Streetwise in New York and London

This week, the Rotterdam Academy of Architecture organized a double lecture on shopping streets, the most common urban space for human interaction, including conflict, and how designers and planners can make a difference here. The lecture ticket included a tasty hotdog from the trolley parked in front of the entrance.

The sociological view on shopping streets – by Sharon Zukin –  focused on narratives, migration and problems of gentrification, whereas the planners perspective – by Mark Brearley – showed the importance of shopping streets in the metropolis and several examples of renovation projects to give them new life. Although both agree on the vital function of diverse shopping streets in the city, the first sees renovation as a possible threat, the latter as a sollution.

Oxford street

First, Zukin discussed her research on ‘Global Cities, Local Shops’. Due to the snow blizzards in New York that day, her plane remained on the ground and Zukin gave her lecture through a (rather good) skype connection. The project included cases of shopping streets in New York, Toronto, Amsterdam, Berlin, Shanghai and Tokyo. Examples of Orchard street (New York) and Javastraat (Amsterdam) show that shopping streets are not only spaces of economic transaction, but also provide visual inside-outside relationships and signs of local and global culture. Actually, the same shops and visual styles of the Global North and Global South can be found in both streets!

Often, different ethnic groups are found in the same places in different periods, until the ABC (art gallery, boutique and coffee) arrive, and gentrification and renovation start. Zukin believes that only with delicate urban policies a mixture can be maintained in transforming shopping streets. The most important threats to these ‘fragile social eco-systems’ are: lack of capital of small businesses and their need to attract customers, conflicts on rents between store owners and building owners, competition with online shops and the vulnerability regarding urban regeneration policies. In an extraordinary example in Shanghai, she demonstrates that even preservation of the local buildings and population is not always enough to avoid gentrification. A local business man took the opportunity of a real estate crisis in Shanghai to avoid demolition of the historic neighborhood and start a slow transformation process with the owners themselves. Nowadays, they live upstairs, while they rent out the ground floor to art galleries and expensive stores, hereby changing the entire streetscape.

Its comes as no surprise that Zukin doesn’t like shopping malls, being the opposite of public street life. Although, she said, “shopping malls in São Paulo don’t seem to be immune to the differences that shake that society”. (see popular ‘Rolezinho’ video belo)

Brearly, who led the metropolitan design team of the Mayor of London for over a decade, shed light on ‘Affecting Streets’. His design team was installed by London’s first elected mayor Ken Livingstone with architect Richard Rogers, continued from that point under different names until it was recently dismantled under Boris Johnson. Besides the High Street project, the presentation also revisited the Crossrail project, the London Green Grid and the choice of London for a compact city development with a green belt. Brearly’s tone was so dry that I suppose one could call him the Rowan Atkinson of town planning.

London has 600 High Streets, where many of the city’s commercial functions and jobs are located. London is also supposed to have 600 boroughs or ‘localities’, but that could be a coincidence. One example of a very long high street includes the same amount of workers as does Canary Wharf. Many streets and squares have been nicely refurbished in recent years, including some of the places affected by the riots. In fact, the high street model may continue to thrive in the future. The recent attention for high streets was propelled by massive shop vacancy problems. London, however, will still grow in the future by about a third. Brearly therefore believes it would be a good idea to extend the high street network of the city by a third as well.

London High Streets

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Hutong – a new model for Beijing?

When China opened up and became a socialist market economy, it didn’t take long for the real estate sector to emerge and start developing the contemporary Chinese city according to the logic of capital, demand and supply. Even while many companies are still state-owned. For years, the traditional alleyway neighborhoods of central Beijing, called Hutongs, were a playing ground for profitable big scale redevelopment projects, tabula-rasa style. At some point, however, residents and critics became aware of the economic and cultural value of the small-scale homes in the Hutong, leading to long and difficult recompensation processes.

Dashilar Project

During Beijing Design Week 2013 I visited the Dashilar Hutong, and later that week a few other expamples. Professor Wu Chen, also director of the Beijing Institute for Architectural Design (BIAD), presented the transformation process of Dashilar, a very central and traditional hutong, close to Tian´anmen square. Earlier that day, Jia Rong of the Dashilar Project had given us a tour. The neighborhood is to a large extent made up of one and two-storey buildings from the Ming en Qing dynasty era, with the typical structure of courtyards. The complex property situation (leases, land use rights etc.), restrictions to building heights and costly expropriation arrangements have turned Dashilar into an area that is hard to redevelop at a profit by the (state) development companies. At the same time, developments are required, since the infrastructure, sanitation and public space in the area are precarious.

