Can public transport survive a pandemic?

Swiss Cottage station on the London Underground. Credit: Gregory Smith

Governments are asking people not to use public transport and fare revenue has all but disappeared. Are networks at risk of shutting down? By Francesca Perry

Many major cities are celebrated for their public transport networks. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how a city like London would function without it. But the coronavirus pandemic has put public transport operators in an impossible situation. They must keep networks running, particularly for key workers, and do so with a whole host of new safety measures. But these safety measures necessarily include accommodating far fewer passengers to comply with social distancing, which consequently means huge losses in revenue. How exactly can public transport survive when people aren’t using it?

During lockdowns, public transport ridership dropped off a cliff, decreasing as much as 90% in some places. Although lockdowns are easing – at various paces in different countries – and passengers are slowly returning, social distancing is due to last for the foreseeable future, perhaps even into next year. 

An empty Tube station in London. Credit: Francesca Perry

Clearly, the concepts of mass transport and social distancing don’t go hand in hand. In the UK, it’s been recommended that in order to comply with the two-metre rule, networks can only host 10–15% of normal passenger capacity. But this isn’t exactly being enforced. Transport for London (TfL) has installed signage in the form of posters and stickers, makes regular announcements in stations and issues advice asking people not to travel unless it’s essential. Face coverings may now be mandatory, but there are no mechanisms in place controlling the amount of people using the network, so we may well see passenger numbers exceed that recommended capacity. 

Even if they do, passenger levels won’t return to normal for a long time. Although not everyone is interested in complying with social distancing, many are – and out of fear of spreading the virus will continue to avoid public transport (70% of Londoners are reportedly uncomfortable with the idea of using public transport in the pandemic). Meanwhile, a large majority of people who were allowed and enabled to work from home during lockdowns may keep it that way. 

Inevitably, this unprecedented decrease in passengers means huge fare revenue losses. London mayor Sadiq Khan said fare income decreased by 90% during lockdowns. As the network is mostly funded by fares, this obviously risks being fatal.

That’s where emergency funding comes in. TfL secured a £1.6bn bailout from the UK government, which is due to keep it running until October. But with the network reportedly costing £600m per month to maintain operations right now, and Khan claiming that TfL faces a £3bn funding gap this year, that money may run out quicker than expected.

The challenge becomes how you sustain public transport systems when fare revenue significantly decreases over the long term. Not all public transport networks are funded solely by fares, but many rely on them as their main source of income – as TfL does. What this crisis has revealed is that the fare-based model of funding is by no means a resilient one. And it raises the question of how we should consider our public transport networks: as a business, or as an essential service? 

Certainly, in the short term, cash injections from regional or national governments (or supranational institutions) are required. In England, along with TfL’s bailout, bus operators received £400m of emergency funding. In the US, the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act provided $25bn to transport authorities, though public transport associations such as NACTO and APTA claim that falls short of what is needed. In Germany, the federal government announced €2.5bn for local and urban transport, but transport ministers have said that twice that is needed.

A London bus. Credit: TfL

In the longer term, it seems clear that public transport funding models need to be reviewed and rethought. The amount of government funding that TfL receives has gradually decreased over the last decade – including an annual operating grant from the Department for Transport which ceased in 2018 – consequently making it reliant on fares. Although TfL gets income from operations such as congestion charging, property and advertising, ultimately this makes up a small proportion of its funding. 

France has a payroll tax (versement transport, VT) on companies larger than 11 employees in order to help fund public transport. In Paris, VT provides the largest proportion of funding for public transport (approximately 42% of income), with fares making up a smaller proportion. 

There are good arguments for making public transport free and funding it through a mix of public and private money. Free services – which have been trialled across Europe – would achieve what public transport essentially sets out to do: provide equitable, accessible mobility for all.

The Paris metro is part-funded by a payroll tax. Credit: Chabe01

So why should governments – and taxpayers – shell out to keep public transport running in the long term? Firstly, cities with thriving public transport networks rely on them to keep functioning – economically, socially and environmentally. If TfL shut down tomorrow, the economy would grind to a halt, social inequality and poverty would skyrocket, and the roads would immediately fill with stationary vehicles and toxic pollution. Both amid a climate crisis and a respiratory disease pandemic, air pollution is simply not a viable option for cities.  

But here are some statistics. Worldwide, public transport systems generate approximately 13 million jobs. Economically, the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) has reported that public transport brings economic benefits that are roughly five times higher than the money invested in it. 

So we should avoid public transport for now if we can, but not forever. Eventually, the virus will be under control and social distancing will not be a necessary part of daily life. In the meantime, this crisis should convince both governments and the general public of public transport’s long-term critical value.

Francesca spoke about transport and mobility challenges as London emerges from lockdowns on Monocle 24 radio show The Globalist. You can listen to the episode here 

A more independent high street? The small Liverpool businesses surviving coronavirus

The Bread Shop Bakery, one of Liverpool’s many independent businesses

By Kate Rogers

Before the emergence of the coronavirus in the UK, high streets ups and down the country were already feeling the strain of the continued expansion of online shopping, as well as rising business rates. The traditional high street had already, long ago, morphed into shopping districts of big chain brands, often with multiple franchises replicated on the same street. But those big brands have been critically hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, with many filing for administration in the face of lost revenue during lockdown. In the short-term, the countless jobs lost is the most important issue to tackle. Longer-term, though, could these shifts mean that a more independent high street might return in our recovery?

Across the country, footfall on major high streets dramatically decreased after non-essential shops were forced to close back in March – some believe by over 80%. This has clearly taken its toll: as of early June, UK high street brands Oasis, Warehouse, Debenhams, Cath Kidston and Laura Ashley had filed for administration. Although non-essential shops are slowly reopening, any recovery or return to ‘a new normal’ will be slow considering social distancing measures are needed for the foreseeable future. 

Church Street during lockdown. Credit: Lockdown Liverpool

At first glance in Liverpool, the telling signs of the pandemic are clear to see. Some areas of the city that are usually busy with shoppers – such as Church Street – stand deserted, with shuttered shops and barely anyone to be seen.

But this isn’t the full story. Liverpool’s independent business scene has soared in the last decade, with many choosing to dine, shop, or drink locally and independently – and an influx of new independent businesses have established themselves in the city.

