Each Street Redevelopment Is a Chance for the City
by Pilar Ferreres & José Luis Gisbert
Wake up, it's proposing time
Two years ago during WALK21 Munich we listened to Dr. Hermann Knoflacher from Vienna about the traffic virus theory. We also heard others speakers from Germany, the US and Spain explaining what they were doing about it, how they had found a loophole to begin to fight that virus and initiate a treatment.
Nowadays: 170m distance between the crosswalks of a 12m wide street (2+8+2). If you need to cross, just jump! Image by: Pilar Ferreres & José Luis Gisbert
The Pla del Remei neighborhood in Valencia hasn´t been refurbished for almost 30 years. In April 2014, the Valencia City Council announced a redevelopment plan for some of its streets, two of which are where we live and work. Knowing nothing more than the news we asked for public participation, but the city council answered that no law would force them to involve citizens. As residents we didn't understand this, but as architects we knew this was a chance that we couldn't let pass, so we carried on until we got to see the planned project in September 2014.
People waiting for a green light at the Hernán Cortés zebra crossing. Image by: Pilar Ferreres & José Luis Gisbert
The lack of public participation could explain why fundamental goals were not addressed in the proposal. In our case, these goals would have been: improvement of pedestrian safety, control of solar radiation through shading trees or a street section that would be able to allow complex uses to overlap. These are narrow streets (only 12m wide with up to 7-8-storey buildings) where each meter still had to gain its design value.
Rendering of the 2014 City Council proposal. Car park lane, no green cover. Image by: Pilar Ferreres & José Luis Gisbert
We could notice that, far from being abated, the virus was spreading again. So we had to act quickly and designed an Alternative Proposal of Improvement for both streets, Pizarro and Hernán Cortés (PAM_PIHE).
Valencia's downtown welcomes multiple functions as a result of its accessibility; it is a city hotspot within a very limited space. We worked with two approaches; first, we explained what was missing in the municipal project, and second, we presented our alternative, which was did not differ in terms of cost but made a difference regarding the benefits for those who lived there: A beach strip and a crossroad turning into public space, a square.
Low profile sidewalk curb, allowing people, even the physically impaired, to cross wherever needed outside the highly frequented zebra crossings. Design criteria for large pedestrian freedom on streets with high traffic volume bring the right balance. Image by: Pilar Ferreres & José Luis Gisbert
The current crossroad at the Pizarro-Cirilo Amorós crossing: An empty space reserved for cars. Image by: Pilar Ferreres & José Luis Gisbert
The proposed public space in an active state. A square instead of a crossroad, an empty space in which a 20m-diameter circle of public life takes place. Linger, walk, play, meet, talk or just observe with a sufficiently large number of shading trees of suitable tree species. Image by: Pilar Ferreres & José Luis Gisbert
Complex streets need people's knowledge
Experiencing the street means to study and detect every need on it. This is impossible to attain, even with the help of technical advances such as pedestrian counters, camera observation or even volunteer city observers, as none of these systems is able to reach 24-hour coverage of what happens in a specific place. But it is even more difficult if you only count how many cars flow in the street, the only method used to inform the design of traffic arteries during the last century.
Hernán Cortés Street: People's street experience helps designers to draw conclusions on what is going wrong. Strong traffic pressure, even on sidewalks, is a situation that must be reversed. Design matters. Image by: Pilar Ferreres & José Luis Gisbert
Public participation helps planners and designers to reach an approach to real street problems more easily and get an approximate idea of which users are involved. Merchants, businesses, residents, visitors, and tourists all have their own point of view; they use the same space more intensely at different times of the day.
But public participation not only identifies the current problems. It is useful to see the missing parts in advance, the pieces of a street that are gone, the yearnings, the desires of citizens who travel and know other places, other streets and wonder to themselves: "Why was I happy there?" Other people ask themselves: "Could it be as easy as just copying that street?"
Making proper room for everyone's needs is a must for designing streets in the 21st century. Wide-enough sidewalks allow street connectivity, especially in the inner city and the adjacent districts. Image by: Pilar Ferreres & José Luis Gisbert
Regrettably, the somewhat inertial design process carries on with car-oriented city redevelopment, even though it was already outdated by the end of the last century. Jan Gehl's research and different cities' experiences point to the goal "to design a human city without damaging functional areas' needs". The challenge is to balance various types of needs, existing activities, and those that the current conditions do not allow (yet).
The street and city context matters
Valencia is a medium-sized city, with an urban core and a metropolitan area with about 1.5 million inhabitants. The topography is almost flat and the city has a very comfortable and warm climate year round. The city has a concentric urban structure with commercial activity focused towards its center, despite new shopping malls. The agglomeration has a diameter of about seven kilometers, so you can reach the city center on foot in about 30 minutes from any place in the city core; however, the streets are designed to reach the inner city by car, or even optimized to cross the city, so drivers do. This results in a traffic situation that leaves the center streets as (car-based) access routes to the city, which has a great impact on the whole urban fabric.
In Valencia we can identify River Park and the harbor waterfront as the most important pedestrian flows at city level to be considered in the near future. Image by: Pilar Ferreres & José Luis Gisbert
The lack of public space or pedestrian paths in the city has been offset by the old riverbed restored as a park, a green open space and an exceptional urban wealth in its role as the backbone of the city.
What has been going on in the city since that time? What is happening with areas where people can't reach this park everyday? Old people for example, who prefer smaller distances, also need quietness and fresh air. Where else can they find it? For the last 20 years, the Valencia City Council has been redeveloping streets without a global strategy or walking continuity and has, in contrast, prioritized private cars instead of people.
The pedestrian network on a district scale or the connection between adjacent neighborhoods is also an unresolved issue. Image by: Pilar Ferreres & José Luis Gisbert
While actual council street design is based on the experience of users' complaints about a car-oriented city (as did European pioneers about 30 years ago), we propose to look at those experiences incorporating public participation and street-level design. The economy alone won't allow us to mend them; the design must be worth the effort. Streets will respond successfully and fruitfully to the challenges of both today and the future.
PAM_PIHE: The alternative proposal for improvement as reaction to the City Council's proposal. It includes real public participation and real life-size tests that are provided to try to stimulate the city to its best possible actions. Image by: Pilar Ferreres & José Luis Gisbert
From Design to Advocacy
We explained the alternative proposal to our neighbors, we asked them to participate, and they did. We integrated their inputs and submitted the proposal to the Mayor. We are a small team, imagine what could be reached if the Valencia City Council had supported public participation from the start? With a technical team on behalf of the council, engaged enough with sufficient time at hand to visualize, discuss, try and choose. This didn't happen.
We even tested the square thanks to volunteers…but this is another story. Works started on 10 August 2015. Will it be virus-free?
Thanks very much to Walk21 Vienna. We are looking forward to be there, learn and take new drive to continue working for better cities for people.
Pilar Ferreres & José Luis Gisbert (EFGarquitectura) are architects in Valencia, Spain and have won a Walking Visionary award with their project "PAM_PIHE_VLC".