Each Street Redevelopment is a Chance for the City
by Pilar Ferreres & José Luis Gisbert
Often cities trust at engineer or architects’ knowledge to design the public realm. Safety, vibrant life, people and merchant’s transportation as elements of the urban landscape have to be considered. But, is it possible to do a good job without walking and experiencing the street?
Wake up, it’s proposing time.
Two years ago during WALK21 Munich we listened to Dr. Hermann Knoflacher from Vienna about the traffic virus theory but also to others speakers from Germany, USA or Spain, explaining what they were doing about it, how they had found a loophole to begin to fight that virus and initiate a treatment.
The Pla del Remei neighborhood in Valencia hasn´t been refurbished for almost 30 years. By April 2014 the Valencia City Council announced a redevelopment for some of its streets, two of them are where we live and work. Knowing nothing more than the news we asked for public participation, but the city council answered that no law would force them to involve citizens. As residents we didn’t understand this, but as architects we knew this was a chance that we couldn’t let pass, so we carried on till we got to see the planned project in September 2014.
The lack of public participation could explain why fundamental goals have not been addressed in the proposal, in our case these goals would have been: improvement of pedestrian safety, control of solar radiation by shadowing trees or a street section that would be able to allow complex uses to overlap. Those are narrow streets (only 12m wide with up to 7-8 storey buildings) where each meter still had to gain its design value.
We could notice that, far from being abated, the virus was spreading again. So we had to act quickly and fast design an Alternative Proposal of Improvement for both streets; Pizarro and Hernán Cortés (PAM_PIHE).
Valencia’s downtown welcomes multiple functions as result of its accessibility; it is a city hotspot within a very limited space. We worked from two lines, firstly we explained what was missing in the municipal project, secondly we explained our alternative that was not different in terms of cost but regarding the benefits for those who lived there: A beach strip and a crossroad turning into public space, a square.
Complex streets need people’s knowledge
Experiencing the street means to study and detect every need on it. This is impossible to attain, even with the help of technical advances such as pedestrian counter, camera observation or even volunteer city observers as none of these systems is able to reach a 24-hour coverage of what happens in a specific place. But it is even more difficult if you only count as many cars flow in the street, the only method used to inform the design of traffic arterials during the last century.
Public participation helps planners and designers to more easily reach an approach to real street problems and take an approximate idea of which users are involved. Merchants, businesses, residents, visitors, tourists have their own point of view, they use the same space more intensely at different times of the day.
But public participation not only identifies the current problems. It is useful to see the missing parts in advance, the pieces of a street that are gone, the yearnings, the desires of citizens that travel and know other sites, other streets and wonder for themselves: “Why was I happy there?” Other people ask themselves: “Could it be as easy as just copying that street?”
Regrettably, the somewhat inertial design process carries the car-oriented city redevelopment, even if it was already overtaken by the end of the last century. Jan Gehl’s research and different cities’ experiences point at the goal “to design a human city without damaging functional areas’ needs”. The challenge is to balance between various types of needs, existing activities plus those which the current conditions does not allow (yet).
The street and city context matters
Valencia is a medium-sized city, with an urban core and a metropolitan area of about 1.5 million inhabitants. The topography is almost plain with very comfortable and warm climate, all year round. The city has a concentric urban structure with commercial activity focused towards its center, despite of new shopping malls. The agglomeration has a diameter of about seven kilometers, so you can reach the city center walking in about 30 minutes from any place in the city core, however the streets are designed to reach the inner city by car, or even optimized to cross the city, so drivers do. This results in a traffic situation that leaves the center streets as (car-based) access routes to the city, which has a great impact on the whole urban fabric.
The lack of public space or pedestrian paths in the city has been offset by the old riverbed restored as a park, a green open space and an exceptional urban wealth in its role as the backbone of the city.
What has been going on in the city since that time? What is the matter with areas where people can’t reach this park everyday? Old people for example, who prefer smaller spaces also need quietness and fresh air. Where else can they find it? For the last 20 years the Valencia City Council have been redeveloping streets without a global strategy nor walking continuity and has in contrast, prioritized private cars instead of people.
While the current council street design is based on the experience of users’ complaints about a car-oriented city (like European pioneers dating back 30 years), we propose to look at those experiences incorporating public participation and street-level design. The economy alone won’t allow us to mend them, the design must be worth the effort. Streets will response successfully and prosperous, both to challenges of today and the future.
From Design to Advocacy
We did explain the alternative proposal to our neighbours, we asked them to participate, and they did. We integrated their inputs and submitted that to the Mayor. We are a small team, imagine what could be reached if the Valencia City Council had supported public participation from the start? With a technical team on behalf of the council, engaged enough with sufficient time at hand to visualize, discuss, try and choose. This didn’t happened.
Even we tested the square thanks to volunteers…but this is another story. Works started on 10 August 2015. Will it be virus-free?
Thanks very much to Walk21 Vienna. We are looking forward to be there, learn and take new drive to continue working for better cities for people.
Pilar Ferreres & José Luis Gisbert (EFGarquitectura) are architects in Valencia, Spain and have won a Walking Visionary award with their project “PAM_PIHE_VLC“.
All images in this article by: Pilar Ferreres & José Luis Gisbert, EFGarquitectura.