At the heart of this resurgence has been the platform Independent Liverpool. Established in 2013 by David Williams and Oliver Press as a blog encouraging people to support local independents, the initiative soon grew and rolled out a discount card to use in independent businesses across the city. They have since gone on to release an app which lists and maps over 100 independent shops and eateries across the city, promoting their use. 

Independent Liverpool

Williams and Press also went on to found indoor street food hub Baltic Market. Since its launch in 2017, it has enjoyed enormous success, allowing small independent food businesses to use the space to help them grow effectively as well as help promote the thriving independent scene. Many vendors who were established here have gone on to open their own restaurants – further expanding the independent community into other areas of the city.

Liverpool’s rise in independents highlights a changing relationship on the high street. Increasingly, people tend to be drawn to the independent sector, which often coincides with hyperlocal high streets, as it offers something unique which a lot of chain-brand major high streets cannot give. People grow more intimate, loyal relationships with such independent businesses, and this has played a role in why many communities have continued to support independents during this lockdown period in any way they can. And independent businesses have adapted and responded with innovative offerings and survival strategies such as new online shops, free local delivery, gift vouchers and more.

Casa Italia

The pandemic period has magnified this change to support independents. Whilst the streets of Liverpool may be quiet, Independent Liverpool has continued to advocate the importance of supporting local independent businesses across the city. “In true independent and scouse fashion, the independent scene has blown people away,” says Williams. “Places have adapted, repurposed, reopened in extremely safe ways and the support they’ve seen has been quite emotional. Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a Disney book, so the happily-ever-after you’re looking for won’t be applicable to many. But one thing you can guarantee is our city’s indies won’t go down without a fight.”

Casa Italia is a well-known and loved family-run restaurant in the city centre. “We have pivoted our restaurant to a delivery business entirely and we did this overnight one week before lockdown,” says owner Arran Bordi. “Our customers have been excellent and supported us by ordering takeaways and being very understanding when things go wrong.”

News from Nowhere

Although closed, not-for-profit community bookshop News From Nowhere has been delivering local orders by bike, helping people browse bookshelves via social media, organising a supporters’ credit account and offering lucky dip book parcels; due to massive local support it has ‘seen an unprecedented amount of orders lately’. Community-owned bakery Homebaked, shuttered in lockdown, launched a temporary frozen pie delivery service called ‘Awaybaked’.

These independent businesses have been able to survive this unprecedented time due to their appeal to the local audience which they have established. The loyalty of their customers, coupled with the adaptation of their businesses by harnessing the use of the internet has proved to be integral to their survival.

There is certainly a change ahead for the UK’s high streets. The real impacts will only become clear after all businesses are back up and running. But what this period of crisis has shown is that independent businesses have gathered large amounts of support and people’s loyalty has proved to be invaluable, sparking real hope for a resurgence of the independent high street. 

Kate Rogers is a university student and Liverpool-based writer

Pandemic cities: how will coronavirus shape urban life?

Empty streets in Seattle
Cycling through Seattle’s empty streets. Photograph: courtesy of TIA International Photography
The impact of THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC is dramatically affecting cities around the world – but what will it mean for their future? By Francesca Perry

While the novel coronavirus pandemic affects us all, cities – the high-density centres of population – exhibit the impacts in extreme ways. As with most disasters, from climate change to war, the poor and the vulnerable are hardest hit. As concentrated beacons of a society that is persistently unequal, cities inevitably have inequality written into their DNA. The Covid-19 pandemic has both highlighted and heightened these urban inequalities in countries all around the globe.

This is undoubtedly the key issue to address as we tackle the crisis and look to recover from it. But it is worth taking a look at how exactly coronavirus is shaping urban life, and what short- and long-term impacts it might have on how our cities should, or could, work. Here’s a roundup of some of the key themes and the best stories that have emerged so far.

Ghost towns

London’s typically heaving Piccadilly Circus deserted in April. Photograph: Ella Whiteley

Around the world, city streets are deserted. Crowds and traffic have disappeared. Tourists don’t come and most residents stay at home. Police patrol the open spaces. What started as jokes about urban commuters wearing face masks, has transformed into something altogether more surreal, even dystopian. Photo galleries show deserted cities in the wake of the pandemic, from Caracas to Dubai to Seattle.

Photojournalist Franco Pagetti’s video – Milan, a City Closed – documents the hardest-hit Italian metropolis under quarantine, capturing it empty and eerily silent. “Here in the deserted city, there are no sounds, only noises,” Pagetti tells the New Yorker. For some, the empty cityscapes might feel like sweet relief from endless congestion. But for most, seeing people vanish from cities is a stark reminder of how unprecedented this threat is, and how it holds the power to change urban life irrevocably.

Pollution and transport

Delhi before and after: interactive sliders on the Guardian

With mass closures and stay-at-home orders, the need to commute or travel around cities has decreased dramatically. That means a big decline in public transport usage. Some major hubs like London, Rome and Bangkok have limited their networks while others like Delhi, or Wuhan – the centre of the outbreak – shut down public transport altogether.

But it also means far fewer vehicles are on the roads. This, with the added reduction of flights and other forms of polluting transport, has led to a staggering drop in air pollution globally. The difference made in cities – especially those that typically struggle with traffic and air quality – has been illuminating. You need only step outside to see, smell, and breathe the difference. 

Cycling has seen a bump in popularity. New York City, Mexico City, and Bogotá, among others, rolled out “emergency” cycleways to boost bicycle use. Some cities have closed roads to traffic in order to give people more space to safely cycle as well as walk and run. Despite being temporary measures, hopefully those decision-makers will act on lessons learned, enhancing pedestrian and cycling infrastructure in their cities, while those encouraged to bike or walk will continue to favour these emission-free transport modes in the future.

Find this interactive chart on Quartz

Public transport – cities’ key method of sustainable travel – will struggle to attract back users even once social distancing measures are over, however. “There’s good reason to suspect that the return of previous [public transport] riders could take a year or more,” writes Jarrett Walker in CityLab. As crowded spaces have become synonymous with danger, persistent fears of contagion may encourage more use of personal transport. If that means bicycles, great, but in most cases it will inevitably mean cars – and lots of them.

Once the pandemic subsides, investments should be made to ensure public transport is kept clean and safe, but measures may also need to be taken to limit car usage. Otherwise, we run a large risk of moving from one devastating crisis back to another: namely, the climate crisis, which could well be exacerbated by a kneejerk reaction of a “return to normal life”.

