Learning from Europe Report 2012

8 November 2012
Hosted by BDP, London

The night was chaired by Professor Chris Balch (AoU) and introduced by BDP Chief Executive, Peter Drummond (AoU), who gave the presentations an immediately relevant context when he spoke about the pressures that UK city centres are under with the economic downturn. Current government policy could set back the spirit of city centres for decades to come. In this light there is a great deal to learn from the achievements of European cities like Antwerp, Hamburg and Lyon.

Antwerp

All three cities have a river at their heart (in fact two in the case of Lyon!). The first presentation from Kristiaan Borret, City Architect, began by presenting Antwerp’s challenge to re-orientate the city on a North-South line following the river, linking up the different historic areas that have accumulated concentrically, from 16th Century city walls to 1950’s modernist housing.

All three cities have a river at their heart (in fact two in the case of Lyon!). The first presentation from Kristiaan Borret, City Architect, began by presenting Antwerp’s challenge to re-orientate the city on a

North-South line following the river, linking up the different historic areas

that have accumulated concentrically, from 16th Century city walls to 1950’s modernist housing.

But for Antwerp this has first and foremost been a social challenge, one that the city has tackled with a distinctive form of slow urbanism. While many of the ideas for Antwerp’s architectural regeneration date from the cosmopolitan early twentieth century, the key period for their practical realisation has been the 1990s, when ideas, resources and political will came together. The city set about targeting a handful of the most deprived areas, making concentrated interventions that were both vital social services and architectural set-pieces.

In the Sailor’s quarter, known for prostitution and the black market, this took the form of a new municipal health centre. At the same time the decision was taken not to criminalise prostitution but to regulate it – in a characteristically urbanist manner – by restricting it to 3 particular streets.

In line with this kind of project there is also Antwerp’s ‘Vespa’ housing scheme, which buys up disused properties, redevelops them and sells them on at a subsidised rate. Kristiaan described the scheme as ‘urban acupuncture’ – lots of small points of action which stimulate change in the larger vicinity. But the piecemeal nature of slow urbanism means that Antwerp must now try to reconcile these ‘special instruments’ with a broader, unified masterplan.

 

Hamburg

In contrast to Antwerp, where fragmented private land ownership made slow urbanism a necessity, the City State authorities of Hamburg own and control a great deal of their environment, making it possible to do things quickly and on a large scale.

But the scale and pace of change in Hamburg have equally been born out of necessity, and as with Antwerp, success has come when limits have been turned into strengths. By its nature Hamburg is a big city (compare its 1.7 million inhabitants with Antwerp’s 500 thousand). Following the fall of the wall, the city had to absorb an extra 140 thousand people in the space of a few years. As Andreas Kellner, Vice Director of the Planning Department put it, in these conditions there was simply no question of slow urbanism.

Hamburg’s strategy was to redevelop old military bases and industrial sites in order to generate inner-city growth, while at the same time preserving the green spaces that already dotted the city’s interior.

The importance of the river comes to the fore again in this development. Shipping and transport were at the heart of Hamburg’s industrial strength. The city is often likened to a ‘string of pearls’ clinging to the river. But the revolution of containerisation, demanding vastly more space and much shorter docking times, has shifted trade downstream.

Now Hamburg is trying to create a new type of public space – ‘blue’ spaces on the waterfront supplementing the existing green ones. Hafen City in south-central Hamburg is the prime example of this, with its floating platforms, terraces and promenades.

Andreas closed his presentation by reminding us who urbanism is really for. Hamburg has recently been alive with protests, community activity and legal action, as numerous public spaces and disused buildings have been occupied – an echo of its perennial challenges to do with housing and questions of scale. Andreas believes this energy has to be harnessed by going beyond the formal channels that currently exist.

 

Lyon

The final city to present at Learning from Europe was Lyon. Like Hamburg and Antwerp it is a ‘second city’ – second to Paris, whose shadow it is now trying to step out of. But of all three cities under consideration, Lyon is probably the one with the most monumental heritage. Its origins are Roman and successively it has been a centre of Gallic, Renaissance, and Catholic cultures.

This heritage continues into the twentieth century with the monuments of high modernism. Lyon was the test bed of Tony Garnier’s Garden City. A cluster of 30 skyscrapers and a motorway spanning the crossing point of its two rivers – ‘La confluence’ – dominate the centre of the city.

Francois Bergnac, Interim General Director of Lyon’s Urbanism Agency, described this moment of functionalist urbanism as a ‘rupture’ that now has to be repaired. A key aspect of this work is tackling that monument of twentieth century urbanism – the car. Although there are large parks and leisure areas on its outskirts, Lyon’s centre is renowned for traffic jams and large stretches of car parking. Now the city is trying to reverse that relationship, making green belts penetrate the centre, reducing the number of cars, and pedestrianising large roads.

The redevelopment of The Confluence is the cornerstone of this effort. Two kilometres of car parking have been converted into a public space for families and tourists.

At the same time Lyon is aware of its history. The initiative to rebrand Lyon ‘the city of light’ is an attempt to actively seize this heritage, playing on Lyon’s reputation for cinema, natural light and its two rivers. To this end the city has set up an annual ‘festival of light’ and begun a project to illuminate its most important buildings.

Echoing the lessons of Hamburg, Francois closed with a note of humility by recognising the huge challenges Lyon still faces in its inner-city areas, where the attempt to tackle unemployment has so far been unsuccessful.

Conclusions

The lessons learnt from the three European City of the Year finalists were inevitably wide-ranging. But common features and diverse approaches led to some revealing moments of dialogue: comparisons between Lyon’s confluence and Hamburg’s Hafen City; Antwerp’s cosmopolitan architecture seen against Lyon’s monumental modernism; slow urbanism versus rapid growth; masterplanning versus ‘urban acupuncture’.

All three cities are port cities; all three are second cities. Beyond these similarities, and beyond the differing approaches, all three are engaged in a debate centred on the transition from a ‘post-industrial city’ to a new ‘renaissance city’. This debate involves thinking through the relationship between vertical and horizontal modes of planning, individual projects and overall frameworks, the small and the large, people and strategy; or what Kristiaan Borret called the development of a ‘new typology of the urban block’.