Is There a Secret Recipe for Successful Urban Development?

Doesn’t sound like it. Both developed and developing world cities are still struggling to get urban development right, said some of the world’s leading urban experts at the Transforming Transportation conference organized by the World Bank Group and the EMBARQ program of the World Resources Institute (WRI). Successes, failures, and the places in between were examined in a set of presentations and debates.

Mexico City may be in between — not quite a total failure or success. It’s struggling with intense population growth, rapidly diminishing natural resources, and falling water tables. While Mexican civilization has 3,000 years of experience with urbanization, unfortunately, for the most part, its capital, Mexico city, hasn’t applied that accumulated knowledge well in the 21st century, said Salvador Herrera, EMBARQ Mexico. The city has grown into a massive agglomeration, with multiple sprawled-out satellite cities forming at its edges. Some five million or more people in slums. Similar patterns are seen in other Mexican cities, as now 80 million of Mexico’s 110 million people have moved into its cities.

But the city is taking steps to deal with its problems, developing more transit-oriented development (TOD) patterns, with a Mexican twist. Right now, only “the rich enjoy TOD,” said Herrera. One new project aims to remedy that by creating TOD for low-income residents. A local developer and Danish urban design firm Gehl Architects created Casas Geo, which offers low-income housing units at a cost of around $28,000, a manageable sum for its residents, which make between $300 and $600 per month. There’s running water and electricity. Instead of parking lots in front of the homes, there’s a shared road-like public space with a set of central plazas that encourage more walking, hanging out, and less car driving (see image above). “There’s less interaction between car and people,” said Herrera. If people stay in the Casas communities, they drive less. Unfortunately, most have to commute for work and these homes are nowhere near existing transit. Still, this model seems to be a hit, given it accounts for some 20 percent of the 500,000 new home created in 2012.

The local government is also now working on expanding access to people-friendly, easily accessible, affordable places by creating a set of indicators to guide future development. These include “complete streets, mixed-use buildings, density, green homes, connections to public transportation, and more open space.” (Sadly, Herrera said the city has left parks out of its indicators because it can’t afford to create more parks with lots of greenery — “there isn’t enough water.”)

Henriette Vamberg, a principal at Gehl Architects, then gave a tour of one failure and one success. She explained how her boss, Jan Gehl, one of the world’s most admired urban designers, used to be just another architect, but married a psychologist who asked him, “why do architects hate people so much?” His thinking was transformed and he became one of leading proponents of human-centric urban design. His firm now works with cities around the world to figure out “how spaces either push people together or repel them.”

It sounds like Moscow is an example of a place designed to repel pedestrians. A mega-city of 15 million, it’s now in “complete flux after communism.” With increasing wealth, everyone has the “urge to own a car.” Vamberg said “it’s quite a beautiful city, with monuments and the river,” but it has been totally marred by “uncontrolled traffic.”

Cars now take over promenades. Trees have been cut down to make way for more streets. “The green bits are all gone.” All the flood zones are gone to create more lanes.

Now, the average street is a pedestrian nightmare. More than 90 percent of each street is for cars, with just 10 percent or less for people. Vamberg showed how each intersection has an underground crossing, which means the city isn’t accessible to anyone with disabilities. Also, where there are street-level crossings, green lights for pedestrians are few and far between. As a result, lots of people jaywalk. She even showed a photo of two kindergarten teachers jaywalking with their gaggle of kids, fed up at waiting 10 minutes for the light to change.

Working in Moscow was “hard, tough work.” In contrast, Melbourne is deemed a success. In the mid-90s, when Gehl Architects first examined the city, its downtown was characterized as an “empty, useless city center.” That has changed dramatically. Streets now make up 80 percent of the city’s public space. They have “gotten away from parks and city squares as the only forms of public space.” (The new Federation Square though is still viewed as the “heart of the new city.”)

Melbourne spent lots of time and money upgrading the “quality of the built environment.” Conventional pavement were taken out in favor of new local bluestone pavers.  In addition to the bluestone, the city is adding 50,000 trees annually. With all the street level improvements, the local economy is booming. Since the mid-90s, street-level cafes are up a whopping 275 percent. There’s 830 percent more residents living in apartments that jumped in number by more than 3,000 percent. Nighttime pedestrian traffic is up nearly 100 percent. “The public ambiance feels more lively. The city now has a a pulse, it feels very different from before.”

So what can more cities do to become a Melbourne, not a Moscow (or Mexico City)? For William Cobbett, Cities Alliance, more planners need to think ahead and actually anticipate future growth. Cobbett said the 1811 grid map of Manhattan may have been the last example of good, long-term planning — the city laid out future zones that were then filled in. “Now, it’s a matter of planning after the fact, which is good for design professionals (who have to come in fix things), but not for cities.” He said there’s far too much “planning in the breach,” particularly among second-tier developing world cities, which are growing the fastest.