Now is an urgent time to reevaluate our lifestyles and our actions. Cars cannot rule cities again. Before and after photographs of cities suddenly free of toxic pollution should be a blueprint for the future, not just a wake-up call. “The coronavirus could be the shock required to reclaim the streets for people, accelerating a trend already taking place around the world,” Andrea Sandor writes in CityMetric.

Public space

Police tape prevents access to an outdoor gym in a London park. Photograph: Francesca Perry

The pandemic-triggered lockdowns have instilled a new fear of public space, bringing with it potential proximity to strangers – the very thing most city planners design for. But our public spaces have also become more surveilled, patrolled and controlled. Public parks – which typically welcome an inclusive array of citizens, allowing us to connect to nature and interact with each other – have been shut down in many cities. “Once parks are closed, opening them back up will be harder,” writes Zeynep Tufekci in The Atlantic.  “Authorities may dig in their heels and the issue may become more polarising.”

In the resulting requirement of isolation, pandemics are “anti-urban”, explains New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman: “[Pandemics] exploit our impulse to congregate. And our response so far – social distancing – not only runs up against our fundamental desires to interact, but also against the way we have built our cities and plazas, subways and skyscrapers. They are all designed to be occupied and animated collectively.”

Public space and the right to protest. Photograph: Francesca Perry

There are “two contrasting futures for urban life” after the coronavirus, writes Janan Ganesh in a powerful Financial Times piece. “In the sanguine version, people liberated from their homes re-form the great pullulating mass that has been shooed from the streets and sequestered of late … In [another], a meaningful number of people never regain their trust in random contact.”

When Covid-19 cases finally decline and social distancing is relaxed, it’s vital we don’t carry forward this fear of, or aversion to, shared space and public togetherness. But there is also a serious worry that governments and authorities will extend new surveillance measures and enact stricter public space controls, citing the pandemic, which could lead to more restricted use and – critically – further clampdowns on congregations and mass protests. 

Mental health, civic voice, community building and equitable societies rely on inclusive, active public space. Essentially, well-functioning cities rely on it. Some lucky few may have their own gardens, but most rely on this shared outdoor realm – psychologically, physically and politically.

High streets

Closed businesses in Melbourne. Photograph: Francesca Perry

With shops, cafes, restaurants and other businesses forced to shut indefinitely, many face permanent closure. What this means for high streets and local economies – already struggling in an age of online ordering – could be devastating. How do we ensure that the lifelines of neighbourhoods are not lost? Benefit packages and support schemes have been announced in some countries aiming to help protect small businesses – but it may not be enough.

Community

A community board for neighbours to communicate and share in a time of distancing. Photograph: Athlyn Cathcart-Keays

One silver lining of lockdowns, quarantines and stay-at-home orders has been the mobilisation of community aid groups and neighbours willing to help one another, not to mention the mutual singing and clapping happening from doors, windows and balconies as local residents interact like never before.

Lists of mutual aid groups in London and New York, for example, reveal the extent of such activity happening globally, but there is so much more beyond official initiatives. Across Washington DC, “small neighbourhood militias are forming – militias of kindness, assistance and caring,” reports Petula Dvorak in the Washington Post. In Berlin, local fences have turned into sharing platforms where neighbours hang items such as clothes and food for others who might need them. In Chicago, a teen group that normally works to fight violence is helping the elderly get essential products like hand sanitizer. In Nottingham, an ad-hoc community board enables residents to communicate, share and collaborate at a safe distance.

While it shouldn’t take a crisis to see an uptick in community spirit, many hope the legacy of these networks and connections will remain long after the pandemic has subsided. But the likelihood of that is another issue: “Whether such groups survive beyond the end of coronavirus to have a meaningful impact on our urban future depends, in part, on what sort of political lessons we learn from the crisis,” writes Jack Shenker in the Guardian.

Housing

The Reclaiming Our Homes movement in LA. Photograph: courtesy of Reclaiming Our Homes

As many are confined to their homes, so the issue of housing inequality has become more pronounced. It’s too ambitious to hope this crisis could provide the stimulus to properly tackle low-quality housing, homelessness and unaffordability, but various buds of housing innovation are blossoming.

Stopgap measures like suspension of evictions and emergency shelters for the homeless show what’s possible, and in turn are being harnessed as tools in campaigns for housing justice. In Los Angeles, the pandemic has catalysed an activist movement making vacant homes available at affordable prices. In short-term urgency, a group of homeless and housing-insecure people from the Reclaiming Our Homes campaign occupied publicly owned vacant houses in the El Sereno neighbourhood.

There has been speculation that the inevitable reduction of Airbnb usage has triggered a spike in long-term rentals, as owners are no longer able to rent their homes out on the short-stay platform. Although in theory this would increase housing availability and drive prices down, it’s too early to tell what shifts are taking place. “Whether long-term units flip back to short-term is the looming question,” writes Brian Feldman in New York Magazine. “Still, the crisis is a wake-up call for people making big bets on platforms like Airbnb – those who signed 20 leases with the intent of keeping them continually booked, or those who took out large bank loans to buy condos and remodel them as ‘ghost hotels.’”

The density debate has also resurfaced, as some argue for cities to stop building high-density housing to prevent such rapid spread of disease. Plans in California to increase the number of high-density buildings to alleviate the housing crisis have recently lost support due to the perception the typology has exacerbated the coronavirus spread. We’ve seen this condemnation of housing density many times before. But well-designed, well-managed, high-density housing is not a danger in and of itself, and a turning away from it will only exacerbate the housing crises faced by cities all over the world. 

The death of the city?

Urban density brings with it myriad benefits, but will it now be stigmatised? Photograph: Francesca Perry

“I wonder if, after this is all over, our cities will see a mass exodus,” writes Rhiannon Lucy Coslett in the Guardian.

Cities are places of proximity. They are hubs of people and shared resources. Recently we have embraced “co-living” and “co-working” like never before. But now, density has been blamed by some for the rapid spread of the coronavirus. So will we now view high-density cities with suspicion – and seek to flee them? In a great interview with Frank News, architect and urban planner Vishaan Chakrabarti says in the wake of major crises, “there is a move to de-densify”. But that soon passes:

“I just don’t think that this is the death of office space or the death of cities. I think that everyone’s yearning to get back to normal … I am sure there will be a bunch of rhetoric about how we need to de-densify and then we’re going to come out of that, and people realise why we’ve always lived in dense circumstances and that we’ve continued to despite technological advances … Human beings actually like human connectedness and they like to get together. Cities are just constant proof of that.”

