The International Making Cities Livable Conference in Rome spanned 4 days and was chock full of ideas, information and energy. I met people from Canada, the U.S., Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Italy, Turkey, England, Ireland, India, Slovakia …… and even someone from north of the Arctic Circle. Really!
There’s certainly a yearning for this type of information, but I wish there had been 3 or 4 times the attendance.
I summarized Day #1 here. Here are a few of the key take-away messages for me from the rest of the conference:
A livable city must work well for children. Children don’t have the same opportunities to play, socialize and recreate as I did when growing up in Minnesota in the 1950s. Lamine Mahdjoubi from Bristol, UK pointed out how children have vanished from the public realm, living lives of isolation at home in front of their computers and TV. The children in the Mediterranean countries are particularly suffering from obesity because of this rise in sedentary lifestyles.
A strong, healthy town knows how to leverage public-private partnerships. Mayor Brainard of Carmel, Indiana, USA, explained that when he ran for election, he knocked on many doors to ask people in the community what they wanted. When he synthesized all of their comments down, he realized they were all wishing for a livable community. So he’s succeeded in creating the Carmel Arts & Design District where he’s leveraged public-private partnerships to implement many of the design principles we know make livable communities. He shared amazing before-and-after photos, explaining how tax increment financing (TIFs) have succeeded in putting much of the parking underground. He’s a firm believer in the use of round-abouts too, so much so that the local newspaper made a cartoon of him. Carmel has added 187 miles of bike trails in the city, and between 14,000-15,000 people use them every day. Wow! I was thinking of Chuck Marohn from Strong Towns as I listened to the Mayor.
Old people and the youth are the indicator species for a livable community. If it works for them, it works for everyone. I didn’t know much about the age-friendly movement, but was pleased to hear a panel discussion about it on Wednesday. Phillip Stafford from Bloomington, IN, USA shared some depressing statistics about our aging population in the US, and noted that our market economy has commodified old age. The disastrous planning of the past few decades, along with unbridled capitalism (the market economy), have actually put most of the aging population in homogeneous sprawling suburbs where they’re stuck, isolated and can’t remain independent. However, there’s a glimmer of hope with a recent APA publication on the topic.
Stafford recommends we focus on collaborative consumption where the aging population has many assets to share including: time, talent, and treasure. By treasure, he wasn’t suggesting their pocketbooks, but rather their community gardens, house share, tool share, car share. How do we make these shareable assets known and connected with others?
An architect from St. Petersburg, Russia discussed how to create a new classical urban fabric by sharing some of the projects he has worked on. In 1984, I visited St. Petersburg (then known as Leningrad), Moscow, Alma Ata and Tashkent and recall the Soviet-era buildings that were such monstrosities. Retrofitting those ugly utilitarian blocks will require new ideas, and new architects, such as Maxim Atayants. What impressed me as much as his design ideas, was his talent as an artist and his obvious passion for his work. I Googled him and found some of his sketches here.
“Urban designers and architects are a big problem … creating machine-like cities, computer-like cities, Internet-like cities.” Stefano Serafini, a philosopher and psychologist, challenged us (me?) to think outside of our design silos about our communities. I found this interdiscplinary presentation was one of the strengths of the conference, but I’ll have to read some of his ideas here to try to grasp what biourbanism is all about. Honestly, alot of it was over my head.
I was very pleased that he referenced the work of my friend from Albuquerque, architect and planner Besim Hakim.
Besim’s book — Mediterranean Urbanism “brings together historic urban/building rules and codes for the geographic areas including Greece, Italy, and Spain. The author achieved his ambitious goal of finding pertinent rules and codes that were followed in previous societies for the processes that formed the built environment of their towns and cities, including building activities at the neighborhood level and the decision-making process that took place between proximate neighbors.”
Human health and the built environment — go hand in hand. I thought about the environmental engineers I’ve met in Gaza. Mariano Bizzarri from Rome shared alot of statistics showing the links between the built environment and health. It was all a bit overwhelming for me to absorb, but I hope to learn more about this topic if his paper is posted on the conference website. The bottomline is that we easily understand the relationship between the natural environment and human health & disease. There’s a direct corrollary between smog and air pollution and breathing problems. However, now there is more research being published about the impacts of the built environment and human health.
The most alarming fact shared at the conference came from Michael Mehaffy, Executive Director of Sustasis Foundation. “At the current pace of development, we will build more urban fabric in the next 50 years than we have built in all of history.” OMG!
Clearly, we’re doing a lousy job of building livable communities now. At this pace, do we have time to unlearn the bad lessons, repair the damage, and move forward on a better path? The Habitat III conference will be in Quito, Ecuador in October this year. “Habitat III” is shorthand for a major global summit, formally known as the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development. I’m going to learn more about that and see if there’s an opportunity to participate.
Mehaffy talked about the need to change our models of global development, change the tools we use in this process, and also change the rules. What we’re building today is functionally segregated and resource inefficienct — the “crack cocaine” of economic development is the origin of sprawl. He mentioned the work of Christopher Alexander and The City is Not a Tree. I didn’t really understand it until I found this pdf.
Many of the points Mehaffy made (rather, all of his points) resonated with me from my education and experience as a city planner, a land use lawyer, and an observer of urban life and politics. I’ve been talking for years about the professional silos and group think that pervades the planning and urban design professions. Mehaffy was speaking rapidly, and every point he made deserved some thoughtful elaboration. He ended by saying there’s no need for cynicism and despair that only serve the powerful. “We” need to take the power.
Yes! I want to be on his team.
(Caveat: There were other presenters who contributed dynamite presentations. My head is still swimming. I hope the conference organizers will share everyone’s papers and powerpoint presentations.)