A dialogue with Federico Parolotto

In a metropolitan context, architecture, town planning and mobility can be considered as inextricably linked. What development directions are the plans for future cities and metropolitan areas taking?

You have to make a distinction between the cities of mature Western economies and those in areas of strong economic expansion, as well as between the so-called megalopolises and smaller cities. The cities of emerging economies will face profoundly different issues compared to the consolidated cities of the Western world, even if emerging–country cities have been planned and continue to develop following Western-style urban models, i.e. with a pervasive presence of private transport. In contrast, urban planning in the West now includes models that are trying to go beyond urban layouts pivoted around private transport. The move away from the car is a phenomenon that cuts across all Western economies and is accompanied by an exponential growth in digital connectivity that should allow more efficient management of cities, and especially of urban and suburban mobility. These trends will allow us to start rethinking and redistributing spaces allocated the automobile. I think that the urban model of the future will be characterised by ‘light’ interventions that will lead to systemic changes such as the overlapping of flexible public transport systems with the existing road network and the progressive removal of the extraordinary amount of parking areas that are a feature of all our cities. Urban mobility flows will become more streamlined and balanced; perhaps the only really new infrastructures will be invisible ones providing ever-greater digital connectivity.

What sort of balance is being attempted among the various types of transport – from pedestrian and cycle paths, private and heavy vehicle traffic to public transport above and below ground?

As I said, I think the key to improving the infrastructure offering and the quality of our cities must be with functional redistribution rather than adding new infrastructure.
The transport system must mould to the morphology of the city it serves. The problems of cities like London and Paris cannot be directly compared with those of Milan, Barcelona or Zürich.
Zürich has given us an example of how to balance mobility flows. It serves as a role model for cities of similar size and its metropolitan region.
We could imagine just this sort of light, flexible transport system superimposed on the existing network and managed digitally along the lines of what has been developed in Switzerland. It is a system that could be applied to suburban areas of metropolitan regions, in other words, to those segments of a city that are often dubbed as not possessing the underlying conditions to support an efficient, economically sustainable public transport system.
As Paul Mees explains in his “Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age”, this sort of redistribution could also be delivered to low-density areas, where the car is king. It would allow a good balance between public transport and pedestrian and cycle routes that would once again be on a par with the private car.

Getting the mobility plan right is key to the success of any real-estate development project, the building of new urban districts or the regeneration of rundown areas. How do you see the relationship between real estate and infrastructure, or the way solid and voids relate in the urban fabric? Is there any sort of ‘urban golden rule’, a perfect balance between built volumes, infrastructure, and urban green? I’ m thinking of the magical amalgam that is London…

When it comes to planning transport systems, thinking of the city in terms of solids and voids is only half the story. The presence of infrastructure and especially the density and type of mobility flows will determine the type of spaces that are created. These may be very different and will have direct repercussions on the quality of the open spaces in a given area.

The transport flows crossing spaces or voids radically impact community life in the public spaces between buildings, and directly impact real-estate values.

In his book “Streets & Patterns”, Stephen Marshall invites us to imagine London’s Fitzroy Square first crossed by a bicycle and then by an increasing number of motor vehicles. He describes how the very nature of space changes with the different type of transport flows. When planning built space, you have to somehow imagine what type of traffic flows there will be, because these will determine the quality of that space regardless of the road layout. I should also say that in our consulting work for projects connected with mobility and transport, we always try to ensure an urban environment where there is a subtle relationship between the spaces separating buildings but also that the mobility flow pattern will guarantee urban quality.

Today we talk of the urban environment. Seeing things in terms of streetscape means adopting a whole new take on road design. Is this because architecture is increasingly impacting town planning? Or is it rather an acknowledgement that architecture is not about building a single item but rather placing a building in its broader context, in a connective tissue that in turn needs to be planned?

Integrated planning of architectures and their surrounding connective tissue is key to the success of an overall project. In this context, planning the road layout is not just a question of determining geometries. It’s what creates a micro-urban environment. These seemingly obvious considerations were in fact deeply contradicted by urban planning in the 1950s and 60s when designers came to have less and less say in the quality of urban spaces–the” streetscape”. With the arrival of cars for the masses, an era that began in the 60s in Europe, we saw the birth of a specialist figure, the traffic engineer, whose job it was to plan the road network. His task was first and foremost to solve issues of road safety. He later became charged with assessing the highway network exclusively in terms of capacity. Reducing the road network to a system for private transport generated the perverse effects on cities we know all too well today. It is essential that infrastructure projects take back the multifaceted complexity that is typical of all urban projects, paying attention to light mobility and public transport, to the micro-environment and the city as a whole.

The concept of sustainability has two fundamental aspects: a technical performance factor, linked to energy consumption (for architecture) and soil occupation (for town planning); and a much wider, more complex factor that has to do with society, the urban and natural landscape and the delicate balance between the survival and future sustainability of urban development. In this complex whole how can architecture, town planning, and mobility come together and dialogue?

The impact of mobility on energy efficiency and ecological sustainability is huge, and unfortunately there do not seem to be technologies that can, in the short term, make any significant inroads. Nor do I think it possible to change the urban building patterns consolidated over the last 60 years of urban development that have led to widespread low–density urban development. It should be said, however, that the structural reduction in traffic volumes we have been seeing since the middle of the last decade will allow us to rethink mobility spaces in existing cities more appropriately. The spaces in cities allocated to cars are often oversized even for current traffic flows. Architects, town planners, transport planners must all start to confer with one another to ensure that transport infrastructure projects are founded on criteria of urban quality and do not just conform to technical considerations.

Reconsidering the road platform as an opportunity to “redistribute” spaces or voids may even allow us to conceive of diverse scenarios in which the natural world might be returned to places where it has been progressively banished by relentless asphalting of whole urban stretches.

Author: Federico Parolotto 4 February 2013 Interview by Nicola Leonardi, from The Plan 063 – 12/2012

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