Over 60 architecture students in Australia are working to solve a problem that cities all over the world continue to face: what to do with abandoned docklands? Often on the wrong side of the river from the Classically planned part of town, the average dockland site stands like a scene from a mob film. Hang around long enough, and you most likely will see somebody dragged from a car boot and shot.
When docklands are redeveloped, it is usually with camouflaged car parks, promenades lined with restaurants where nobody ever seems to be eating, and new apartments taking 5 years to sell. As an habitual cyclist and part time urban wasteland explorer, I see another life for these zones. The waterways and rail corridors converging upon them, make docklands natural terminus points for networks of greenways. And what makes the best use of greenways for transport? Well, bicycles do. Seen from that point of view, vacant docklands stop looking like wastelands, or sites for big-box retail outlets, or even urban redevelopment schemes relying on lots of car parking. They want to be modelled on bicycling cities, like Groningen or Ferrara.
But none of the worlds bicycling cities were designed around bikes. They evolved hundreds of years ago around horse-drawn buggies and walking, modes that each averaged just 5 or 6 kph. Those low speeds drew all the buildings very close together, to shorten the trip time between them. Apartments stare back at each other across narrow streets and minuscule courtyards. If the dense urban fabric of the European old town were replicated elsewhere, nobody would buy the apartments.
The garden city movement, and later the sprawl that was enabled by cars, has given people a taste for broad views from all of their windows, and this pushes buildings further apart. What would the effect of much wider streets be in a city like Ferrara in the film clip above? There would still be slow cycling, around shop windows for instance. But bikes near the middle of the streets would have a chance to go faster, at or approaching the natural speed of a bike.
One team of students I’m teaching (Sara Chugg, Rachel Englung, Fiona McMullen and Chivonne Prouse) decided that shops and cafes in a bicycling district should not be packed tight along streets. A row of shops that takes a minute to pass when you’re walking, might go by in a blink to somebody riding. It would be better to scatter shops evenly. That would give cyclists time to see each shop while they are riding, and at the same time provide surveillance and life to the whole site, not just the short stretch that would be viable for pedestrian shopping.
Their next logical step was to raise those nodal points (now comprising shopfronts and entries to apartment blocks) on mounds, so that cyclists would naturally slow without breaking as they approached these busier parts of the site.
What we call “bicycle cities”, are in truth pedestrian/horse cities, where bikes replaced horses. That’s like Christians taking Roman Basilicas and calling them churches. Rationalists among us, who like to see things designed from first principles, can’t accept remnants. That’s what makes this student project particularly exciting in an age when many would like to see bikes replace cars as generators of urban form.