Last year we engineered the perfect neighbourhood and received praise from the World Health Organisation for putting small business at the core of our high street. This year, we’ve come up with a better borough.
Twenty days a year. That’s what you lose if, along with the large majority of the population, you spend an hour commuting into work in the morning, and another hour commuting home in the evening. “It’s an impact on quality of life that is completely unnecessary,” says Alejandro Gutierrez, associate director of global design and business consulting at international architecture firm Arup, headquartered in London.
Gutierrez’s specialist field is integrated urbanism, and his recent work has included such large-scale urban projects as the regeneration of London’s Battersea Power Station, the re-imagining of China’s Guangzhou University and the revealing of Dongtan, an 84 sq km new ecocity on Chongming island, near Shanghai. He also acts as green adviser for London’s Olympic task force.
Gutierrez believes that the 20 wasted days commuting, along with a not inconsiderable list of other modern ills, are simply the result of bad urban planning. With this in mind, MONOCLE asked Gutierrez to come up with the perfect borough – an environment where form and function become effortlessly integrated to improve everyone’s daily routine. “Any good neighbourhood should function like an organism,” Gutierrez explains. “There should be a symbiosis between infrastructure, open space, energy resource efficiency and noise pollution so that things combine, and instead of being a problem they start to become a positive attribute of those neighbourhoods.” Number one on his hitlist is climate change. He doesn’t subscribe to the theory that the next generation is doomed if we don’t address this now. It’s far worse than that, he says. “If we don’t tackle it now, we won’t have a future for our generation, never mind the next. A death toll of 20,000 people in the hot European summer of 2005? It’s already here.”
A neighbourhood where residents could walk to work is a start. That would take care of the 20 lost commuting days and a lot of car journeys. But residents must also be able to walk to leisure facilities. The central focus of MONOCLE’s perfect neighbourhood is a network of paths that link not just residential with business areas, but educational with commercial enterprises and green spaces.
Our greener neighbourhood is one characterised by trams but also a huge recycling centre – rebranded a resource centre – where waste can be transformed into building materials. Real-time digital displays in both homes and central locations keep track of individual and, crucially, collective impact on the environment. That way “you can understand your own resource efficiency and the impact of your actions on the planet,” says Gutierrez. “So you’re not just guessing what you’re doing is wrong. You’re understanding it in a detailed way.” Meanwhile, use of roof space for the planting of crops, plus local hydroponic growing markets in place of supermarkets create a unique food culture.
The result is a greener, healthier and, above all, more enjoyable neighbourhood. In fact, so good would quality of life be in our idealised neighbourhood, where food is grown locally, green spaces are open to all, and automotive transport is kept to a minimum, that we predict there would be scope to rethink the way the doctor’s surgery operates and to reduce the need to travel abroad for holidays. The only problem MONOCLE can envisage is how to while away those extra 20 days in your new borough.
“Two things that I think are really important are elevation and slope,” says Gutierrez. London’s Primrose Hill, with its commanding views of Regent’s Park in London, is a popular destination for precisely these attributes (“It has characteristics in common with a beach, which is why it gets really crowded on summer days.”) In our ideal neighbourhood, green spaces wouldrange from communal gardens running along the back of houses to squares to larger open parks. “Green spaces should have different levels of control, catering to different levels of the public, basically. Such a tiering system would have an enormous impact on quality of life.”
In some Italian neighbour-hoods, public lighting is almost irrelevant, says Gutierrez. Instead of lamp-posts, wires with lamps attached could be strung across streets. A digital screen in the city centre not only keeps a real-time tally of the aggregated ecological performance of the neighbourhood, but serves as a modern update on the town hall noticeboard. “So you can exchange books, old kids’ clothes and unwanted items within the community.” Today’s neighbourhoods often miss what Gutierrez calls “a degree of softness”, something we can overcome with an “urban sofa” – a thick rubber bench for relaxing and soaking up the perfect environment.
