A tale of two disaster-ready cities, the view on participatory urbanism from Aarhus and LA’s inventive way of dealing with the hot, hot heat.
In the wake of a natural disaster, affected cities are keen to learn how to prevent destruction – or at least mitigate its effects. Here are two cities that offer savvy examples of prevention and preparation.
It may not be located on a path for hurricanes but as a harbour-side city, Copenhagen faces the threat of floods. When, in 2011, a burst of rainfall covered the city in a metre of water, Denmark’s capital decided to come up with a long-term strategy with urban-planning firm Ramboll.
The solution that a team of engineers, biologists, landscape architects and economists came up with is called the Cloudburst Formula. “Instead of investing in building large pipes we are changing the profiles of roads and surfaces,” says project director Christian Nyerup Nielsen. “We can divert water into parks or lakes without damaging buildings and infrastructure.” Be it lowering the central section of a street and filling it with plants or creating water reservoirs inside parks, these interventions are economically convenient and also help to increase urban green space.
With a 70 per cent possibility of a major earthquake in the next 30 years, it’s no wonder that Tokyo is the best-prepared city in the world for a disaster. In 2015 the city distributed 7.5 million copies of its Tokyo Disaster Prevention manual, a chunky 356-page publication telling citizens how to prepare for, among other things, Richter-size rumblings.
Since 1991, Tokyo has had a Disaster Prevention Centre, equipped to keep the city up and running should disaster strike. In addition, the city government conducts disaster drills every year; the annual February drill is dedicated to rehearsing transport plans in case of an earthquake. There is a system of public announcements that blares out messages on the streets and the warnings don’t stop there: the Japan Meteorological Agency sends out a phone alert seconds before an impending earthquake.
Year-round sunshine is one of Los Angeles’ most attractive qualities yet as temperatures soar due to climate change, the city is overheating. So city hall is coating 15 blocks of road with an off-white sealant to help combat the “heat-island effect” that can make cities stifling hot. If the experiment is a success, the treatment may be rolled out to LA’s 69,000 other blocks.
You – yes, you – should decide what your city looks like. That’s the premise of the “participatory” urbanism coming out of Europe’s city halls. In simple terms the idea is that citizens know what they really need and that if they are invested in the outcome, they are more likely to be happy. So out go the questionnaires. And then?
Well, that’s one of the themes that was picked up recently at the Academy of Urbanism’s annual congress when it pitched up in Aarhus, Denmark’s second city. And there were some interesting tensions – and a delicious irony as the first reception was held in the town hall, which is a piece of modernist top-down rigid beauty by Arne Jacobsen and Erik Møller from the late 1930s.
Even Jan Gehl, the celebrated Danish urbanist, threw a spanner in the works when he suggested that Moscow had done more than any other city in the past five years to fix the urban realm, with hardly any community engagement. And some urban planners and architects, while taking part in the outreach, made it clear that you often end up talking to the usual suspects and then go off and ignore them anyway. So is asking people what they want always a disaster?
In Aarhus, where social democratic veins run deep through the culture, they are giving it a crack. Martin Thiim, for example, is working in the South Harbour on a project to turn an old coal bridge into a version of the High Line. And he is working with everyone – including the homeless.
But while everyone was generous about standing back and handing over the world of planning, it seemed that in the end you might need someone with a good eye and a casting vote. Planners can sleep safely – for now, at least.