What’s more, being together, in close proximity, enables efficient services that are better for people and planet. “It will be a shame if we come away from this moment skeptical of density itself,” writes Emily Badger in The New York Times, “or if some of the benefits of density, like mass transit and bustling commercial corridors, suffer lasting damage. Whether or not we fully appreciate them right now, we may need them in the next disaster.”

Human beings actually like human connectedness and they like to get together. Cities are just constant proof of that

Vishaan Chakrabarti

Making cities better for children: meet Urban95

As part of our interview series with people working to support inclusive cities, we talk to Cecilia Vaca Jones and Patrin Watanatada of the Urban95 initiative

Cecilia Vaca Jones and Patrin Watanatada with Urban95 sticks. Photograph: Irina Ivan, Bernard van Leer Foundation

Based in the Dutch city of The Hague, Cecilia Vaca Jones is programme director and Patrin Watanatada is knowledge for policy director at the Bernard van Leer Foundation, an independent foundation that works internationally to improve the health and wellbeing of babies, toddlers and the people who care for them. The foundation’s Urban95 initiative is dedicated to reimagining cities from the height of an average three-year-old (95cm), and working with urban planners, designers and policy-makers to integrate early years thinking into improving city environments. 

Why did you decide to focus on making cities better for babies and toddlers? What was the spark that started it?

Cecilia: Four or five years ago, we realised that urbanisation is happening so rapidly that cities represent a unique opportunity to support babies and their families to thrive. How can we ensure that cities scale the opportunities of safe, healthy and stimulating places – with opportunities to learn, create, imagine, play and grow – across all neighbourhoods to reach as many families as possible? 

Patrin: The early years are when the brain is developing most rapidly – babies and toddlers are forming neural connections at the rate of 1 million per second! The way these connections form sets the foundation for good health and learning in later childhood and adulthood. This is partly genetic and partly shaped by what a child experiences. And a lot of it happens by the time a child turns two. For optimal brain development, young children need healthy food, protection from harm, and – crucially – plenty of opportunities to play and be loved. 

Close Streets for Play Libreville, an Urban95 challenge project in the Gabon capital

We think cities have a big role to play in ensuring babies get these things. Traditionally, governments have focused on the role of social services, health and education departments in supporting healthy child development. Urban95 works with city leaders, planners, designers, advocates, communities and anyone else who influences city life to look at the way that the entire city – including, for example, public spaces and transportation – affects the way that families with young children live, work, play and move through cities, and what that means for healthy child development. 

How does Urban95 work to understand and respond to the needs of young children in cities around the world?

Cecilia: We know that small children learn through positive interactions, play and new experiences. So we support our partners to identify and scale solutions that promote healthy child development through the built environment or by addressing things that affect their lives in the public realm – like air quality, heat, or street violence. Every city is unique, but many solutions can work in different contexts. For example, public spaces in any city can be turned into places for young children to play safely while exploring nature. Here’s a wonderful guide for play spaces for 0–3-year-olds by our partner Superpool, an Istanbul-based design studio.

Patrin: Everything starts with empathy and data. One of the first challenges is that urban planners and designers don’t necessarily see or think about the particular needs of young children and their caregivers in their work. Public spaces and playgrounds are often set up for older kids or adults. Transportation tends to be planned for the needs of peak-hour commuters travelling straightforwardly from home to work to home, versus the needs of caregivers who might be going from home to childcare to grocery store to job and back at odd times.

A still from the Young Explorers film in Pune, India – documenting the journey of a small child and its caregiver

So developing empathy for this demographic group is an important first step. We’ll take people on walks through the city holding metre sticks with a mask at the 95cm mark they can look through, or carrying 10kg bags of rice to simulate carrying a toddler. Or we’ll ask them to draw their childhood journey to school and a recent journey as a caregiver. We’ve asked people to try breathing at 4x the speed of a normal adult – the pace at which a newborn baby breathes, which means they take in 4x as much air and all its pollution per gram of body weight as you or I. We’ve supported the development of short films, called Young Explorers, that document the urban journeys of a small child and their caregiver in Pune in India and Recife in Brazil as well as another film series in Dakar, Senegal. We’ve also partnered with Arup to develop an Urban95 virtual reality simulation.

We also support cities to gather data on where families with young children live, where they go, how they’re doing and what they need. If city planners know where and when babies and toddlers spend the most time, they can target general interventions and services like clean air zones or pocket parks or health clinics or safer streets to them. For example, we funded a research institution in Istanbul to develop an innovative way to map families in need and overlay this with a map of municipal services (more here). The municipalities have begun to use this to locate services more effectively.

Another example is our work with Gehl to develop a tool to observe and measure the way babies, toddlers and their caregivers move through the public realm. We also partnered with the Open Data Institute to develop guidance for city governments who want to develop early childhood data dashboards. And we supported Canada-based organisation 8 80 Cities to develop guidance on engaging families with young children to gain insights into their needs.

A stroller test in Istanbul (including a 10kg bag of rice to simulate a baby)

What would you say are the biggest issues that our cities need to overcome to be more healthy, safe and supportive of babies and toddlers?

Patrin: First, congestion and transportation challenges. Not having access to safe, comfortable, affordable transportation makes life generally stressful, and can stop caregivers travelling to access healthcare. Road safety remains a big public health issue in cities worldwide. And the more I learn about the lifelong health effects of air pollution – particularly on babies and toddlers, whose lungs, hearts and brains are still developing – the more I’d like to see vehicle exhaust and other sources of air pollution become an unacceptable part of urban life. That’s why we’re working with the Clean Air Fund to tackle air pollution worldwide and the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy to develop transit guidelines for families with young children.

Second, lack of nature. There’s more and more evidence to show that being around nature – especially trees and water – is important for mental and physical health at all ages. This is hard to come by in many cities today. And finally, the general stresses of urban living: lack of space, time and social ties. These make it harder for parents and other caregivers to give their children the love and attention they need to flourish; and they are particularly challenging for those living in poverty, insecure situations and informal settlements.

