Wednesday, May 26, 2010

To improve cities, keep an open mind

STOCKHOLM. Put away visions of “world class” and don’t try to fit your city into a single brand. Welcome the changes brought in by new multiculturalism and be open to varying concepts of beauty.
Those were some of the messages during an interesting day of thoughts on modern urban development when Stockholm’s City Planning Administration organized a seminar with a group of free thinkers yesterday.
The seminar marked the beginning of a dialogue the City’s planners are asking for in the wake of the recently adopted new City Plan. One of the messages from the speakers was pretty clear:
Don’t let the planning get to rigid, be open for change.
Gerard Reinmuth (right), an Australian architect and a founding director of the architectural firm Terroir with offices in Australia and Denmark, warned of the dangers of grand visions and the constant chase for top positions on league tables ranking cities according to “liveability”.
Using Sydney as an example, Reinmuth argued that such ambitions can be “the greatest inhibitor of becoming a great city”.
“You just create the image of a new city. And those lists are based on incredibly crude measurements,” said Reinmuth, who is a visiting professor at the Aarhus School of Architecture in Denmark and a frequent commentator on urban issues.
Instead Reinmuth encourages politicians and planners to ask themselves what’s wrong with their cities in order to make real progress. But raising the problems, he said as I spoke to him afterwards, might of course lead to cities losing their positions in the global rankings.
I asked him what he thinks about Copenhagen’s and Stockholm’s ambitions to brand themselves as “climate capitals”, or Helsinki as the “design capital” for that matter.
“I find it highly problematic when you try to brand a city around one word. In a way I think it was good when COP 15 (the United Nations Climate Conference) in Copenhagen (below, left) failed. It made everybody take a step back and think about this strategy.”
“Cities often cast themselves as brands. But cities are not Nike.”
“Sustainability” is one of the key words when cities proclaim their visions of “world class”. Reinmuth sees the issue of sustainability mostly as a “branding instrument”. The real issue is the reuse of the existing building stock, he argued, and showed some examples of work that his firm has done in that field.
Instead of aiming for “world class” and bringing in consultants to copy models from elsewhere, Reinmuth would like Stockholm and other cities to try to become “better versions of themselves”.
Do you have an example of a city that has managed to do that?
“I think Melbourne (in Australia) is an example of a city that has had the self confidence to build upon what it’s good at. It has been looking at itself, fixing what needs to be fixed instead of looking too much at other cities.”
Stockholm, like many other cities, is in the midst a big changes with huge urban development and infrastructure projects. There is a heated debate on how to preserve the beauty of the city in times of change.
This debate is often dominated by “nimbyism” and a reluctance to accept new ideas.
Several speakers at the seminar expressed a wish for more open mindedness. Thérèse Kristiansson and Annika Enqvist from a group called the New Beauty Council argued for an acceptance of varying concepts of beauty in the public realm.
Anders Wilhemson, a maverick architect who is no stranger to provocative ideas (he once presented an idea, see illustration below, where the housing shortage in Stockholm 2030 could be solved by placing 500 slim, 54-storey towers throughout the city), simply asked:
“Does the city have to be so huggable?”
Gerard Reinmuth also asked for a re-evaluation on what’s beautiful and what’s ugly, and put the issue in the interesting context of the multiculturalism that’s a fact of life in Stockholm and most other major cities today.
He urged everybody to stop “jamming people into your own model” as global migration changes the faces of cities. Instead Reinmuth suggested that cities help their people understand the added value migration brings, even when it changes the cityscape.
“Stockholm today is not like Stockholm 500 years ago. Should the clock have been stopped 500 years ago?” Reinmuth asked.
My mind wandered off to London, where I on a recent visit saw the famous mosque on Brick Lane (right). As the population of the district changed over the years, the building has been used as a Protestant chapel, a Methodist chapel, a synagogue and now it’s a mosque. The only controversy seems to be whether the new “minaret” attached to the building actually is a minaret or a “large steel art sculpture” as the local authorities see it.
Sweden and many other European countries may have a long way to go before accepting the multicultural urbanity Reinmuth advocates, which countries like Australia and Canada and cities like London and New York embraces.
“This fear of losing your own thing is just a lack of confidence. What you will get is an evolutionized version of Sweden”, said Reinmuth.
In a day full of thought-provoking ideas Jens Lanvin, a trend analyst from the Swedish communication consultancy Bodén & Co, put his finger on an important factor for the development of Stockholm’s future.
“Leadership is crucial for both the present and long term success of the city. This is difficult with the changes in politics that we regularly see. I wish we had a more long-term approach.”

Copyright: Wilhelmson Arkitekter/Vasco Trigueiros (ill.), Pressens Bild (photo)
Architect Anders Wilhelmson's idea of solving Stockholm's housing shortage.