Proposition: redevelop every city’s derelict docklands employing the principles of Bicycle Oriented Development (BOD). Why? To mitigate sprawl. And what are BOD principles? Well, think of Transit Oriented Development (TOD) principles, but instead of seeing development consolidated around transit hubs, you will be seeing development increasing in density near arterial bike routes.
In either case you would see car access and parking being restricted to encourage sustainable transport.
Sustainable transport (or the lowering of buildings’ “transport energy intensity”) is the next frontier in sustainable architecture. (Here’s a quick read on the issues)
In looking at a BOD in the broader context of its city, you would see bike routes being substantially upgraded by developer infrastructure contributions from BODs. Bike infrastructure would be better than anything previously contemplated in the history of cities, with canopies, overpasses and bike paths as wide as roads. It will be so good that bike trips of up to 15km will be quicker, safer and more convenient than if using a car or the train.
A city’s derelict docklands—if they have not been redeveloped already—will typically be that city’s best site for a BOD. That is because the abandoned rail routes and waterways that provide the most expedient sites for non-vehicular bike routes through cities, usually lead to their docklands.
Why BODs and not TODs? Bikes give populations better health and longer lives than they can achieve by walking to buses or trains. Non timetabled transit cannot be provided in small, low density cities. Cycling is an activity people enjoy and find social, while most people report feeling threatened and “alone in a crowd” when using transit.
Why BODs and not car dependent development? Cars bully people off of the street and thus destroy city life. Even if they are electric powered, cars pump smoke into the air, somewhere. Infrastructure for cars only provides mobility to a narrow societal sector, that does not include children, the poor, or many elderly of disabled people. Cars are antisocial, unhealthy, polluting, wasteful and thus best reserved for essential services or accessing the country, as originally envisioned when cars were invented.
As the author of the first book to advocate a bicycle oriented approach to urban planning, I am using the docklands of the city I live in (Launceston, Australia) to explore the architectural possibilities of the BOD paradigm. I will be doing that with the help of a cohort of advanced students of architecture, who will be learning about urban design and the design of large office and residential buildings by designing hypothetical projects for Launceston’s docklands. With their permission, some of their schemes will be posted on this blog in coming weeks.
We need to imagine that a redevelopment authority has taken possession of the land, and is charged now with selling land parcels to prospective developers. The rest of this blog post will be written as though I am the managing director of one of those redevelopment authorities who oversee procurement of these mega projects. Let’s call it the Portland Tasmania Redevelopment Authority. (I like the allusion to America’s #1 bicycling City, Portland in Oregon.)
Introducing Portland Tasmania. Watch this space for:
Portland Tasmania will be unique in the world, in its complete avowal of private car use. Designers are asked to consider architectural strategies for inverting the percentage of trips made by car elsewhere in Australia, from nine in ten in favour of driving, to nine in ten in favour of cycling.
However, we know zero energy bills won’t attract people to Portland Tasmania, if the district is synonymous with zero delight. Brownfield redevelopment sites always have a hard time attracting people to cafes and nightclubs, often relying on outdoor free concerts, performance venues or, in desperation, actual fireworks, to create life and help sell new apartments. Portland Tasmania will attract people to ground planes and buildings sculpted to bring out the pure joy of rolling by ones own pedal power.
From what theoretical basis can we begin to conceive an urban environment that is especially appealing to cyclists? We don’t have many direct precedents by which to be guided. Most of them appear in this blog post.
With the possible exception of BIG’s Danish Pavilion at the 2010 Expo in Shanghai, no architectural proposals for bikes fully explore the potential of bicycle motion—at least they don’t do it as effectively as pedestrian motion is catered for in indoor shopping centre design, or moving by car is catered for along The Strip in Las Vegas.
Consider “Bicycle City, Shanghai,” an unbuilt proposal inspired by BIG’s Danish Pavilion. Why aren’t cyclists given rain and sun protection? It would be unthinkable to leave car passengers or train passengers exposed to the weather! Why aren’t there slight dips in the ground plane where cyclists need to speed up, and acclivity where they need to slow down?
Perhaps a neutral ground plane would be good for people coming by bike, though it is more likely that some variation would bring cyclists more pleasure. And if we think about bike riders’ pleasure, we should recognise that different kinds of cyclists have different motivations for riding. Some seek fitness and want long lonely stretches, but others are prancing and want to go slow among crowds and be seen. Some are thrill seekers who want to feel weightless, but others are parents with children on board, or frail folk in their 80s who want to go with the utmost of care. Many, of course, will be off of their bikes, not wanting to be hit by other bikes while they are walking.
One way of establishing a theoretical basis from which to tackle an unprecedented design problem like this, might be to reinterpret classic theoretical texts. Jane Jacobs’s Death and Life of Great American Cities is a critique engineers’ and planners’ botched efforts to retrofit pedestrian cities for driving.