An Urban95 community-build playground project in Lima, Peru

Cecilia: One powerful way to address all of the above is to look closely at the street. On average, streets represent 70% of the public realm in a city – so why not use this space to promote play and other loving interactions between babies, toddlers and the people who care for them, better air quality, and better mental health through natural elements? Alongside Bloomberg Philanthropies, FIA Foundation and Botnar Foundation, we are partnering with the National Association for City Transportation Officials’ Global Designing Cities Initiative to develop Streets for Kids design guidelines to make streets safer, more comfortable and more joyful spaces for people of all ages.

Closing streets at regular intervals gives people of all ages a safe public space in which to play, meet, be active and breathe cleaner air. We frequently see that temporary closures are an effective step towards more permanent solutions. Building citizen support to transform street use is fundamental.  Citizens need to be motivated and to understand the benefits of reclaiming their public space.

Urban95’s project, Children’s Routes, in Colombia. Photo: Courtesy of Casa de la Infancia

What sort of impacts have you seen from your work on Urban95 so far? And what have you learned personally?

Cecilia: We’ve seen tremendous interest and enthusiasm for understanding how the lives and the development of young children and their families are affected by urban design, mobility and the environment. I’ve learned that:

First, municipalities are interested in cost-effective solutions that can be implemented fast as they represent a political win in every society. Helping them to generate quick wins is crucial. So is showing them live examples of what’s working in other cities. We’ve taken cities on study tours to London and to Copenhagen to see great examples of family-friendly spaces and mobility.

Second, municipalities tend to have poor data related to pregnant women, children under 5 and their caregivers. Helping municipalities to gather reliable data on this that can be used to generate practical maps layered over data on public space, services and so forth, is the best way to help these authorities make decisions that support healthy child development.

Finally, I think the most important learning is that there is a huge opportunity to promote urban transformation when you can relate to real people. Having good stories about how urban design affects the real lives of babies and toddlers generates social awareness that leads to political will for change. If we can build a successful city for young children, we will have a successful city for all people.

A stroller test in Argentina, an Urban95 challenge project

Patrin: For me, the three most striking learnings have been: First, planning and designing for babies and toddlers means planning and designing for the people who are taking care of them. You don’t see babies and toddlers wandering through cities by themselves – it’s those looking after them who decide where they go and how long they stay. So they need to feel safe and comfortable – whether from good lighting or buffers between sidewalk and road, well-placed amenities like benches, or easy-to-board, convenient buses. 

Second, proximity really matters. Anyone who’s tried to go anywhere with a curious, energetic two-year-old, or a surprisingly heavy baby in arms, can attest to this! Good public transportation is very important, but if you’re with a little kid the best option is probably just to walk safely, comfortably and quickly to where you need to go. So we’ve developed the concept of a 15-minute neighbourhood where families with young children can get to the services they need most within a 15-minute walk. And we’re seeing some of the cities we work with start to co-locate services based on where these families live.

Probably the biggest thing we’ve learned is that babies and toddlers are actually really compelling to urbanists as a target or frame for interventions. When we first started doing this work, we downplayed the benefits for child development and talked more about the benefits for everyone else. But we found that people wanted to learn more about brain development and found thinking about babies an easy-to-grasp way to think about universal design principles. So now we talk about babies a lot. From a design perspective, their extreme vulnerability and dependency, and strong drive to explore and play, means that if a space is safe, clean and interesting enough for them, it’s likely to work for everyone. And politically, they are a unifying cause: no one’s against babies, everyone’s been one, and many people have had the experience of caring for one.

An Urban95 project in Lima. Photo: Courtesy of Eleazar Cuadros

Which cities in the world do you think are most nurturing towards and inclusive of babies and young children?

Cecilia: Boa Vista wants to become the first early childhood capital in Brazil. Boa Vista’s holistic way of delivering services from pregnancy to five, the integration of pertinent urban design across the city to meet the needs of babies and caregivers, their social awareness to promote nurturing care in all public space, their political will to prioritise investment to ensure a good start for all children, and their openness to integrating Venezuelan migrant children to their welfare system all add up to what we think is a unique example of a nurturing city for babies and toddlers.  

Patrin: Among our Urban95 partner cities, Tel Aviv, Recife and Tirana in particular are implementing city-wide initiatives, with a person responsible for driving and coordinating initiatives to serve young children. In the case of Tel Aviv, there’s even a newly appointed deputy mayor for early childhood. But, in short, there are many cities are doing interesting and groundbreaking things! We have been tremendously inspired and impressed by the work that our partner cities and organisations – and our colleagues – have done so far and are looking forward to more to come.

Patrin Watanatada and Cecilia Vaca Jones. Photograph: Irina Ivan, Bernard van Leer Foundation

Tackling housing inequality in Atlanta: meet Wanona Satcher

In the first of our series of interviews with people around the world working to support inclusive cities , we talk to Wanona Satcher of Mākhers Studio in Atlanta

Based in Atlanta, Georgia, Wanona Satcher is founder and CEO of Mākhers Studio, a social enterprise design-build company which aims to deliver quality affordable housing, workspace and community facilities for underserved communities, supporting more equitable neighbourhoods. Satcher also set up ReJuve, a non-profit urban design lab dedicated to developing ‘prosilient’ (rather than simply ‘resilient’) communities. Thinking City talked to her to find out more.

What sparked your interest in working with urban communities trying to effect positive change?

I’m from Atlanta, GA, which is a very interesting urban community. Its rich history has a long legacy of civil rights, segregation, de-segregation and major shifts in wealth for communities of colour. It is this rich history that sparked my work today.  

How would you define ‘prosilient communities’ and why are they so important in cities? 

I coined this term to describe proactive approaches to urban development and policy.  For years the notion of resilience has been used to support sustainable efforts in redevelopment; however these efforts are typically reactive and take place after displacement, natural disasters and those economic shifts that negatively impact low-wealth communities. On average, cities change every 20 years and with both historical data and future projections we should now know enough to proactively plan equity into every housing, transit and economic policy, land-use regulation and design standard.

Mākhers Studio focuses on shipping container spaces specifically – what are the benefits? 

Used shipping containers are in abundance, easy to acquire, strong, stackable, and are highly adaptable to small urban lots – lots that often become the anchor to community blight and code enforcement violations.

To larger real estate developers these lots are often not seen as financial generators. We can design, build and deploy affordable housing as well as entrepreneurial spaces in half the time and for half the cost of traditional construction, while raising the value of these spaces. Utilising modular techniques allows for better quality control, efficiency, and a smaller carbon footprint. We love the re-use opportunity with shipping containers.  

