Having established why we should design bicycle cities, it is time I shared some thoughts on how we might design new urban districts to give them a bicycling focus. I’m thinking of former industrial areas and how we might redevelop these in ways that are true to the logic of bicycle motion. I have come to the conclusion after much thought, travel and drink (the latter, mostly tonight) that the perimeter block would have no rational basis if cities were no longer conceived with walkability at the forefront of our thinking. And with bike-sharing schemes and bike friendly buildings sweeping the globe, rollable cities may just eclipse walkable ones in our lifetimes. Rollable cities would be healthier and more competitive than walkable ones, for precisely the reasons cycling is healthier than walking, and more competitive than walking in most kinds of races—except climbing stairs, I admit.
Whether you dress it in parametricism like Zaha Hadid, put it on a square grid with chamfered corners like the Eixample District in Barcelona, or imagine it being something innate to the human—like the nest to the ant—the perimeter block’s strength is it makes walking less boring. When I walk through a perimeter block city I need never know about all the courtyards behind, or the big building footprints below all those blocks. So much of the city’s land is erased, leaving my feeble pedestrian body to only need worry about the little bits left for the streets. And those are where all the commerce and movement is concentrated to make street-life more vibrant.
But if I’m on a bike, I find streets in perimeter block districts can be too vibrant. I’m not just referring to car horns and traffic. Even in Amsterdam’s canal district, where very few people even bother trying to drive, I find the streets are too busy. They’re busy with shop fronts, delivery vans, entries to houses, and bikes meeting bikes at acute corners. All these things that make it such a nice city for walking, stop me from cruising at a more natural bike speed, of say, 25kph.
Towers and vast open spaces don’t pose the same threats to cities of cyclists as they do to cities of people just walking. So I wonder if, when designing new districts, we shouldn’t be relaxing our efforts to compress street life by always reverting to perimeter block planning? If more people cycled, urban designers would not need to replicate the european traditional city. Look at it from the point of view of a mugger: you simply can’t find a lonely enough place in a city of cyclists to mug somebody in private. Some pesky cyclists will appear on the scene out of nowhere, like Boris Johnson.
Wider streets lead to lower site coverage, and lower site coverage leads to greater height—assuming we want to maintain urban densities to curtail urban sprawl. You could take that to mean I’m in favour of towers in a park, that old idea of Le Corbusier’s. But I would rather express my view thus: the rise of cycling could lead to a relaxing of the strictures that make many urban designers think they can only ever work with perimeter blocks.
Bjarke Ingels has complained about the masterplan for Orestad in Copenhagen being based
on a single typology – the perimeter block – which is the sort of archetypical European typology dominating most old European cities. Hence, all three [of his Orestad] projects try to deal with this idea of how can you wedge as much diversity and surprise and variation into a virgin city and how can you liberate yourself from the tyranny of the perimeter block.
The monoliths Ingels has designed in Orestad don’t offer much surprise though to people on foot. None appear suddenly, like the Pantheon when you walk into the Piazza della Rotonda. They are only surprising if you come up on them quickly, say in a car, or on the train, or on a bike.
At bike speed, European cities are fun in small doses. The bigger ones would benefit from a few nights of blitzkrieg. London is a more interesting city than Rome on a bike, thanks to Hitler clearing land to make way for some typological variety—even if the pyramids and ziggurats did have to be built from shutter-board concrete.
I doubt Nigel Coates could envision Amsterdam or Rome being made over with futuristic, pluralistic new buildings like the ones he sees London accommodating in the future.
If I were designing a new urban district for a future when more people cycled than walked, I wouldn’t grid it up ready for perimeters blocks. I would design it more like a vast skate park, using undulations to enhance or reduce cyclists’ speed. I would sculpt anticipated desire lines and establish view corridors. There could be perimeter blocks on any sites that favoured their making, but I wouldn’t start with the aim of making as many such sites as I could.
It would bring me more joy if desire lines and vistas left sites behind for architects to explore new housing types: giant colossi, helicoids, and pits sunken into the ground.
The world is rapidly urbanising, at a time when building technology makes marvellous forms as easy to build as banal ones, and when an uptake in urban cycling means urban designers won’t find it so hard to put eyes on the street or keep people amused: they are not stuck doing perimeter blocks with cafes and awnings at street level.
If they prioritise cycling, urban designers can use any urban morphological pattern they can imagine, and not risk a social disaster.