How can we engineer our cities to protect against the threats of the 21st century?

Is your city resilient? Image: Buro Happold.

Roger Nickells, CEO of BuroHappold Engineering, discusses the threats facing 21st-century cities and how we can protect against them.

Which threats put cities at risk?

The importance of the city environment can’t be understated. Around 50-60 per cent of GDP is earned in urban centres. So it’s important that they’re not just able to deal with short-term risk, but also with the long-term risks involved in creating a sustainable economy for the people living in those cities. 


There are a couple of examples we’ve been involved with. Detroit, for example, grew around the car industry; when the car industry migrated away, the employment opportunities and associated benefits disappeared. That happened slowly over decades, making the city unviable economically.

Similarly in Gothenburg – the home of Ericsson and Volvo – manufacturing techniques changed, and so too did the economy of that city. Our work has been about maintaining the competitiveness of cities, their ability to adapt and to support their people at all levels.

But how do you protect a city?

In the long term, growth itself can be a risk: if cities grow too fast, the infrastructure isn’t able to cope.

Transport is overwhelmed and demand for housing isn’t met – a problem with which we’re very familiar. Alongside that are short-term events such as flood and fire – we’ve seen severe disruption in places like Kendal in Cumbria after the storms in September 2015, and in the US, in New Orleans and New York after hurricanes.

There’s a really strong need for leadership that is able to properly understand and define risks. Good city leaders need to be able to map risk and to balance, contrast and prioritise where they’re going to invest their budgets.

Can you actually measure the risks or areas of weakness in a city?

BuroHappold Engineering has created a solution, the Resilience Insight tool, which anyone can test on our website (visit www.buro.im/BHinsighttool, Chrome browser recommended ). Using it, we’re able to benchmark and chart a whole host of issues within a city and create priorities such as public health or communications in a whole host of scenarios – flooding, a heatwave, a major energy outage. By looking at an individual city we’re able to develop a piece of insight and determine what acceptable levels of risk are. Using these data, we look at the city’s ability to both mitigate these risks and adapt to them. We’ve been through this with 15 cities.

How do you get a city to thrive?

Through the broad engagement of people. Each city has its own set of relationships, its own set of communities. If we are able to help cities measure, identify and then understand the weak points in their investment and resources, we can help city leaders to prioritise well.

So everyone benefits from city resilience strategies?

Everybody, whichever city they’re in, is affected by the environment around them. So if you take almost any city environment, the lower-value land tends to be the land that’s more at risk. The the link between heath inequality and prosperity is a key issue. Mental health, too, is supported by the urban community as well as the spaces and buildings that surround it.

The research we do at BuroHappold helps us work out the optimum shape of a building so that it benefits the ambient environment in terms of wind and weather protection, provides green spaces where people can meet, and offers the best design for the wellbeing of the building’s inhabitants.

But you can’t build a city from scratch...

Actually, sometimes we do. We’re designing a city at the moment – we are developing the King Abdullah Economic City, north of Jeddah. As we work with that ambitious client we think about how to prioritise investment, how to masterplan the design of a new city to allow people to come in and take the city forward, to use it in the way they might want to. It’s a balance, whether you’re designing a city, a district or an individual building.

What comes after resilience?

We begin by designing resilience. strategies first, and then regeneration strategies next. There’s a lovely quote from 1924 by a traveller called Joseph Loss, who said: “Cities outlive the people to whom they owe their existence and the languages in which they are communicated; both the life and death of cities depend on many laws which do not follow any pattern or accept any rule.” I think that captures it brilliantly. Every city is completely different in geography, in its makeup, in its economic proposition, but they share a blend which if we properly understand, properly manage and design, will help us to create cities people want to live in, somewhere they can thrive.

BuroHappold has 23 offices worldwide & 1,800 employees; their work includes complex city master planning (Riyadh, KAEC), regeneration projects (Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park) and transitorientated development.

 
 
 
 

What would an extended Glasgow Subway look like?

West Street station. Image: Finlay McWalter/Wikimedia Commons.

There are many notable things about Glasgow’s historic Subway.

It is the third oldest in the world. It is the only one in the UK that runs entirely underground. It runs on a rare 4ft gauge. For reasons passing human understanding, it shuts at teatime on a Sunday.

But more significantly, it’s the only metro system never to have been expanded since its original development. A couple of stations have come and gone in the 122 years since the Subway opened (and promptly shut again following a serious accident before the first day was out). But Glasgow’s Subway has remained a frustratingly closed loop. Indeed, while a Scottish newspaper recently estimated there have been more than 50 proposed new stations for Glasgow's iconic Subway since it first opened, all we’ve had are a couple of replacements for closed stops. 

The original route map. Image: SPT.

