The Comfort Pursuit

The space for local cultures in a ‘happy city’

Charles Montgomery, author of the book Happy City, was in Christchurch for a couple of days last week and presented a lecture on Tuesday (21st April).

The main focus of the lecture was ‘what makes people happy in an urban environment’, and Montgomery pointed out that some aspects of the Christchurch rebuild don’t seem to be going on the right direction, which he noticed in only a couple of days. Recent post-earthquake sprawl towards the west, the new car-centric planned suburbs without mixed-use, and crossing points without crossing lanes, were some of the highlights. There is also the risk of big developments in the Central City – such as the new Convention Centre – which generate large amounts of blank walls and inactivated ground floor space, ‘killing’ the street life in large areas.

Montgomery talked about the need for walkability, for promoting encounters, problems of cars speeding, and mentioned that people who report being happier are the ones who use a bike as their main transportation means. He supports the idea of maximum 30km/h zones, specially in the suburbs where there are more children on the streets. Clearly he didn’t spend much time in our suburbs to realise how unrealistic that is. Where I live, for example (photos below), it is very rare to see people on the streets and even driving is boring because the streetscape is constituted of a whole bunch of very similar houses with no mixed use at all. There is a health and safety argument for driving at 30km/h where there is people, pedestrians and bikes, which is not the case of most suburban areas in Christchurch for most of the day.

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James Macbeth Dann, who writes the Rebuilding Christchurch blog, reminded us of the ‘Overseas Expert Syndrome’, where ‘people were far more likely to listen to someone with a funny accent coming here and telling us things, than we are to listen to our own experts’. And indeed, the danger of importing solutions not adapted to the local culture, lifestyle, and climate – to name a few factors – is a real one.

New Zealand and Christchurch have a very particular culture which generates urban preferences, and which I have explored for three years during my doctorate studies. Not all local perceptions are common all over the world, and there are many aspects of urban design and planning that have to respect local culture preferences and requirements. But still, we cannot carry on planning the city as we used to do many decades ago. The world has changed, the urban pressures have changed, and we and our cities have to change and adapt. How can we do it is the big challenge, and there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer but bottom line is: sprawl cannot continue, we need a denser and interesting city, which provides entertainment not only as events but for people walking.

Jan Gehl in his book Cities for people argues that streetscapes which offer varied stimuli every 4-5 seconds are more interesting, and those that don’t bore us. This means façades of 5-6m for people moving at average walking speeds. Commercial areas full of small shops feel far more pleasant than featureless and large walls or fences. We like to be amused after all, and our residential areas tend to fail in that respect.

We need slower streets in and around Christchurch, but this shouldn’t be achieved through traffic signs indicating speed limit. The speed of a walkable city is different from a car-centric one. This can be easily experienced in Brasilia, which is an amazing city, but designed to be seen from a car window. You can see Brasilia from a car as perfectly as you would see Paris while walking. The reason being that Brasilia offers more space for contemplation at higher speeds, it has a different scale. We need Christchurch slower, but the way our streetscapes are designed makes it impossible.

Charles Montgomery also talked about higher density living, and that we are too afraid of density because we think of highly-populated towers with hundreds (in Brazil sometimes thousands!) of people living in them. But that is not necessarily what increasing density means. Along similar lines, Blair Johnston from Warren and Mahoney has recently written about increasing density living in Auckland. In this article he highlights that we are resistant because it has been poorly done before, and lists five main aspects that need to be respected in order to fit this type of living to our local culture.

There is a need for producing architecture and urbanism adapted to the New Zealand culture, climate and lifestyle, which is indeed particular. The good news is that there are ways of doing so, but they have to be thoroughly investigated and implemented in a way to provide the desired urban environment while responding and adapting to the urban pressures of our time.

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More on Charles Montgomery presentation:

Christchurch Convention Centre location a ‘mistake’

Why sprawling, car dependent cities are making us miserable? (Video)

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