This blog was first posted in February 2018.
Today at the World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur I went into three events, which spanned a wide range of themes and places.Each in its own way provoked thoughts.
The Prince’s Foundation for Building Community has been working over a period of years now on developing a method for planning urban extensions in medium -sized cities. I have been involved in a couple of their workshops, most recently in the impressive setting of Australia House in 2017.So attending their session, co-hosted by the Commonwealth Association of Planners, was an easy decision to make, especially as they had Nicolas Galarza and Patrick Lamson-Hall there too – they are part of the team at New York Universty that is involved in action research on urban expansion.
The basic propositions are simple but chilling. Some of the fastest growing urban areas in the world are not the megacities, but those that are medium-sized, and their physical areas are increasing more rapidly than their populations. Yet the scarce resource of planners and architects tends to be concentrated in the capitals and other big cities. A significant part of the new development is informal, and so long-term problems are being created, such as the eventual need to retrofit infrastructure, as well as damage to the natural environment. The solution is pragmatic, but starts with recognising the real scale of likely growth, something that official plans and the politicians who back them are often in denial about. Then land can be identified to accommodate long-term growth, and decisions taken about the pattern of the growth and the infrastructure networks.
The research team has a strong preference for grid structures with the main corridors 1 km apart, and at least 30 meters wide.The detail of the grid has to be adjusted to fit the local topography and patterns of land ownership, so the eventual pattern may not be as strictly geometrical as the theory would prescribe. The core idea is then to buy up the development right to the 30 meter strips. Usually owners are happy to sell for a fair price, since they know that developing a road alongside or through their holding will increase its development potential. The line is literally “staked out”, maybe by planting trees, so everyone knows the routeway, even if the land is not actually going to be developed for some time.
The plan-making for this type of expansion is quite basic, so can be done quickly and without requiring great skills. Development can occur as it will, and land can continue in its existing use – even on one of the future corridors – until the development arrives, and much of that development may well be informal. In effect this is a half-way house between planned and unplanned urban expnsion – you might call it “fuzzy planning”; it works alongside informality but gives development a steer. Similarly, more detailed subdivision plans can be drawn up when development is imminent, while more distant land may not require much for decades, but the land for public use and infrastructure has been safeguarded.
Nicolas has been involved in testing the approach in Colombia, while Patrick is running a pilot project in four Ethiopian cities. In the Q and A at the end, it was interesting to hear a planner working for the Ethiopian government complaining that the real statutory plans were being sidestepped by this rapid planning methodology. Meanwhile Ben Bolger outlined how the Prince’s Foundation has been applying a similar methodology in Gabon. He pointed to the importance of being able to safeguard blue and green corridors and spaces for public facilities such as parks, markets or places of worship, while leaving the areas between the main infrastructure skeleton to be filled by other uses. Ben also stressed the central part that working with local people plays in the method. He demonstrated it with a project on Gabon.
“Give us Space” had quite a different style, with something like 10 small discussion groups on different topics all related to semi-public space. As time ran out, coherence was lost in the report back session. The group I was in, led by Manfredo Manfredini, explored “post-consumerism and spectacle”. Issues raised were the way that spaces such as shopping malls define what are acceptable public uses that they will permit on their premises. A trio of young Chinese students lamented the way that cost and travel distance closed off much urban space to people living in the countryside, while the world’s most populous nation has become entranced by the experience offered by shoppng malls. The more malls there are, and the more the same they become, so they also strive to be distinctive by offering ever more bizarre extras – such as artificial ski slopes!
My own concern was inspired by what has been happening in Edinburgh, and which I have blogged about in the past. “Post consumerism” was meant to point discussion towards the ways in which, by using social media, people produce as well as consume their entertainment, or go round a supermarket and use a self-checkout, so again mixing production and consumption in a public space. My own take on things was a bit different: the challenge in historic cities in particular is from hyper-consumerism, as platform technologies such as AirBnB and the advent of budget airlines have swollen the number of tourists seeking to experience the spectacular, whiile simultaneously redefining and valorsing the consumption of public space, as a street or pak becomes an arena you pay to experience. The result is displacement of low cost renters, consequent changes in local retailers to cater for the tourists, and the take over of the streets by the tourist buses and street performers. Meanwhile cash strapped councils, which might once have sought to regulate all this, conspire to hype the city’s offer by readily passing over once public spaces to private companies, often hiding the details behnd “commercial confidentiality”.
The final workshop was about cultural heritage and the Sustainable Development Goals, and consisted of several presentations that hopped from continent to coontinent, largely telling a positive story of the protection of heritage sites. This could be achieved by export and application of the Main Street approach from the USA, or a rather more top-down approach in Penang’s World Heitage Sites. However, a young Malay student injected a more urgent and critical tone by asking how cultural heritage should be approached in societies riven by inter-cultural conflict. She had the nearby example of Myanmar very much in mind, though the Rhodes Must Fall movement and the contentious status and oppressive role of Confederate memorials and memorabilia in the USA are also relevant, as is the relation to ethnic Russsians and their culture in the Baltic States. A senior ICOMOS official replied that all cultural heritage should be equally protected. If we had started, rather than finished with her question, it could have been a more lively session.
Finally, a young woman from Indonesia gave me a leaflet about the Tapanuli Oangutan, the latest Great Ape species to be recognised, but one that is already in the Crirtically Endangered Species list. There are threats from developers to its habitat, I understand so I promised to pass on the news.
And so to bed!