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Dashilar Hutong (left) and Nanluoguxiang Hutong (right), Beijing

Therefore BIAD has been working for years already on an alternative development strategy. Among other measures to make people concious about the cultural value of the area, the Dashilar Phone-App was developed, through which tourists and visitors can easily explore the labyrinthic hutong and constantly receive information about design galleries, restaurants and other features in the streets of Dashilar. In collaboration with local investors, a shopping center with housing on top is being realized, avoiding the standard ‘closed box’ typology. At the same time, the infrastructure is enhanced. A new public toilet is under construction, since many of the small dwellings don’t have their own toilet. Professor Wu summarizes the project as ´Nodal development´ as opposed to the modernistic ´Tabula Rasa´ development.

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Vertical hutong project, by Steven Holl, Beijing

The permeable hutong-model with its narrow alleys was abandoned by the upcoming middle class in the 1980’s and 1990’s. The old and precarious structures – many times without a proper bathroom or connection to water and the sewage system – were easily changed for modern appartments in superblock tower buildings beyond the 3rd ringroads of Beijing. The hutong, however, is making a comeback. The new generation likes going to famous hutongs for leisure. The centrality and function mix of many hutongs have become much appreciated, since Beijing now suffers from massive traffic infarcts and monofunctional suburbanization. Architects like Steven Holl and Riken Yamamoto have realized housing complexes in Beijing, conceived as modern, vertical, hutongs. In their project Meta:Hutongs, architects Wang Shuo and Andrew Bryant organize workshops to explore the possiblities of the hutong model, without taking sides of either the preservationists or the demolitionists. It is one of the projects featured in the Abitare China #34, a special magazine on Hutong Adaptation.

Abitare - Meta:Hutongs

The hutongs in the central area of Beijng (within the 3rd ringroad) can easily be explored in three dimensions using Baidu Maps:

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Beijing Design Week 2013

During the Beijing Design Week 2013, architecture studio Venhoeven CS organized a workshop called ‘The Sino-Dutch Approach‘, commissioned by the Creative Industry Fund. This year, Amsterdam is guest city of the BJDW. In a group of 12 Dutch designers I travelled to Beijing to work on transformation strategies for the Fengtai industrial district, in the Southwest periphery of Beijing. The aim of the workshop is to generate crossover concepts with our Chinese counterparts, for sustainable development in the capital city. Many of China’s major challenges are found in Fengtai: air quality, water management, congestion, economic shift from production to services, migration and gentrification. The district has the potential to become a creative subcentre and gateway to Beijing.

Case 1: Dahongmen
The Dahongmen area consists of fashion wholesale complexes. There are plans for fashion retail zones, focusing on the exclusive brands. The challenge here is to develop the entire value chain, from production and creation to the consumer, in order to attract and maintain a variety of professionals and social groups in the area, necessary for an innovative environment where Chinese brands and trends can emerge.

Case 2: Yongding river
Beijing has a dramatic relationship with water. On the one hand there is so much water shortage that water is brought in from the Yangtse river in the South. The Gobi desert is approaching and the Yongding river itself is dry most time of the year due to dams and water usage upstream. On the other hand heavy rainfall has caused severe damage to the urban structures in Beijing, for lack of permeable surfaces. A new type of green living environment may revive the Yongding river floodplains and redirect rainwater to feed the river.

Case 3: Fengtai railway station
The new high-speed railway station and subway links will strengthen the position of Fengtai as gateway of Beijing. Passengers traveling from Hong Kong and Shenzhen to Beijing will pass through the area. The station surroundings therefore have the potential to become a hotspot of activities and meetings, that may function in a complementary way to alleviate the congested central area of Beijing. Rather than redeveloping the whole area, a stepwise strategy could provide a lively area of reused industrial buildings, bike and pedestrian routes, densified ‘hutongs‘ and function mix of housing with amenities and work spaces.

Fengtai station strategy
Development proposal for Fengtai station area

Smart City
The main exhibition of the Design Week is about Smart Cities, held in the China Millennium Monument Museum of Digital Arts. Curated by Lei Yang, it features many tools to use big data and new media to plan and enhance the city, such as Urban OS and OS City. The SprintCity planning support tool may also provide opportunities for cities like Beijing.
The irony is however, that at the moment the Chinese authorities do not give access to urban data and have to a large extent control over what happens at the Chinese social media. This prevents civilians from using and improving many of the smart tools.

Download the presentation of the Sino-Dutch Approach, by Ton Venhoeven.
Also read the daily reports by the Creative Industry Fund, and my travel journal (Dutch), including the names of all participants.

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Shell building Rotterdam

 

Recently, Shell has left its former building at Hofplein in Rotterdam. Apart from a few minor tenants, the building is now vacant. Due to their experience with the nearby Schieblock, planning office ZUS has been commissioned to find new (temporary) users for the iconic building.

This week I gave a workshop at the thirteenth floor of the building, from where one has a spectacular view over central Rotterdam.

View over the BInnenrotte and Blaak. On the forefront, a monument marking the position of the old Delft Gate.

View over Weena and Hofplein

View over a social housing area near the train tunnel entrance – sometimes called ‘Legoland’

Mixed use block at Hofplein

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