Also, we’re excited that our shipping container work provides an amazing platform to hire local tradesmen and tradeswomen. We’re helping under-represented communities build the change they want to see. In fact we prioritise hiring women, minority-owned subcontractors, LGBTQ and refugees to help build our Pods.

What sort of impacts have you seen from your work so far? 

As a startup we’re finally gaining traction. We’ve had discussions with local city and county officials around the use of our containers as accessory dwelling units (ADUs), while many residents and stakeholders have told us that we’re helping them see and reimagine urban spaces differently. Also we’re not only educating the general public on modular container construction, but also architects and general contractors; many aren’t use to designing smaller spaces with smaller budgets that still produce a fair return.

How do you think local and national authorities can support greater community equality in cities like Atlanta?

By approving equitable land-use policies at the local county and city level; by redefining and increasing state and federal tax credit opportunities for affordable housing incentives in wealthy communities; by rethinking local building permit processes and fees, so that we in the private industry can continue to answer the call to produce more affordable options. Affordability isn’t just about the cost to the end user, it’s also about land costs and the cost to build; as well as the time to deploy. 

An affordable community container space currently being completed by Mākhers Studio

What would your ideal Atlanta look like? 

I often say that we at Mākhers Studio want to take over every 8ft around the globe in every major city. Shipping containers are 8ft wide. Imagine how many surface parking lots, strip malls, alleys, land adjacent to old rail lines are vacant; all spaces that we can make invaluable if we just think and build differently. We can do that.

I want to see quality, affordable rental container housing in wealthy Atlanta, as well as quality, affordable single-family container housing in lower-income neighbourhoods in Atlanta where under-represented families can build equity and continue to diversify the city without being displaced; where seniors can safely age in place. I also want to see more youth have access to affordable commercial container spaces so they can become Atlanta’s future entrepreneurs.

Keeping makers in cities: how do we safeguard urban studios?

As cities like London become ever-more unaffordable, studio space for makers and crafters gets harder to protect amid the sprawl of luxury development. But, asks Debika Ray, are we finally reaching a turning point? 

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The Weave Studio at Primary in Nottingham. Photo: Jonny Guardiani

Leather Lane, Shoe Lane, Threadneedle Street, and the Worshipful Companies of Drapers, Goldsmiths and Carpenters – a history of craft is stitched into the very fabric of London. It has been a long time, though, since the capital has been a natural home for makers, as rents have escalated and studio space has vanished. Last year, City Hall released figures that showed that 17% of studios were at risk of closing over the next five years even though 95% of spaces were occupied. While the problem in London is particularly acute, sustaining creative practice in any major UK city is difficult – particularly for craftspeople, whose activities continue to require lots of space in an era when the spatial requirements for much other work has shrunk to the size of a laptop.

For furniture maker Yinka Ilori, this is a familiar problem: he moved to a studio in Harrow, north-west London, after it become far too expensive to stay in the rapidly gentrifying east of the city. “Landlords are becoming very greedy and it’s artists who suffer,” he says. “To grow my practice, I had to move.” His current set-up is run by the charity Acava and not only offers him more space for his money, but also free use of its gallery to exhibit his work. In some respects, he says, creative people being forced to spread out more is a good thing as it creates opportunities where there previously weren’t any. “This space has put Harrow on the map in terms of art, design and creativity, which gives young people a space to express themselves, show work or meet like-minded people.”

Yinka Ilori in his studio

But even with charities such as Acava operating, help for young creative practitioners in the capital remains few and far between – and Ilori sees an urgent need for the government and mayor to act. “Creativity is part of London and there’s so much hunger from young children for art, design and fashion. We need to tap into that at a young age by giving people platforms to show work, perhaps offering things like free studio space, funding and access to mentoring.”

Annie Warburton, chief executive of “creative business incubator” Cockpit Arts, which provides studio space in Deptford and Holborn for around 170 craft-based businesses, agrees on the urgency of the situation. “What we’ve seen is real attrition in terms of studio space for makers in London. To me, it’s really vital that we don’t see this hollowing out of the the city and that we keep making right at the centre of the capital.” In an effort to smooth the path for craftspeople, Cockpit Arts offers professional support, showcases its occupants’ work and helps establish apprenticeships and relationships.

The collective weight of Cockpit’s makers, she says, makes a formidable case for why policymakers should pay attention to creative businesses. “Together they have a turnover of £7m. That agglomeration of small and micro businesses is creating as much value as a big business, but in different way – they have value economically, socially, culturally and they enrich the texture of the city.”

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Open Studios at Cockpit Arts. Photo: Jamie Trounce

The fact that it owns its building in Deptford has given Cockpit Arts relative stability. Even so, it has had “developers knocking on the door every few months”, comments Warburton. Against that backdrop, she says, the London mayor’s proposals for the Creative Land Trust, a soon-to-be launched initiative that will fund the purchase of permanent buildings by affordable workspace providers, is a welcome move. “If you have a long lease, you’re able to plan and invest.”

In the absence of a similar scheme in Nottingham, the team behind Primary, a gallery and artists’ studio provider that contains a weaving studio, sought to secure its own long term future. “Existing studio provision in the city was highly precarious – studio spaces came and went quickly, which led to them being of relatively poor quality, because there was no security of tenure and therefore little investment,” says director Niki Russell. “Many artists were responding to losing their studio space by leaving the city.”

When taking over the former school building in which is operates, Nottingham Studios signed a 30-year lease. “It’s significantly more stable than other things that were around, so artists can think about locating themselves in Nottingham as a long term option, but we’re still interested in changing that from a lease relationship to an ownership model.”

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Primary occupies an old school building in Nottingham

Russell believes more work needs to be done to create public awareness of the value of these types of initiatives. “We’re looking after the building and we’re in a residential area where there isn’t really a great deal of public facility. This is probably going to allow us to make the case for the value of us being involved and generate a citywide conversation.”

Warburton sees opportunities in the growing public interest around making and the story behind objects, as property developers are more conscious of integrating creative meanwhile elements into their spaces. Initiatives like Appear Here, a platform that links startups with temporarily unused space for relatively low rates to use for pop-ups, is filling that gap by connecting makers to affordable space in central urban locations. But she is wary that a lot these offerings tend to be temporary: “The danger is to rely on that too much, because it’s not a long-term solution.”

