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Designing safe and liveable cities with intent

The cube houses in Rotterdam

During Urban October, I was fortunate to join a four-day study visit to the Netherlands called the Urban Leaders Retreat. My colleague Prathima Manohar from The Urban Vision, a think-do tank for liveable cities, led a group of 10 professionals who are architects, urban planners, developers and non profit leaders. The three-city visit to Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Delft was an eye-opener and also thought provoking.

We met with several different stakeholders who told us about their liveable city initiatives. A mayor from one of the districts of Amsterdam, for instance, shared how they introduced cycling as a mode of transportation and built the infrastructure around it to make it convenient for people to use it. The idea first gained traction when a couple of children were run over by cars. This led to a movement to decrease the number of cars within the city and convince people to use cycles. Today there are huge cycle parking areas below the Central Station and other key spots. In fact, the Dutch have invented all kinds of cycles to fit their lifestyle. Some of our group who actually cycle or walk to work shared how back home in India we need better infrastructure to encourage cycling as a mode of transport. In addition to dedicated cycle paths and cycle parking, we need offices to have proper showers for cyclists to freshen up.

Everywhere we went, architects and urban planners shared how they were designing cities at the “eye level” and on a “human scale”. It means designing and building structures that can be seen at eye level. This is necessary for social inclusion where people do not feel disconnected from the rest of society and encourages a feeling of community. We saw many examples of this, including a new area development in South East Amsterdam where they have recreated a “village street” between two blocks of apartments. The sense of community was so strong that many people had left their front doors open, children were playing outside and there was a relaxed atmosphere. Another great example was Little C in Rotterdam where a high-density housing unit was designed for many points of social interaction between the residents. The two projects, and others we saw, were intentional in design and made a case for happy, safe and liveable cities. These design principles are also reflected in the Urban Planning Primer that Prathima and I developed on Women Friendly Cities as part of a grant from the Stanford Centre for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law. Public space can definitely be made into a positive space by incorporating some essential design principles that allow for social interaction, “eyes on the street”, multipurpose use of the space and engaged community.

We were all very intrigued by the 40-40-20 rule for new housing developments which mandates 40 percent of the dwellings should be social rent, 40 percent should be affordable private rent (monthly rent between €763 and €1068) or affordable home ownership (below €325.000), and only 20 percent may have full market prices. Since our study group were mainly builders and architects from India, they were trying to do the math to figure out if it was feasible or not and if such a rule could make sense in India. They were baffled how the Dutch builders were making it work. Nevertheless, it was fascinating to hear how this rule is promoting social inclusion with younger folks and multi-cultural communities being able to afford housing. I was reminded of a fantastic experiment elsewhere in the Netherlands where youth were given rent free housing in a seniors home. It brought together multiple generations under one roof where they could learn and live together, and help each other out.

Another emphasis was on public spaces which should be co-created with residents and users of that space. The idea that it should be three dimensional was intriguing and there should also be an element of “incompleteness” so that there is always room to innovate and improve.

The Netherlands is mostly flat in topography. One-third is below sea level and almost 60 percent of the surface area has the possibility of ending up beneath the water when a big storm hits or when the water levels rise. Almost 80 percent of their population live in the coastal areas and therefore are prone to the ravages of climate change and rising sea levels. Yet, it rarely floods in the city. This is because the country has invested in an intricate and extensive system of locks, dikes, pumps and sand dunes that control the level of water. The confidence in this system is expressed in the willingness on the part of the people to buy flats and apartments where the basement windows are at the water level. They know they are safe and their homes will not be flooded. The Dutch have already implemented solutions for their tiny nation that can cope with a two metre rise in sea water and they are already working on solutions that will protect their future populations in the next 150 years from rising water.

In contrast, , I was horrified by the lack of warning systems and poor infrastructure in my country of India, demonstrated by the devastation in Sikkim during the glacial lake flash flood.

The highlight of my visit was going to the “living lab” at Delft University where architects, innovators and urban designers were testing new ideas for sustainable living solutions. There were new paving blocks, water solutions, heating solutions, new building materials and building designs and even landscaping solutions. At this living lab they were testing ideas on the go, modifying based on feedback and incorporating it into active solutions.

Our final stop was at the Global Centre for Climate Adaptation where we met with the Chief Resilient Officer of Rotterdam. He shared some of the innovations that they are promoting for climate resilience by design - water squares which convert spaces within a city that can hold excess water when there is heavy rainfall but which then has a multi-purpose use, green energy, green roofs and floating buildings, to name a few. He showed through his practice how climate adaptation can be fun. For instance, he has 200 cities participating in a competition to submit innovative projects.

Through the study visit, I learned that doing nothing is not an option. Small interventions on a large scale definitely make an impact. The visit reinforced my commitment to working with a diverse group of stakeholders on making cities and communities safer for women and girls.

Article by Elsa Marie Dsilva

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