For Eric Dumbaugh, Florida Atlantic University, getting to successful urban development patterns means ending the love affair with cars. He said in the U.S., it actually took many years for this fantasy “love affair” to take root. At first, cars weren’t a hit so car manufacturers financed a “radical, wholesale redesign of cities.” The ideas of efficiency — in terms of moving people through space in urban environments — was turned on its head to make way for car-based “transportation system performance.” Beginning in the 1930s, “pedestrians no longer owned streets anymore.” Car manufacturers pushed lawmakers to fine people who crossed the street in the wrong places and the term “jaywalking” was invented. Today, we are still following this outmoded approach: “In 1939, the Futurama exhibit at the World’s Fair basically basically mapped out the traffic regulations that still guide us.” Dumbaugh said Copenhagen (and now, New York City, which was viewed as copying Copenhagen) are moving away from the car with new pedestrian-only zones. The question is how can developing world cities move past the original mistakes of the U.S. and leap to Copenhagen?

Michael Kodransky, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), thinks “parking is the lynchpin of sustainable urban development,” and something far too many cities fail to get right. There has to be enough parking to enable density and street life. ITDP is now working on a way to “codify” good urban development with a new set of indicators that can help “evaluate urban developments.” These will push for true TOD development. He said too many awards go to TOD projects where “there’s no one using transit.” In reality, many projects labeled TOD are “TOD adjacent.”

UN-Habitat, the UN organization entirely focused on cities, is also now “reviewing the grammar of cities” to learn what went wrong and create a “new paradigm for the 21st century.” Andre Dzikus, UN-Habitat, said it was important to set this new pattern fast because “the majority of the world’s cities haven’t been built yet.” A simple, pragmatic urban planning approach for the future would “see the street as public space.” For any city, it should be around 30-40 percent. As an example, in Nairobi, only 11 percent of the street is public space. “Density should also be increased.” There should be around 15,000 people per square mile. All land use should be mixed-use, with 40 percent dedicated to economic activity and a mix of upper-income and low-income housing.

While looking to the future, though, Vamberg said cities can also learn from the past. Basically no developed world city, except perhaps Copenhagen, escaped mistakenly adopting the U.S. car-centric model. Shifting gears may actually mean a return to the old ways. Dumbaugh said someone once asked Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, what she thought of “New Urbanism,” a planning approach that calls for tight grids and denser development patterns. She apparently replied, “well, how about good old urbanism?” The 20th century may just be a blip (albeit a particularly destructive one) in the 8,000 year record of humans creating cities for people.

Image credit:(1) Casas Geo / Zuonda, (2) Casas Geos / People Everywhere, (3) Moscow traffic / English Russia, (4) Moscow sidewalk and parking / Horroru, (5-6) Melbourne street life / Clare’s Cafe Chronicles

4 thoughts on “Is There a Secret Recipe for Successful Urban Development?

  1. Erik 01/28/2013 / 9:52 am

    Great article! It’s funny to see somewhere like Mexico City where “the rich are the only ones taking transit.”

    I wouldn’t say it’s one particular recipe that everyone has to use, but they need to use the same ingredients but of their own geographic taste to make a similar type of end product – one that embraces humans of course.

  2. Prospect - Refuge (@archijecture) 01/29/2013 / 10:12 pm

    Well written article, with some deft handling of information.

    I’m with Erik, and reckon that the search for one universal recipe is probably one reason why these cities are having problems in the first place.

    View the city as a constellation of villages, emphasizing the focus on local values and THEN start planning accordingly. That, what Corbett says about future-proofing and Jacob’s wisdom toward building with a human-scale… those particularly speak to this guy.

  3. Urban Choreography 02/04/2013 / 5:13 am

    Reblogged this on Urban Choreography and commented:
    I don’t think there is some secret recipe – its well known – involve both users and professionals who care about the site – not those who fly in and fly out- even if they don’t get on – they need each other and once its built then they still need to be involved in its management – i.e. only trust people who have “Skin in the game’ in the words of Nicholas Taleb author of “Anti-Fragility”

  4. Aysha Ruya Cohen 02/25/2013 / 11:07 am

    Great article on a very insightful presentation! GEHL Architect’s Melbourne example was my favorite 🙂 I was so impressed to hear that EMBARQ México has even gotten Walmart to make their stores more pedestrian & public transit accessible! For your reference:
    > Here are session notes on the urban experts this article references (from the World Bank’s conference, January 2013):
    > Here are the slides this article is refers to (from the World Bank’s conference, January 2013):

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