VOL. MMXIII..No. 210

Retail by Design | The Brand Experience

The Suburbanization of Global Cities: How Misguided Masterplanning is Changing the Way We Live

Great cities reveal themselves like an onion, but I would argue that modern masterplans are changing the face of the world’s urban centers and stripping away those onion layers in favor of a more sterile and homogeneous vision of city life.

 

Cities are being redeveloped in favor of micro-economies and a steady stream of somewhat transient professionals with no real interest in the essence of our cities. Nail parlors, Starbucks, yogurt shops and mile upon mile of condos. What city are you in? Who knows.

 

I’ve come to yearn for the grit of the unpolished city, that hint of danger and the contrasts of past and present. People making their environment adapt to their needs. Community by circumstance.

 

 

One of my favorite examples is the Bladerunner-esque Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong’s Kowloon, a giant shipwreck of a building that forever seems ready to collapse under the weight of so many Indian tailors, Thai massage parlors, noodle shops, and ratty backpacker hostels. It is a city within a city, a marvelous decrepitude of organic design. But such places more than likely won’t be around for long.

ehdd2_2596_imageMichel St. Pierre is an urban designer and principal at EHDD. ““If you think about the world’s greatest cities, what makes them great is that they have these incredible layers. To get that kind of authenticity takes centuries.”

Development companies are hiring “Star-chitects” like Zahar Hadid, Frank Gehry, and Norman Foster to transform their cities with visually stunning buildings that often have no relevance or connection with the culture or community that surrounds them. To make way for such large buildings, Entire neighborhood’s are gutted, dissolving the very ecosystem of human life that had evolved over time.

 

Developers like to call it “Urban Renewal,” but often it means much more than that. Developers however, are not social anthropologists.

 

“If you think about the world’s greatest cities, what makes them great is that they have these incredible layers of both design and cultures,” says Michel St. Pierre, a former colleague and now principal at architecture and design firm EHDD. “To get that kind of authenticity and soul in a city takes centuries — not two or ten or even thirty years.”

Camille_Pissarro_002Paris is the most often-cited example of successful urban planning. A Pissaro painting shows the new Paris following the  completion of Haussmann’s massive public works project.

Paris is perhaps one of the most famous examples of a city that was viciously masterplanned, although arguably successful in its aims.   In 1853 France’s Napoleon III ordered a massive public works project designed to do away with the filth and decay of several centuries. Masterminded by George-Eugene Haussmann, huge swathes of the city were completely demolished in order to make way for today’s orderly grid of wide boulevards, harmonious buildings, and groomed gardens.

 { “Le Corbusier was too simplistic, He didn’t understand scale and instead what he did was zone activity, and you still see that happening today. It’s a very sterile approach to understanding how people live.” }

 

“Paris is remarkable because public parks were made a central feature of the experience. It’s at the core of what the city is really about, a place to walk and reflect on the beauty of the city. The monuments and open spaces invite people to come out and be together. And that’s what successful cities do.”

 

Iconic urban planner Le Corbusier had the same idea in mind with his 1935 doctrine, La Ville Radieuse, but his overscaled environments left people feeling small and insignificant. “To create architecture is to put in order,” wrote Le Corbusier. “Put what in order? Function and objects.”

  med_a1-jpg c“To create architecture is to put in order,” said Le Corbusier. His ambitious vision for urban planning was controversial, yet today he is hailed for his modernist designs and experimental approach.

 

 

Michel disagrees. “Le Corbusier was too simplistic, He didn’t understand scale and instead what he did was zone activity, and you still see that happening today. It’s a very sterile approach to understanding how people live.”

 

 

Across the United States, we’re seeing relatively low-profile cities becoming stylized suburbias on steroids; the kinds of places where young professionals go to live a more expensive and “city” version of the suburban life they’re escaping.

 

 

“In order for a city to be relevant and authentic, it needs to have serendipity,” says Michel, whose most recent projects in urban design and sustainable development have been in China and India. “You have to have spaces where function is not forced, but organic. Mixed-use allows for spaces to be flexible and to expand and contract with human need.” Big, over-designed buildings tend to lose value more quickly because they essentially only serve one purpose. It’s why we see so many big box stores and shopping centers vacant. They are purpose-built with little thought towards transformation.

162BD02---W-PROJECT-HORIZON UCSF-Mission-Bay-Medical-Center-RenderingOne of San Francisco’s largest redevelopment projects, Mission Bay has been criticized for having little relevance or connection to the city at large. The UCSF Medical Research campus dominates the 303-acre parcel.

  “A well designed city begins with a basic grid and key functions, and then the rest is allowed to grow organically over time. It’s one reason why people gravitate more towards older neighborhoods with a mix of high and low, mixed incomes, and a mix of textures in terms of retail. It feels real.”   In San Francisco, the nearly completed Mission Bay project has already been called a failure, with critics calling it nothing more than a glorified industrial park. A substantial portion of the 303-acre project is UCSF’s new $1.5billion medical research campus and a fourteen-acre campus for Salesforce.com.

 { “The community not the architect ultimately decides how a space should be used. A successful architect sets the stage for that to happen.”}

“If you walk through Mission Bay on weekends, it is completely deserted. It’s ultimately not designed to be a living space. The landscaping looks like something you would see in the South Bay or San Jose. It feels completely out of tune with San Francisco.”

songdo-renderingThe Songdo project near Incheon Airport in South Korea. Started in 2007, developers had hoped to create a European village-style atmosphere of mixed use buildings, cultural centers, and a music hall. To date the project remains unfinished and houses mostly foreign workers.

Years ago Michel and I worked together on a masterplan project for an entirely new city to be built on the soggy marshes near Seoul’s Incheon Airport. The Korean client wanted to replicate elements of New York’s Central Park, Amsterdam’s meandering lanes, and a host of other romantic notions that Asians associate with Europe. The project remains unfinished.

 

“When you begin an urban planning project, you have to believe in people’s initiative to take ownership of spaces and create meaningful environments for themselves,” says Michel. “The community not the architect ultimately decides how a space should be used. A successful architect sets the stage for that to happen. The movement here in California with farmer’s markets is a great example of that, and part of the reason they works is because they encourages people to get together around something we all need and enjoy. Good quality food.”

 

>> Michel St. Pierre is a principal at EHDD and leads the planning and urban design practice there. For more information, go to ehdd.com.

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