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 other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.