But on another level Death and Life is a prescription for designing good walkable cities from scratch. Jacobs envisions districts where rich and poor can find work, shops, education and public institutions, all within walking distance of home. How would Jane Jacobs design, knowing everyone would have a bike? No doubt she would be conscious of losers in the deal: anyone with disabilities preventing them from cycling at all, or even from using mobility scooters. On the other hand, she might be optimistic about the possibility of people moving between districts to broaden their options for schooling or work, without the need for a car. Although she was primarily interested in cities as viewed by the pedestrian, enough photos of her posing with bikes show that Jacobs was sympathetic to this mode as well.
Gordon Cullen’s The Concise Townscape is from the same period as Jane Jacobs’s book, and likewise centres on the pedestrian’s experience of pre-auto-age cities. Cullen’s aim is to give visual coherence to jumbles of buildings in towns, in much the same way as an english gardener of the picturesque tradition would try to give visual coherence to jumbles of trees in a garden. It would not be Cullen’s way to carve straight boulevards or create symmetry like Napoleon bringing order to Paris. Rather, he would want to emulate medieval old towns with their gateways, vistas and nodes, all of which would have grown organically over the period of the town’s growth, and in response to topography and limited vernacular building traditions.
Cullen’s book features sequences of thumbnail pen and ink sketches drawn while walking through cosy old towns throughout europe, analysing what makes them so interesting to a viewer moving at walking pace. It is an approach lifted straight from eighteenth-century picturesque theory, and applied to urban design.
How might picturesque theory be lifted again, and applied in a context where people move at bicycle pace (roughly 15-20kph in the city), and how might the fact that bikes lean through corners influence the buildings that frame gateways, vistas and nodes? Might buildings lean too?
Today’s urban designers make no big distinction between what scales of streets and patterns of use (what “urban morphologies”) best suit pedestrians, and best suit riders of bikes. Jan Gehl, for example, sees cycle tracks as close cousins of pedestrian footpaths, and cycling in general as a something that comes under the umbrella of his walkable cities agenda. Gehl’s is an approach that makes sense when reconfiguring the space between existing buildings on existing streets, but it doesn’t address the question in hand: how do we purpose-build the optimum district for bike use?
Recreating versions of Copenhagen on all the world’s docklands would not exploit the potential of modern bikes, and e-assist bikes, to take people farther and faster than walking. A bicycling district would not have the same struggles to provide passive surveillance of every street as pedestrian districts, because bikes help to spread watchful eyes over much wider areas, and cyclists themselves don’t feel like slow moving targets of crime. Squeezing bikes into transit oriented developments also brings with it some problems, like the mountains of bikes we see parked around stations in Japan, Denmark and Holland.
A new theory of bicycle urbanism could take some notes from Jan Gehl, but perhaps learn even more from antithetical sources, like Le Corbusier’s The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning. This book is from a time when avant garde architects were still fascinated by the potential of cars, having not yet witnessed the problems that would come later when everyone owned one.
But if we only focus on the damaging aspects of Le Corbusier’s vision, like the freeways he promoted that have ruined so many cities, we miss his better intensions. Freeways and towers were means to an end, for Le Corbusier. They were only useful insofar as they got transport and housing out of the way, leaving the ground plane for pathways and nature.
Unfortunately, in places where the towers filled up with society’s poorest (as happened in much of the UK) or where parks became car parks (Singapore, for example) Le Corbusier’s vision of strolling among greenery was completely destroyed. There are places through, like Stuyvesant Town in NYC, where towers in a park are a relief for people on bikes from the tightly packed city, and where the crime we expect on a ground plane with little surveillance is no worse than anywhere else.
Bikes open the door for some truly imaginative and optimistic urban designs. Urban design is a discipline at the overlapping of architecture and urban planning, that emerged in the late 1950s when it was realised that smart buildings could be put together in very dumb combinations. An urban designer understands building types and town planning, enough to combine them into master plans that show the size, type and function of buildings, without going into their styling or actual floor plans. A good urban design provides a client like the Portland Tasmania Redevelopment Authority with a basis for selling land parcels to individual developers, then controlling what architects do with each parcel, to ensure a whole district is more than the sum of its parts.
I’ll be dividing my class into groups of 4, to produce urban design schemes for Launceston’s docklands, that will pave the way for the (fictitious) “Portlands Tasmania Redevelopment Authority” to sell the land in five parcels: four land parcels to accommodate 30,000sqm of residential space each, and one land parcel to site the Gazelle office building. Additionally, each group will provide 3D renders and maps showing how the Portland Tasmania Redevelopment Authority can best spend $25million on upgrading bike infrastructure to connect their development to the CBD, university, schools, shops, hospital and other residential districts.