physical, hence tangible reality.

 

I felt stimulated by the interaction with the pieces and how the two pieces worked together. At first I did not even really notice the map on the floor, which linked to the fact  I’d never think there would be cables deep down under the sea crossing entire oceans. In the same way I never thought there would be entire buildings, actual factories of data – some located in remote places, where one imagines the environment to be all wild and pristine, others in the centers of our own cities. How naive of me some may think, but although I use the internet and technology in general a lot, actually relying on it  also for my studies, I don’t know much about how technology functions ‘behind the curtains’. Above the map, coloured cables were arranged in a grid, from which different postcards hung. Double-sided, showing an image of a specific place on one side, with information about it on the back, they appeared so light and delicate, you sometimes had to hold them still to be able to read, otherwise they would almost spin like a pinwheel – a dramatic contrast to the heaviness and grandeur of most of the data centers pictured.

A separate room exclusively concentrates on data within London. Through the rise of connected and sensing devices, London is becoming increasingly ‘smart’, enabling the city to become more efficient on the one hand, but extremely surveilled on the other. We need to ask ourselves: do we feel safer in a smart city? Does efficiency give us greater freedom in our lives or is freedom the price we have to pay for enhanced efficiency?

 

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The Crystal by Siemens

Situated on Royal Victoria Dock in East London, The Crystal is a project by Siemens on sustainability. It features a permanent exhibition on sustainable development, analysing how cities perform in regards to consumption of natural resources, pollution and transport and it aims to promote an Eco-friendly approach to urban planning. Continue reading

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What is a city?

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When we are asked to define what is a city, our first reaction may be to think how obvious and easy it is to define it, especially if we grew up and live in one. The city is our home and its dynamics dictate and shape our everyday lives. The city is so intrinsic to our being and we are so strongly connected to it, that we often don’t even think about what it is that makes a city a city.

My first guess would be a city is mainly described by the number of its inhabitants – because if there aren’t enough people, than it is is not a city but rather a village. But is that all? Has the city not also a distinctive atmosphere, does it not carry a specif feeling? Are there sounds, smells and images I associate to a city? Are there any features I associate to cities in general or is every city a distinct entity?

I have lately become more critical and negative about the cities we live in, since I feel they are the representation of the excessive consumer society we live in. The fact I have been living in London for the past three years has most likely influenced how I see the world around me. Everything here is more: more people, more money, more houses, more shops, more noise, more competition, more diversity and I often feel overwhelmed and the need to slow down. I sometimes fear that our busy lifestyles draw us away from what really matters; we are all too focused on achieving things and getting more instead of deeply appreciating simple things. And cities are the central hubs of this attitude, it is were envy, frustration, social injustices and any form of mental ill-being originates – we usually don’t experience the same frenetic discontent in the countryside or anywhere else outside urban spaces.

But let’s bring some light in this dark vision, because there certainly are many positive things about the city too. Lewis Mumford (1937) gives an interesting definition to the question “what is a city?”. Drawing a line between the physical and social aspects that characterise a city, he says

“The essential physical means of a city’s existence are the fixed site, the durable shelter, the permanent facilities for assembly, interchange, and storage; the essential social means are the social division of labour, which serves not merely the economic life but the cultural process, a theatre of social action, and an aesthetic symbol of collective unity. The city fosters art and is art; the city creates theatre of social action and is the theatre. It is in the city, the city as a theatre, that man’s more purposive activities are focused”.

 

The city is home to innovation and progress, it creates a space for social interchange, advances the intellect provides health and education. It is where people are able to discover, cultivate and express their interests and passions and come together to shape a better future. So maybe it is not just the physical things that shape a city, it is not the streets, buildings, shops and the things you can buy that define the city, but rather the people that inhabit it make a city become alive and real. As Glaser (2011) stresses in his introduction to Triumph of the City “cities aren’t structures, cities are people” and “real city is made of flesh, not concrete.”

 

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Dualism and its relation to Forecasting Futures (Cogito ergo sum updated)

During our Forecasting Futures lecture we were introduced to the philosophical concept of Cartesian Dualism. Before digging deeper in the meaning of the phrase and its philosophical origins, we can get a general idea by reflecting on the term “dualism”: it suggest that there are two parts, elements or aspects which are opposed or contrasting. In Philosophy Continue reading

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