Hopefully, however, public bodies are catching up, realising the need to support such spaces. In 2013, with help from Mayor of London funding, architecture collective Assemble converted a former warehouse into Blackhorse Workshop – a public, affordable workshop for local makers and craftspeople – in Walthamstow, east London.

Blackhorse Workshop in Walthamstow, east London

The relationship with the public also lies in nurturing the market for craft. This is a central part of the work of Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh, according to director Celia Joicey: “We provide not only studio space for tapestry weaving, but we also create tapestry commissions and speculative tapestries and pay the weavers a salary to work on these.”

In London this is a vital ingredient in helping makers become sellers, given its abundance of wealthy potential buyers. London Craft Week is striving to build links between the worlds of craft and luxury retail in an effort to create a platform for craftspeople to sell work. “We try to facilitate relationships to give artist-makers a platform that they might not otherwise have,” says Nina Timms, programme manager of London Craft Week. “After all, the audiences for these luxury brands – people who have the means to buy and invest and collect commissioning these works – are also the audiences of these independent makers.”

Thinking City is hosting an event on 10 May, in collaboration with architecture collective Assemble, as part of London Craft Week. Find out more details here

Hong Kong designers reimagine the city’s pocket parks

In a megacity where public space is scarce, local parks are often called ‘three-cornered shit pits’. Now a group of Hong Kong designers is hoping to make them more inclusive, playful and celebratory of the city itself. Mary Hui reports

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Hong Kong’s pocket parks, like this one in Hill Road, are officially known as ‘sitting-out areas’

Dotted all over Hong Kong are small parks — officially known as “sitting-out areas” or “rest gardens” — etched deep into the urban fabric of this densely packed city. They are often located in the most unassuming of places: under flyovers, tucked between two buildings, squeezed into a leftover parcel of awkwardly shaped space. Together, they fill in the gaps of the urban landscape.

Though they vary in size, the parks are generally quite small. Whereas the typical pocket park in London is between 2,000 and 4,000 square feet, Hong Kong’s average is about 1,000 square feet, according to Susanne Trumpf, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at the University of Hong Kong, and who has studied the city’s pocket parks extensively.

To an older generation of Hong Kongers, these parks also go by a somewhat more explicit name: “three-cornered shit pit”. That’s according to Hoyin Lee, the co-founder and director of the Division of Architectural Conservation Programmes at the University of Hong Kong, and who first heard the phrase from his nonagenarian father.

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Hamilton Street Rest Garden, located in the Yau Tsim Mong district of Hong Kong, the most densely populated neighbourhood in the city

“Three-cornered shit pit” initially referred to public toilets built around the city from the early 20th century onwards, after a plague swept the city in the 1890s. Because the Chinese quarters, where the plague broke out, was by then already quite built up, the government had to make do by squeezing the toilets underground or onto leftover sites that couldn’t be developed because of their small size and awkward configuration — typically a triangular shape — hence the name.

Many of those early public toilets have since been demolished. While there may not be a direct link between the toilets and today’s pocket parks, both are built on small, awkward scraps of land. In fact, as old Chinese-style shophouses known as tong lau were demolished in the city’s post-war building boom, it left behind small interstices in the urban landscape. Now, those interstices are where many pocket parks stand.

Sitting-out areas have become an important urban planning tool for a city that is constantly rebuilding, occupying spaces where old buildings once stood, filling irregular gaps between new complexes, or added to comply with new setback requirements, explains Trumpf.  “The most common case would be with the smaller sitting-out areas in Central which are literally squeezed between two tong laus,” she says, referring to old Chinese-style shophouses. In other cases, a large block of old buildings is knocked down, and with new planning and building guidelines, sitting-out areas have to be added into the mix. In this sense, the sitting-out areas become a little bit like a historical record of what the city was and how it has changed. “In Hong Kong, things get rebuilt so constantly and regularly,” says Trumpf.

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Sun Chui Estate sitting-out area. Image: Creative Commons/Prosperity Horizons

The parks also serve as an important and much-needed breathing space in the hyper-density of the city. Within urban Hong Kong, residents get roughly 30 square feet of open space per person, less than half of what residents in Tokyo, Shanghai, and Singapore get. Of course, this doesn’t take into account the 40% of Hong Kong’s territory that is protected as country parks. But within the city’s urban heart, open space is a scarce resource.

“If you’ve got people in a very closely packed environment, they’ve got to have some space,” says Jason Wordie, a local historian. The sitting-out areas “provide a bit of the social value” and make use of otherwise unpromising areas.

Visitors to these small parks also tend to be older, according to research conducted by Civic Exchange, a local think-tank. This doesn’t surprise Wordie. Densely built areas tend to have more subdivided accommodations, and these in turn tend to have an older, single, male demographic in them. “So if your choice is between sitting in your cubicle in your bunk bed or sitting under a tree, well, then that’s that,” he says.

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Sha Tin Tau Village sitting-out area. Image: Creative Commons/Underwaterbuffalo

The parks are as abundant as they are homogenous. On Hong Kong Island alone, which makes up a mere 7% of the city’s territory, there are some 169 such parks. Managed by the government, they all feature the same set of standardised features and furnishings.

“Uniquely generic, the sitting-out area is the quintessential Hong Kong urban typology,” Trumpf and her co-authors wrote in an academic article in 2017. To Trumpf, the sitting-out areas represent an under-tapped potential for the city to provide a network of public open space.

Now, a group of design professionals are looking to rethink the role and future of Hong Kong’s ubiquitous pocket parks. Working in small teams under the Design Trust Futures Studio program, part of the local NGO Design Trust, they came up with new designs for four pocket parks in different parts of the city. They recently rolled out prototypes, and have been working closely with the city government to build the new parks.

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Conceptual designs for a park under a flyover, by Aron Tsang, Andy Cheng, Jose Fu, and Zoey Chan

The goal, says Marisa Yiu, co-founder and director of Design Trust, is to re-make the parks as a representation of the city’s rich cultural heritage, history, and the diversity of needs and demographics.

“We have such unique neighborhoods,” she says. “Why not utilise something to present the local flavour instead of every park being the same, with the same equipment and the same furniture?”

Over the past year, the design teams conducted extensive research and site analyses to come up with designs that more closely reflect the city’s layered narratives, and that provide inclusive spaces for rest and play.

