© Aldo Amoretti

Cities worth living

A city’s sustainability is not only about its buildings and streets, but above all about its inhabitants.

Cards are being reshuffled and the city as we know it seems to have had its day. Climate and mobility change, cost pressure, digitalisation and a rediscovered individuality are awakening our longing for a city with a better quality of life. It’s time for courage, for change and for long term improvement measures. Development is successful, long lasting and sustainable only if future generations are going to benefit from it as well.

© Aldo Amoretti

It seems as if - over the last few years - we have reassessed our ideas on how to live and become more open to change our attitude, also but not only concerning the balance between work and leisure. We have rediscovered the spaces in and between our homes as precious, lively areas rather than transit zones for the daily sprint between personal dependencies and obligations. We have rediscovered the quality of floor-to-ceiling windows and the fine texture of unsealed wooden floors. English gardens and nature have become our new place to be while the parking slots in front of our doors have been transformed into children's football pitches.

But what went wrong in the first place? Decades of optimising our society have made us focus on the individual rather than the whole. We have optimised work and leisure while paying little attention to their interconnections. We have optimised the flow of traffic at various levels without seriously questioning the necessity of transport and its impact on the environment. In the end, we have created well-proportioned, pragmatic and efficient buildings and outdoor spaces while often ignoring their impact on our daily life. Such systems are doomed to fail, they have their limits and they will not last.

Our challenge for the future is to find the right balance between needs and interdependencies, combined with respect for the individual. Building for people means focusing on their needs and habits, rather than the architect's design or the developer's economic and organisational considerations. More than ever, we can find inspiration in neighbourhoods from the Wilhelminian era and their successful mix of housing, commerce, recreation, education and culture. These neighbourhoods left room for social life, for individuality, leisure and communication.

However, also and especially today we have the opportunities and abilities to build cities that last for a long time. Current developments are even playing into our hands. Mobile and decentralised working will make us rediscover the quality of a workplace close to home. This would not only reduce traffic, but also strengthen the social fabric of our neighbourhoods. Retail and restaurants will return to residential areas, our living space will become more compact again, streets will become more lively and safer. Neighbourhoods will once again become an important factor for our social life. At the same time more private transport will shift to cycling and walking. Autonomous driving will reduce parked and dormant traffic on our streets, freeing up space and giving it back to people.

Rather than being designed to provide access for fire services, open spaces must be designed once again as communication and recreation areas. Maintenance does not have to be optimised for accessibility by ride-on mowers. The parcelled gardens for tenants in the centre of the block are still a successful model, giving room to individuality as well as spontaneous conversations.

There is great hope that the individualisation of our cities will bring a return to structural quality and durability. We have realised that - talking about our built environment - identity, atmosphere and charm are created by the handcrafted surfaces and components surrounding us. Individual brick façades, wooden double windows with rolled glass and worn parquet floors will far outlast any thermal insulation composite systems, plastic windows and laminate floors. This is where sustainability and cost-effectiveness really start: adaptability and flexibility over a long period of time.

Before continuing to build our growing cities, we should take a closer look at the needs and the actual lifestyle of the people living in them. Almost every era has created examples of sustainable developments. Many good examples have been created in the context of what is now called affordable housing. If we combine the expertise of the past with the achievements of the present, our intelligent network of people and things and with the digitalisation in planning and construction, we are very well equipped to create a future worth living.

Text: Patrick Stremler, revised version 06 June 2024.
Translation: Barbara Fontana
This article was first published in Polis-Magazine 03/2020.

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