With a growing global population, the functional and spatial demands placed on towns and cities are changing at an alarming rate. As the density of people living and working in metropolitan spaces increases the impact on the urban environment and the wellbeing of those residing within it in has become a hot political and social topic.
Cities need to accommodate more people without compromising the attractive qualities that make them desirable places to live. Twentieth century post-war cities were constructed from a functional perspective based on finding ways to enable more people to occupy less space. It soon became apparent that this approach had negative effects that led to a decrease in quality of life aligned with poverty, alienation, crime and social unrest, a decline in landscape / townscape quality and environmental degradation.
In an attempt to understand the demands of the 21st Century “millennial” age, programmes such as Urban Age, set up by LSE Cities (London School of Economics) and Deutsche Bank’s Alfred Herrhausen Society, set out to get key people talking at annual conferences, aimed at interrogating what constitutes a city. Governance, economics, law, sociology, planning, architecture and urbanism were all part of a multi-faceted approach aimed at understanding current metropolitan design issues, and projecting these onto a future canvas.
Over the course of the past ten years, since Urban Age’s formation in 2005, their work has concluded that we are in the main an urban species, with the majority of us living in an urbanised context. With this in mind, the question is, how do we positively shape our cities to cater for this shift in the way we live our lives.
The rapid growth of new megacities in Asia, Latin America and Africa, and the urgent need to revitalise cities across Europe and America, has left little option but to find ways of addressing the wider questions facing urbanism. How can we make our cities better, safer and more fulfilling?
Landscape architects are very well placed to find creative, practical and inspiring ways of changing forgotten, dysfunctional spaces into practical and useable places, where people want to congregate, socialise and spend quality time.
Modern development in cities is less about expansion into undeveloped plots and more about improving what already exists or what is currently being under-utilised. There are many examples of how even quite modest urban redevelopment projects can make a huge positive impact on the aesthetic qualities of a space and its surroundings, including the following:
In February 2016, the UK government announced a programme to create over 80 pocket parks across the United Kingdom - turning once unloved, neglected urban spaces into small green oases for the public to enjoy. These micro-landscapes will transform dead spaces into areas of beauty and wildlife, and create tranquil places to escape from the hustle and bustle of inner city life.
Increasingly popular in the UK, countries such as Australia, Mexico and Brazil have adopted this striking approach to integrating landscape and architecture in high density metropolitan areas, bringing notable benefits to areas where air quality and aesthetics are poor. Also known as living walls, these ingenious gardens use hydroponics to stunning visual effect, introducing vertical greenness into the cityscape, and at the same time tackling greenhouse gases and pollution.
Seismic economic and social shifts lead to derelict land and abandoned and unloved buildings in our cities. These can deteriorate rapidly, becoming eyesores in the landscape, with crumbling facades and collapsing structures, combined with a lack of natural surveillance, attracting graffiti and vandalism. The sustainable regeneration of previously used ‘brownfield’ land has been a cornerstone of post-war city building and is enshrined in our planning policies, and is now delivering some of our most successful and spectacular cityscapes.
The decline of Britain’s once thriving fishing, shipbuilding and riparian industries has left us with a plethora of waterside locations in desperate need of revival. These sites provide superb opportunities for high quality regeneration projects, developing some stunning houses, apartments and penthouses alongside riversides, creeks and estuaries, combining lifestyle and leisure with workshops and studio space.
Although without doubt a marketing buzzword, smart digital technologies are changing the way we use our cities, and the way our cities work, and they will continue to do so.
Transport for London’s decision to make its data on the position of every bus and train on its network available free in real time has made game changing apps such as City Mapper possible; making navigation around the city faster and more efficient.
The new millennial generation is deeply rooted in digital technology and this will hugely influence how our cities are shaped and evolved in years to come. Our friends and family no longer live in the same street as us. They live in another part of the city, or in a different city, or in a city on the other side of the globe.
So we want to live and work close to public transportation, and the perception of the city is largely a function of the way we move around it. We also want greater access to vibrant outdoor spaces which cater for our manifold (and often conflicting) demands, such as active and passive recreation; relaxation; contemplation, entertainment, self-expression and education. This is a tall order for designers and politicians engaged in the regeneration and evolution of our cities. It is also a huge responsibility, because they need to ensure that inclusion, participation and engagement of the local community and end-users, is at the top of the agenda.