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Steven Fleming

Presentation by Dr Steven Fleming - part of Australians dream of speed

I am particularly interested in brownfield redevelopment because Australia - Canberra might be the one exception - is a nation of post-industrial cities that have surplus brownfield sites. They are very large. They are interconnected by bulk transportation routes like rail lines and waterways which are being turned into bicycle routes, so they have a particular importance [to cycling]. The OECD have recognised the importance of these sites to compact cities. So rather than just letting cities sprawl we need to backfill them.

Now how you backfill them is the issue. What we call urban morphology - in other words, the form of the city, the kinds of buildings that we have got - is really an outworking of the mobility platform that underpins that city. So the first thing the planner does is work out how people are going to connect to each other, how they are going to meet, and then proceeds  to design so that people can get together, as we are right now [pointing to gathering in the room].

If the urban mobility platform is walking you will get a very fine, dense, low-rise, high site coverage kind of city like Groningen in the Netherlands, which is thought of as a bike city but it was really designed for walking.

If the mobility platform is driving, you will get something like Los Angeles - or Canberra as it has turned out, or most Australian cities as they sprawl.

Cities that fancy themselves as progressive like Copenhagen with their brownfield redevelopment area of Orestad - which is the largest brownfield redevelopment area in Europe - fancy that they have a multi-pronged approach, that they are designing for walking, transit and cycling. You see all the bicycle infrastructure and the train infrastructure going in. However, is it really based on a transit oriented platform?

The building on the left by Bjarke Ingels, a star architect at the moment, shows really what is underpinning it - and Canberra is the same. We have a lot of apparently walkable utopian buildings but underpinning them is heaps and heaps of car parking. Then the car parking is oriented to a road, and really most of the trips in Orestad are made by car. Even though you can cycle and you can take the train, it is still based fundamentally on an automotive mobility platform and it’s getting the kinds of buildings that you would expect. The other things [bike paths and trains] are kind of superficial. 

Rotterdam is a city that has perfect bike culture, perfect bike infrastructure - you can cycle wherever you want - and perfect train connections, yet 56 per cent of people use cars. That’s the dominant mode of transportation because there is underground car parking connected to roads, and driving is possible. And driving has a lot of advantages - just ask any mother with children on a rainy day. So that’s why people drive there.

In Australia we are up against this - we are not going to stop it. It is always going to be possible to drive, as it is in Rotterdam as well. A friend of mine at T.U. Delft, Stefan van der Spek, has hooked tracking devices to people who live in condominiums in Rotterdam and has found that they are not walking out of their apartments and patronising local cafés or going to the train station, they are going down to the basement, getting in their car and driving out to the suburbs because they have the opportunity to do that. Rotterdam really typifies this kind of thing.

Futurama, 1939

We are seeing a lot of inner city urban consolidation, people moving back to the city centre, but the kinds of buildings that we are building are connected to roadways and provide lots of basement parking. It’s a vision of urban consolidation that dates to the inter-war period and really entered the cultural imaginary through, I think, the key moment, although there were lots of moments, the standout moment was the Futurama exhibition at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Some 28,000 people per day came through this exhibition. It was the highlight of the World’s Fair. America goes off to World War II, comes back and basically builds it.

Now that we have entered the urban consolidation phase of our cities we are still working with this vision that dates to the inter-war period, because cars were so essential to the good life. You can see how powerful it was. I guess the older we are in our population, the closer this memory is to us. Some young people are drifting away from it. People in power certainly are holding on to it.


150mph, Collapse space-time, Futurama, 1939

The magic of this vision was that they were talking about freeways that would let you drive at 150 miles per hour in absolute safety and that would shrink space-time. So a country like Australia or America would be collapsed, and every distance would be measured in time. So you could go to the farmlands, the mountains, the beaches in record time and you could bring all of that into your lifestyle and under your control - an incredibly seductive vision.

Five years later that was written about by Sigfried Giedion, who is an architectural theorist and historian, and he said that really this idea of space-time had entered the architectural psyche. He relates it to Einstein’s theory of relativity actually and says that the idea that time is the fourth dimension enters into art with Picasso. You have seen Two moments in time, the time when you saw the woman face on and the time when you saw her side on, the viewer has moved but two moments in time are captured in the one painting.

