“Cities are organisms, not objects in need of completion”: Lessons in living heritage, from Tokyo to Adelaide

Tokyo: grown, not planned. Image: Getty.

When you think about Japan, you probably think of cherry blossom, kimonos, sashimi, sumo, gardens, bathhouses, neon lights or space-age toilets. What you might not think about is the rich and complex layering in Japanese cities.But, for issues of heritage and conservation, Australia's architects, urban planners and policymakers could learn a lot from Japan.

Tokyo is a city that most visitors remember as being bustling, if not overwhelming, in every sense of the word. The pace is frenetic. People are packed together like sardines.

But, at the human scale, Tokyo has an incredibly rich layering of experiences. The towers of Shinjuku sit alongside the tightly packed informal streets that inspired the movie Bladerunner. Tourist meccas and shopping malls co-exist with open street markets and questionable boutiques. Pockets of traditional houses sit in a strange tension with the megastructures of the heaving metropolis.

The complexity of Tokyo has emerged organically; it could not have been designed. Master planning has a place, because a city needs structures and guidelines for development. But, like planting a seed instead of designing the flower, accepting that cities can evolve organically means that they won’t bow to the will of a single architect or reflect just one moment in time.

The constant state of flux denies the singular and encourages the pastiche. Working in flux requires a shift to thinking of cities as organisms rather than as objects in need of completion. This shift allows each generation to add their chapter to the story, rather than constantly trying to “finish” it.


Progress vs heritage

Adelaide is in many ways the opposite of an organic city. It was planned according to a regimented grid that permits little deviance. However, it has organically retained many heritage buildings and a range of architectural styles.

While we might like to think of this as deliberate: much of this preservation arguably happened as a result of South Australia’s comparatively slow economic growth.

The phenomenon of buildings being protected by economic rationalism rather than cultural idealism is amplified in Japan. Many of Japan’s most interesting urban areas are full of seemingly mismatched buildings, which combine to tell a complex story of their place.

While these areas are now celebrated for their diversity and historical significance, many remain because of cancelled construction projects (during the economic contraction of the 1990s) rather than a deliberate preservation agenda.

Economic growth is not necessarily bad for heritage, and Adelaide doesn’t need another State Bank collapse. But historically slow growth has left the city with a built environment of incredible cultural value.

Adelaide’s North Terrace strip is an obvious example of this. Yet, much like Melbourne in neighbouring Victoria, the South Australian capital is starting to see the value of some of its “less beautiful” parts. The transformation of unloved buildings into thriving small bars demonstrates how buildings of little economic value can have immense urban and cultural value.

While economic hardship largely explains why Adelaide’s North Terrace (pictured here circa 1940) has been well preserved, it is now treasured as the city’s living heritage. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Thinking in terms of living heritage

Instead of ascribing value to buildings simply because they are old or rundown, we need to develop a way of assessing and understanding value. “Living heritage” is a concept that encourages us to think more deeply about the value of buildings through the contribution they make to their surroundings.

Since Marcel Duchamp put a urinal in a gallery and called it art, we have understood that objects are defined by their surroundings as much as by their own design. In a living heritage evaluation, the role of a building in defining and anchoring its context can be as important as its stylistic details.

Buildings normally represent a single moment in time, but the urban environments around them continually evolve. If we understand the contribution a building is making to the story of its surroundings, we can make decisions that go beyond preserving historical facades to foster opportunities to protect, and add to, the stories and layers of the past.

To take this concept further, we could considering whether the ardent preservation of streetscapes as museum pieces is actually holding back the development of cultural identity. Perhaps rather than trying to freeze parts of our cities as examples of the past, we could look at supporting appropriately designed (and scaled) new developments. If done well, these interventions build on and enhance the cultural narrative of place.

Heritage will always be a complex issue, but our understanding needs to go beyond aesthetics to consider cultural (and environmental) dimensions. Contemporary architectural interventions are challenging for any urban area.

But if carefully crafted, good architecture can create an abstract continuity that adds a new layer to the story of a place without compromising its identity and integrity.The Conversation

Aaron Davis is doing a PhD in architecture at the University of South Australia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Seville has built its entire public transport system in 10 years. How has it done?

Just another sunny day in Seville. Image: Claude Lynch.

Seville, the fourth largest urban centre in Spain, was recently voted Lonely Planet’s number one city to visit in 2018. The award made a point of mentioning Seville’s impressive network of bicycles and trams, but it neglected to mention that it’s actually their ten year anniversary. The city’s metro opened just two years later.

This makes now an excellent time to look back on Seville’s public transport network – especially because almost all of it was completed in the middle of the global financial crisis. So, is it a good model for modern public transport? Let’s find out.

Cycle Hire

Seville, like any good metropolis, features a cycle hire scheme: Sevici, which is a clever portmanteau of the words ‘Seville’ and ‘bici’, short for bicicleta, the Spanish for, you guessed it, bicycle.

The service, launched in 2007, is run as a public-private partnership. Users can pay a flat weekly fee of €13.33 (£11.81) for unlimited rentals, as long as all the journeys last 30 minutes or less. For the fanatics, there’s a year-long subscription for €33. This makes Sevici cheaper than the London equivalent (£90) but slightly more than that of Paris (€29).

However, the reason why the bike hire scheme has gained particular praise in recent years is down to Seville’s network of cycle paths, snaking around the town centre and into the suburbs. The sheer scale of the scheme, 75 miles of track in total, has prompted comparisons to Amsterdam.

But there is a meaningful distinction between the two cases. First, cycling culture is such a big deal for the Amsterdammers that it has its own Wikipedia page. In Seville, cycling culture is a growing trend, but one that faces an uphill struggle, despite the city’s flatness. Around half of the cycle paths are on a pavement shared by pedestrians; pedestrians often ignore that the space is designed specifically for cycles.

