Valerie Leblond and Simon Flack
Human Scale Density
In the recent past, it has become clear that cities of any age must constantly reinvent themselves in order to provide for their citizens. Technology is constantly redefining which industries dominate our cities and how the average civilian can contribute to society.
The Now Institute is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to understanding and improving urban environments. We are led by Pritzker Prize winner Thom Mayne and embedded within the IDEAS research platform of UCLA Architecture and Urban Design. In our approach to each project, we establish a broad integrative framework built on extensive research and local experience. We believe that buildings are no longer stand-alone solutions and any piece of urban architecture must be understood in the context of the people it serves and the many voids it creates. Due to the resource requirements of a growing population and the possibilities that new technology offers us, we must find ways of layering urban architecture and the web of human services they require back onto one another. We must, therefore, locate a new type of density that can exist at a human scale; A density that preserves tradition and inspires progress.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, around 30% of our carbon emissions are from transportation. The U.S. National Resources Defense Council tells us that 40% of food is wasted traveling to our mouths from the farm. Even if that number was reduced to nothing, we wouldn’t be able to feed our population by the year 2100 with the farmland we have. These, and a deluge of other terrifying facts, all point to us bringing agriculture back into our cities and getting rid of single-passenger transit systems. Due to the limited space that urban environments have to spare, we will have to weave new infrastructure for housing as well as sustainable mass transit, agriculture, and energy production onto one another. It is imperative that we build new ways for technology and the services that keep our society breathing to interface with one another in close proximity.
Historically, there have been many attempts to envision a future city model capable of providing a high quality of life for a growing population. Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse was one of these efforts. It contained prefabricated and identical high-density skyscrapers, spread across a vast green area and arranged in a Cartesian grid. Located in the center of Le Corbusier’s civic district was a transportation deck carrying citizens to and from the surrounding housing zones. We can see some of the same methodologies in Ernest Burgess’s concentric circles and Ebenezer Howard’s garden cities. What these models did well was to accommodate vast amounts of people within a verdant and productive ecosystem.
Unbeknownst to our pioneering modernists, the large expanses of landscape they advocated for and later dismissed were actually very conducive to healthy ecology, flora and fauna. Their generous contiguous space and dimensional reality provided the proper stage for various healthy biotopes to flourish. That being said, the Jardin des Tuileries should not be compared to Central Park when it comes to nurturing a healthy simulacra of natural ecology.
When it comes to present day models, Amsterdam, ND is our star. What Amsterdam has done extraordinarily well, is to enmesh new technology with a pre-existing urban fabric to elevate quality of life. The Amsterdam Electricity Company generates 900 kWh per 1000 kg of waste. The silt which remains after treating wastewater is converted into natural gas. They even developed a mobile application that switches streetlights on at night if you feel unsafe. What they still need to do well, is to figure out how to house a rapidly growing population. Globally, we are expecting 9.7 billion of us by 2050. Regardless of the technology and systems our cities already have in place, we are going to have to reshuffle some things.
Places like Mexico City and Beijing are already verging on being un-livable when it comes to transit. What we need, is to find ways of accommodating equitable quality of life for a massive population inside varied and stimulating three-dimensional ecosystems. Proximity immediately solves many of the issues surrounding density of old and the coordination of both services and transit.
The strategic allocation of density to more than one homogenous and ever expanding level is our key. We need to allocate multi-function nodes across entire cities. These nodes need to layer logical connections between industries and every-day tasks. They need to amount to organically determined infill and augmentation. An exhaustive study of the attributes that differentiate and link our planet’s cities is the first step to getting there.
At the Now Institute, we have been applying this methodology to the city of Los Angeles, CA. One of our pilot projects is the re-envisioning of L.A.’s iconic Wilshire Boulevard. Similar to New York’s Broadway or Paris’s Avenue des Champs-Élysées, Wilshire Boulevard is an 30 km east-west spine that threads over 15 diverse communities with L.A.’s cultural epicenters. Our work proposes interpretive strategies that would accommodate the city’s fragmentation, heterogeneity and idiosyncrasies and is based around transit-oriented, high-density infill.
This densification proposal analyzes the viability of several urban growth scenarios along Wilshire. It includes a proposal to extend LA’s purple Metro line and provides high density, interconnected, urban communities. These communities are embodied within multi-layer zones of culture, healthcare and business. Our strategies have culminated in a design that can accommodate L.A.’s anticipated 1.5 million person population increase by 2050 through the densification of less than 1% of the city’s land.
What our work, and the majority of critically accepted urban design models share, is a transit-centric approach. The Jeffersonian block structure of Levittown, PA that has been so readily painted onto the American landscape is comforting, but incapable of scaling to present and future needs. We believe that instead of damming the tides of human habit like Jefferson did in Levittown, we should follow and augment healthy interactions with each other and our surroundings. This requires a new brand of point-source, functionally-layered density. A density with the capacity to accommodate both traditional ways of life and niche interests at a scale never before thought necessary.