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July 7, 2010
by Bill Millard

Event: Our Cities, Ourselves: The Future of Transportation in Urban Life (Media Roundtable)
Location: Center for Architecture, 06.24.10
Speakers: Michael Sorkin — Distinguished Professor of Architecture & Director, Graduate Program in Urban Design, City College of New York & Principal, Michael Sorkin Studio; Elizabeth H. Berger — President, Alliance for Downtown New York; Walter Hook — Executive Director, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP); Norman Garrick — Associate Professor of Civil Engineering, University of Connecticut & Co-chair, Transportation Task Force, Congress for the New Urbanism & Trustee, Tri-state Transportation Campaign
Moderator: David Owen — Staff Writer, The New Yorker & Author, Green Metropolis (Riverhead, 2009)
Organizers: Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in collaboration with AIANY

our-cities

2030 vision of urban transport in Ahmedabad, India by Bimal Patel and HCP Design and Project Management.

Bimal Patel and HCP Design and Project Management, courtesy AIANY

In the context of the BP oil spill and the nation’s seemingly ineradicable dependence on the same toxic substance, the possibility of reconfiguring urban space in ways that help restore environmental balance begins to look less like utopia and more like an imperative. Owen and others have been making the green-urbanist case for years, offering the combination of urban density and sustainable design as a logical, desirable response to global warming and all the other ill effects of a petroleum-dependent economy. The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) and AIANY are now joining forces to bring this case to the public in concrete, accessible forms.

For “Our Cities, Ourselves,” an exhibition currently on view at the Center for Architecture, the ITDP has engaged architects in 10 cities to translate green-urbanist principles into buildable forms, with an eye on realization by 2030 and an emphasis on transportation systems. ITDP Executive Director Walter Hook laid out the history of these efforts along with the increasing dangers ahead if large developing nations recreate 20th-century America’s transportation monoculture on a vaster scale. The plausible future, he said, will either be an ecological nightmare scenario (some 390 million cars in China by 2030 and a temperature increase beyond that which scientists claim the planet can tolerate), or a series of site-specific transformations that draw on local talent and traditions to correct developmental damage and promote low-impact forms of transportation.

Organized along a set of “Ten Principles for Sustainable Transport,” the designs in the exhibition build on ideas already known to produce results in revitalizing damaged urban areas. The exhibition’s title evokes the Boston Women’s Health Collective’s medical/sexual manual Our Bodies, Ourselves, broadly influential since the 1970s in clarifying connections between personal matters and their political aspects. It combines this progressive tone with common-sense appeals reminding viewers that the automotive era is a brief segment of urban history — destructive, but by no means irreversible.

The architects have chosen different strategies and scales for Ahmedabad, Buenos Aires, Budapest, Dar es Salaam, Guangzhou, Jakarta, Johannesburg, Mexico City, NYC, and Rio de Janeiro. Projects range from HCP Design and Project Management’s construction of a public square in Ahmedabad — a site where any significant new civic space amounts to a cultural innovation — to the transformation of Lower Manhattan into an auto-free “ecozone” by Michael Sorkin Studio.

Sorkin emphasized that no single technology solves the problems of cities. Lower Manhattan is blessed not only with a high percentage of transit use, but with a resilient “medieval” street plan. Removing the FDR Drive below the Manhattan Bridge, along with its associated infrastructure, would open up surprising amounts of space for civic functions. Elizabeth Berger of the Downtown Alliance expressed agreement in principle on reinventing the business district as a greener, transit-intensive district with an increasing residential component; this development philosophy is good for local business, she said. Her group’s new plan for Water Street as a rescaled, pedestrian-friendly boulevard meshes with the Sorkin vision, but she pulled up short of a complete ban on cars, claiming it would isolate the neighborhood.

New Urbanist engineer Norman Garrick placed the range of changes in a global context, offering Zurich’s integrated approach to transit as an alternative to large-scale motorization that he has seen in China and Jamaica. Owen also emphasized the astonishing changes occurring in China, where “the Manhattan” is a unit of scale and 10 new Manhattan-sized urban formations are on the way. Development on such a scale and pace, he noted, makes good design an urgent challenge: build a high-performing city, a New York or a Bogotá, and it will be emulated. The key question may be whether such places can be emulated widely enough and fast enough.

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