A Sevici station in the town centre. Image: Claude Lynch.

Surprisingly, cyclists will also find exactly the opposite problem: the fact that bicycles enjoy the privilege of so many segregated spaces mean that, if they dare enter the road, motorists are not obliged to show them the same level of respect – because why would they need to enter the road in the first place?

This problem is only compounded by the Mediterranean driving style, one that takes a more cavalier attitude to objects in the road than that of the northern Europeans. While none of this makes cycling in Seville a write-off – it remains the cycling capital of Spain – budding tourists should bear in mind that the cycle paths do not extend far into the old town proper, making them a utility, for the most part, for budding commuters.

Metro

The metro system in Seville consists of a single metro line that travels from Ciudad Expo in the west to Olivar de Quintos in the east. It has three zones, which create a simple and straightforward fare system, based on the number of journeys and number of “saltos” (jumps) between zones, and nothing more.

The need-to-know for tourists, however, is that only three of the metro stations realistically serve areas with attractions: Plaza de Cuba, Puerta de Jerez, and Prado de San Sebastian. Given that a walk between these is only a few minutes slower than by metro, it shows the metro service for what it is: a service for commuters coming from the west or east of town into the city centre.

Some of the behaviour on the network is worth noting, too. Manspreading is still dangerously common. There are no signs telling you to “stand on the right”, so people queue in a huff instead. Additionally, there is no etiquette when it comes to letting passengers debark before you get on, which makes things precarious in rush hour – or if you dare bring your bike on with you.

On the plus side, that’s something you can do; all trains have spaces reserved for bikes and prams (and they’re far more sophisticated than the kind you see on London buses). Trains are also now fitted with USB charging ports for your phone. This comes in addition to platform edge doors, total wheelchair access, and smart cards as standard. Snazzy, then – but still not much good for tourists.

Platform edge doors at Puerta Jerez. Image: Claude Lynch.

The original plan for Seville’s metro, launched in the 70s, would have had far more stations running through the city centre; it’s just that the ambitious plans were never launched, due in equal measure to a series of sinkholes and financial crises. The same kind of problems led to Seville’s metro network being opened far behind schedule, with expansion far down the list of priorities.

Still, the project, for which Sevillanos waited 40 years, is impressive – but it doesn’t feel like the best way to cater to an east-west slice of Seville’s comparatively small urban population of 1m. Tyne and Wear, one of the few British cities comparable in terms terms of size and ambition, used former railways lines for much of its metro network, and gets far more users as a result. Seville doesn’t have that luxury; or where it does, it refuses to use it in tandem.

You only need to look east, to Valencia, to see a much larger metro in practice; indeed, perhaps Seville’s metro wouldn’t look much different today if it had started at the same time as Valencia, like they wanted to. As a result, Seville´s metro ends up on the smaller side, outclassed on this fantastic list by the likes of Warsaw, Nizhny Novgorod, and, inexplicably, Pyongyang.

Seville: a less impressive metro than Pyongyang. Intriguing. Image: Neil Freeman.

Tramway

The tram travels from the high rise suburb-cum-transport hub of San Bernardo to the Plaza Nueva, in the south of the Seville’s old town. This route runs through a further metro station and narrowly avoids a third before snaking up past the Cathedral.

This seems like a nice idea in principle, but the problem is that it’s only really functional for tourists, as tram services are rare and slow to a crawl into the town centre, anticipating pedestrians, single tracks, and other obstacles (such as horse-drawn carriages; seriously). While it benefits from segregated lanes for most of the route, it lacks the raison d'être of the metro due to the fact that it only has a meagre 2km of track.

The tram travelling down a pedestrianised street with a bicycle path to the right. Image: Claude Lynch.

However, staring at a map long enough offers signs as to why the tram exists as it does. There’s no history of trams in Seville; the tracks were dug specifically for the new line. A little digging reveals that it’s again tied into the first plans for Seville’s metro, which aspired to run through the old town. Part of the reason the scheme was shelved was the immense cost brought about by having to dig through centuries-old foundations.

The solution, then, was to avoid digging altogether. However, because this means the tram is just doing the job the metro couldn’t be bothered to do, it makes it a far less useful service; one that could easily be replaced by a greater number of bike locks and, maybe, just maybe, additional horses.


So what has changed since Seville’s transport revolution?

For one thing, traffic from motor vehicles in Seville peaked in 2007 and has decreased every year since, at least until 2016. What is more promising is that the areas with the best public transport coverage have seen continued decreases in traffic on their roads, which implies that something is working.

Seville’s public transport network is less than 15 years old. The fact that the network was built from scratch, in a city with no heritage of cycling, tunnels, or tramways, meant that it could (or rather, had to) be built to spec. This is where comparisons to Amsterdam, Tyne and Wear, or any other city realistically fall out of favour; the case of Seville is special, because it’s all absolutely brand new.

As a result, it’s not unbecoming to claim that each mode of transport was built with a specific purpose. The metro, designed for the commuter; the tramway, for tourists; and cycling, a mix of the two. In a city with neither a cultural nor a physical precedent of any kind for such radical urban transportation, the outcome was surprisingly positive – the rarely realised “build it, and they will come”.

However, it bears mentioning that the ambitious nature of all three schemes has led to scaling back and curtailment in the wake of the economic crisis. This bodes poorly for the future, given that the Sevici bikes are already nearing the end of their lifetime, the cycle lanes are rapidly losing sheen, and upgrades to the tramway are downright necessary to spare it from obsolescence.

The conclusion we can draw from all this, then, appears to be a double-edged one. Ambition is not necessarily limited by a lack of resources, as alternatives may well present themselves. And yet, as is so often the case, when the money stops, so do the tracks.

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