It’s not for a lack of trying, or at the least discussion. Glasgow’s SNP-led council pledged a major expansion of the Subway as part of their election pledge last year, for example, vowing to find the funding to take the network beyond the existing route.

All this sounds very familiar, of course. A decade ago, with the 2014 Commonwealth Games in mind, operators SPT began looking into a near-£3bn expansion of the Subway into the East End of the city, primarily to serve the new Velodrome complex and Celtic Park.

In the end, the plans — like so many discussed for expanding the Subway – failed to materialised, despite then SPT chairman Alistair Watson claiming at the time: “We will deliver the East End extension for 2014. I am being unequivocal about that.”

As detailed previously on CityMetric, that extension would have seen seven new stations being opened along a second, eastern-centric loop, crossing over with the original Subway at two city centre sites. Had that gone ahead, we would by now have had a new route looking something like this:

The 2007 proposals for an eastern circle. Image: Iain Hepburn.

St Mungo’s would have been close to Glasgow Cathedral. Onslow, presumably located on or near Onslow Drive, would have principally served Dennistoun, as would have a link-up with the existing Duke St overground station.

Gorbals, benefiting from the ongoing redevelopment and residential expansion that’s all but erased it’s No Mean City reputation, would have gained a station, while Newhall would have been next to Glasgow Green. Dalmarnock station would, like Duke Street, become an interchange with Scotrail’s services, while crucially Celtic Park would have gained the final stop, serving both the football stadium, the nearby Emirates Arena and velodrome, and the Forge shopping centre.


Those plans, though, were drawn up more than a decade ago. And if the SNP administration is serious about looking again at the expansion of the Subway, then there’s more than a few changes needing made to those plans.

For starters, one stop at the far end of the loop serving Celtic, the new sports arenas and the Forge feels a bit like underselling the area, particularly with so much new residential development nearby.

Two feels more realistic: one serving the Forge and the rest of Dennistoun, and the other sited on London Road to serve the mass volumes of football and sports traffic. And if Ibrox can have a stop, then it seems churlish not to give the other of the Old Firm clubs their own named halt.

That’s another thing. The naming of the proposed stations is… arbitrary, to say the least. You’d struggle to find many Glaswegians who’d immediately identify where Newhall or Onslow were, off the top of their head. 

The former, especially, seems like there’s a more natural alternative name, Glasgow Green; while the latter, with a second Forge stop also serving Dennistoun, would perhaps benefit from named for the nearby Alexandra Place and park.

(Actually, if we’re renaming stations from their unlikely original choices, let’s say goodbye Hillhead and a big hiya to Byres Road on the original Subway while we’re at it…)

So, what would a realistic, 2017-developed version of that original 2007 proposal give us? Probably something like this:

Better. Image: Iain Hepburn.

One glaring issue with the original 2007 study was the crossover with the… let’s call it the Western Subway. The original proposal had St Enoch and Buchanan St as the crossover points, meaning that, if you wanted to go out east from, say, the Shields Road park and ride, you had to go into town and double back. 

Using Bridge Street as a third interchange feels a more realistic, and sensible, approach to alleviating city centre crowding and making the journey convenient for folk travelling directly from west to east.

There’s a good case to be made for another south east of the river station, depending on where the Gorbals stop is sited. But these are austere times and with the cost of the expansion now likely more than £5bn at current rates, an expanded Bridge Street would do much of that legwork.

Putting all that together, you’d end up with something looking like this:

 

Ooooh. Image: Iain Hepburn.

Ahead of last year’s election, SNP councillor Kenny McLean vowed the party “[would] look at possible extension of the Subway and consider innovative funding methods, such as City Bonds, to fund this work. The subway is over 120 years old. It is high time that we look to connect communities in the north and east of Glasgow.”

Whether Glasgow could raise the £5bn it would probably need to make the 2007 proposal, or an updated variation of it remains, to be seen. And this still doesn’t solve how many places are left off the system. While a line all the way out to Glasgow Airport is unrealistic – after all, an overground rail service to the airport from Paisley has failed to materialise after 30 years of discussion and planning – there’s plenty of places in the city not well served by the Subway, from Maryhill in the north to Hampden in the south, or the riverside developments that have seen flats replace factories and new media hubs, museums and hotels line the Clyde.


Image: Iain Hepburn.

Key city landmarks like the Barrowlands, the Riverside Museum – with its own, fake, vintage subway stop, or the Merchant City are woefully underserved by the subway. But their incorporation – or connection with a Glasgow Crossrail – seems a very expensive pipe dream.

Instead, two adjoining loops, one to Ibrox and one to Celtic Park, seems the most plausible future for an extended Subway. At least colour coding the lines would be easy…

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