When we talk about how far is it from here to Tasmania, we don’t know in kilometres or miles, but I can tell you it’s probably about two hours in an aeroplane. We talk about time, space and the distance. Then Sigfried Giedion says that this enters architectural theory at the same time as well so that the itinerary, the movement through a building, is measured now in time. There is a journey through a building, and the architecture is arranged around that journey.

As I said, this is a fabulous idea when it comes to shrinking the countryside. If you want to go to a farm or a mountaintop or participate in any of this exotic recreation, the car is a great machine. The guy who designed this, [Norman] Bel Geddes, who designed the Futurama exhibition, was right into streamlining the design of cars and ships. That was his car there, a superfast car and a great way to get to the countryside. This is the exhibition, by the way. Everyone rode on these chairs that sat on something like a luggage carousel to move you around - incredibly expensive. It was sponsored by General Motors - no surprise there.

There were lots of other utopian visions at the time. Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Buckminster Fuller - everyone had these ideas of the car being linked to architecture and shrinking the countryside. Frank Lloyd Wright gave us a very unusual looking car. After the war we get suburban sprawl with places like Levittown. If you want your own freestanding house, then the car is the way to go.
Fast ways to be apart - influenza, 1918

At the time, too, it would have been in living memory the influenza epidemic of 1918, so people did really want to spread out. You could understand that psychology of wanting to spread out, and how the car and the machine were great for that. The problem came with the city though. The meeting that we are having at the moment or any other thing like it - a school group, a sporting occasion, meeting people to discuss things in a knowledge economy, anything that involves bringing people together - the car is a dead-set nuisance. It’s like carrying an enormous Michelin Man suit into a disco. It just doesn’t help when you want to get together with other people to have to have a car involved. So we see these things that Angelina was speaking about.

The effective speed of car travel in Australia’s best car city, Canberra, is only 13 kilometres an hour. I can run that. I can ride a bicycle at about 20 kilometres an hour. The average speed of bicycle transport in Copenhagen is 20 kilometres an hour. In Holland, it’s about 15, it’s quicker than driving - whereas in LA people spend the equivalent of four days per year going absolutely nowhere in their car. That’s the average driver’s experience. What really annoys me as a bicycle advocate is that these cars are getting in my way. That’s not like saying 'man bites dog' or whatever. Cars are slowing bike transport down.

Copenhagen was quicker in the 1930s and 1940s when there were no cars on the road. Chinese cities were quicker as well. If you look at the way bicycles have slowed down having to wait at intersections in a Chinese city: they all just rode along at 20 kilometres an hour and at any intersection just filtered in turn and kept going, never putting their foot down. And now in Copenhagen they have to put their foot down every time they want to turn across traffic because you have this interface. Those cities were faster before cars were introduced. In Copenhagen, they know that the average cyclist can ride at 20 kilometres an hour and they phased the traffic lights to let them keep riding at that speed. Those speeds are probably increasing because bike quality is getting better and better. We are looking at more technologically sophisticated bicycles. We could be upping that, getting above 20 kilometres an hour.

And also these people were riding in cities that were designed for walking so they are having to do zigzags through the city. Imagine if we could design an urban environment that meant people made beelines that diffused the traffic rather than herding us into arterial roads where there were bridges.

Diffuse the traffic and let them make beelines and keep up their 20 kilometres an hour and build a very dense city above that.

Let us take a city of half a million people - this city might be almost that size - you could reach the furthest most person in your city if it were compact and let you go at this speed all the way so much faster than the system that we have at the moment. The ultimate goal here is to design the city that lets human contact happen far more quickly than we are letting it happen at the moment, because speed is the dream. I am not saying that the car is not the way to go to the beach or the mountaintop - it still is - but to meet people in the city I think the bicycle is the way to do it - with the right urban morphology. That has never been designed for. There is no such thing as a bicycle city.

> Steven Fleming part 2 of presentation