“Growing markets” would replace supermarkets. Food grown hydroponically would supply local food and drink firms, restaurants and caterers. Next to the market is a “resource centre” (formerly recycling plant) where everything from plastics to mattresses are turned into building materials available to buy. Other retail would be staggered depending on housing density and would be a mix of independent, innovative retailers. Recognition of clients makes for happier patrons and a healthier community.
A top-flight tram system removes the stigma associated with public transport, making connections a joy. At junctions there is no separation between traffic – all road signs and speed limits are removed. This scheme has already proved highly effective in front of Geneva’s Gare de Cornavin. “It’s fantastic,” says Gutierrez. “Cars go slow because they’re scared of people, and people go slow because they’re scared of cars. You get this situation where everyone is aware of each other and flowing smoothly.”
High density doesn’t have to mean uniformity, and a close-knit neighbourhood of staggered three, five and eight-storey buildings would inform a “sensorial relationship” with the streetscape. “I have always admired the scale of Italian renaissance towns such as Verona,” Gutierrez says. Ill-thought-out contemporary planning often means 20-storey buildings are jammed next to six-storey buildings and the resulting windshear means windows have to remain shut. In Monocle’s quartier, windows open. Less windshear also means that roofs can be used for wind turbines, providing a local energy source. Buildings may be cooled through deep-water piping leading from a harbour or local reservoir.
The single key factor in any successful neighbourhood. “A bad example of neighbourhood planning is Detroit, Phoenix or any American suburb,” says Gutierrez. “There are simply too many examples in America.” There, huge tracts of land developed with single houses each with one or two cars on the drive mean there’s just not enough density of population to make local services, schools, energy and public transport systems feasible. Again, we might look to successful “cities within cities”; areas such as London’s Notting Hill and Stockholm’s Södermalm, as ideals of cost-effective infrastructure and resource networks.
Gutierrez has a big problem with the current choice of either a hospital or a local doctor. Instead, he proposes a third way: a “doctor’s surgery on steroids” where a dozen doctors each dealing with a certain demographic – children, teenagers, the elderly – share a building, each able to dispense targeted advice. Meanwhile, a healthier neighbourhood in which food is produced locally, resources are contained, green spaces are plentiful and walking and cycling is the norm will conspire towards generating a healthier population – and reduce the need for medical assistance. These “super clinics” could also keep the sick closer to home.
Gutierrez is a fan of the Victorian British model of residential planning, “where you have both a lower and an upper ground floor”. A design that separates the pavement from the house, but maintains the main rooms of those houses “just above eye-level with the street”. Holland provides another reference, where modern terraces promote a density of population essential for making public transport viable. Denmark and Germany’s allotment culture of community vegetable gardens should also be applied to roof space, currently badly underused. Similarly, basements and garages should no longer be used for cars, but as spaces for the hydroponic growth of crops or light industry. Monocle would also advocate a Kyoto-scale network of side-streets with low rise residences opening directly onto the street.
A pedestrian and bike network of paths forms the core of our neighbourhood. And at the heart of this is our school. Gutierrez: “The network path will change the life of every parent, because you no longer have to drive your kid. They walk, or cycle. Or you walk or cycle with them.” The pedestrian network path will also link to the high street, shops and community centre. Tall trees will act as a noise buffer around the school building, which will be flanked by the back walls of the resource centre, the food centre and office space, providing further insulation, security and “a degree of impermeability.”
With office space a short stroll from residential areas, the inhabitants in our environment have time for breakfast at a café on the way to work, and a glass of Riesling on the way home. “That activates the neighbourhood, not with people who are rushing to work like at London’s Waterloo, but people who are enjoying their environment.” The result: a clear upswing in quality of life. Climate change will ensure our holidays to Spain are limited in the future, so the urban leisure industry will start to grow exponentially. As much more time will be spent locally, the concept of two-week blocks of holiday will be replaced with more staggered long weekends spent relaxing with neighbours.
01 Natural lakes for swimming
02 Variation in building scale and architectural style
03 Round-the-clock service
04 Cosy local bars
05 A rolling terrain
06 Trams, trams, trams
07 Plenty of pedestrian/cycle highways
08 A policy to promote small businesses
09 Open windows rather than air-conditioning
10 Local grow-and-sell initiatives