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The redesign of Portland Street Rest Garden provides more seating, and uses bright pink to revitalise the park

At a somewhat drab and gritty park located directly across a betting station and frequented by horseracing gamblers, the designers noticed a shortage of chairs, with many of the elderly men sitting on or squatting by planters. So they have added bright pink moveable seats and tables.  At another park, located under a flyover, the designers opted to play with vertical height, installing an undulating LED installation and perhaps even climbing nets.

The design teams unveiled their 1:1 prototypes and scaled models at an exhibition in January. Each was completely different and tailored to the geographic, historic,  demographic context of each site –– a marked contrast to the uniform designs of the parks currently. And in March, prototypes were displayed at one of the parks, drawing curious passersby as they tested out the bright pink chairs and tables.

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The playground design for Yi Pei Square adds colourful graphic patterns to the flooring, creating a sort of carpet for children to play on

Although people generally thought that the bright pink colour of the proposed design was positive, there were worries that the use of steel may attract thieves given the material’s higher resell value compared to cement, stone, or recycled plastic. Another prototype, featuring a slide and a tunnel for the Yi Pei Square Playground site, proved very popular with people of all ages, especially young kids because of the sense of discovery that the equipment encouraged.

The Design Trust is now pushing to make the proposed designs a reality over the next 1–2 years. “Our aim is to guide, disrupt, and challenge the question of what public space is and what it can do for the community,” said Yiu. “The parks are a representation of how we respect our space.”

Mary Hui is a freelance reporter based in Hong Kong

 

How Leith took on property developers – and won

When development plans in the Edinburgh district of Leith threatened to displace locals, the community successfully mobilised. Eve Livingston reports

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Campaigners at 2018’s Leith Gala Day: Photo: Save Leith Walk/Deborah Mullen

When you ask residents of Leith, the waterfront neighbourhood to the north of Edinburgh, to describe their community, there are a few words which come up again and again: family, creativity, diversity, close-knit community. ‘I’ve lived in a few different places in Edinburgh and never felt at home until I came to Leith,’ says 26-year-old charity worker Clara Boeker, originally from Germany.

The neighbourhood might be best known to outsiders as the setting for Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting and The Proclaimers’ hit song-turned-musical Sunshine on Leith, but it has undergone something of a transformation since the early 90s, and its depiction in these cultural milestones. Today, Leith boasts Michelin-starred restaurants and an array of fashionable bars and local businesses – but crucially, it has also managed to retain the working-class community spirit and artistic tradition which have always defined it.

Leith residents have protected their community for years, enjoying the benefits of development while resisting the creep of gentrification. But in early 2018, its delicate balance came under threat when Drum Property Group proposed a £50 million redevelopment project on the iconic Leith Walk, the central road which links the area to central Edinburgh.

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106–154 Leith Walk

Mirroring the contentious expansion of university buildings across Edinburgh itself, the proposal included plans to demolish 106–154 Leith Walk – a 1930s terrace of red sandstone buildings housing a range of local shops and businesses, community hubs and social enterprises – to make way for student accommodation for 532 students and a 56-room hotel, both operated by the University of Edinburgh. The shops and businesses were invited to take the new development’s retail units but at higher rents than they are paying, meaning most would be displaced.

“There were a group of us who had already worked on a right-to-buy community campaign nearby,” says 27-year-old local Frances Hoole. “We were tipped off to a community council meeting where [the redevelopment plan] was being discussed and when we got there, there were just far too many people to fit in – obviously because they all wanted to discuss this particular issue. So a meeting was set up and everything went from there”.

The ‘everything’ to which Hoole refers is the almost year-long community campaign Save Leith Walk, of which she and Boeker are both members. The group’s tactics involved a central petition to stop the demolition; encouraging and equipping community members to lodge planning objections; several community workshops and even a guerilla light projection to raise awareness of the issue.

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A packed-out community meeting. Photo: Save Leith Walk/Deborah Mullen

While the campaign focused on retaining the spirit of Leith and the local importance of the businesses housed in the threatened buildings – the food shop Punjabi Junction, for example, also trains up Sikh and BAME women to help with employability and social exclusion – it has also sought to articulate concerns about a planning system rigged in favour of developers.

“It’s in a conservation area,” points out Hoole. “You have to test what that means at a planning level and in a committee vote. This development would have begun changing the face of Leith Walk. When buildings are maintained by private developers you get rent increases for new businesses. It would have changed who it was for – no more small, local businesses or young musicians renting practice space.”

59-year-old musician Ray Neal became involved in Save Leith Walk because his partner’s business – much-loved local beauty salon Lovella – sits directly opposite the development. Having moved from New Haven, Connecticut, he could immediately spot danger when it emerged the University of Edinburgh would be the development’s single biggest tenant: “Yale University bought the whole city [of New Haven] and threw out all the local shops – it’s like a Disneyland for students,” he says. It’s a view which is supported by research showing that Yale has become New Haven’s largest commercial landlord. “Leith has a certain energy and character, a creative vibe. I was worried about that being lost.”

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Campaigners in front of the community-led vision for Leith Walk. Photo: Save Leith Walk/Deborah Mullen

“I didn’t know a single other person when I turned up,” says Boeker says of her participation in Save Leith Walk, which she describes as her first taste of activism. “A lot of people didn’t. But the meeting was full of all different people – different nationalities, ages, people who’ve lived there forever and people who’d moved in. We always say in the campaign: ‘We’re all Leithers – it doesn’t matter when you arrived or where you came from, we’re all Leith’”.

This diversity and energy set the tone for a community organising campaign which saw artists provide artwork and merchandise, local businesses donate products for auctions, and venues host workshops free of charge; there were at least five musical benefits held in support. Community support even included an anonymous “yarn bomber” whose crocheted protest signs persistently popped up around the area. The campaign also attracted support from Leith heroes Irvine Welsh and The Proclaimers as well as political figures like Jeremy Corbyn and Edinburgh-based Mercury prize-winning band Young Fathers. Ultimately, the community group collected 12,500 signatures on its petition and over 3,000 official online objections to Drum’s plans, totalling 15,800 objections.

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‘Still want to know why is Edinburgh University developing properties instead of minds?’ Photo: Save Leith Walk/Deborah Mullen

In January of this year, the group won. Drum’s planning application was rejected unanimously. “The day of the council meeting was incredible,” says Neal. “Councillors even laid into the arrogance and entitlement of the developers. We were stunned and elated.”

Hoole puts the success of the campaign down to the diversity of tactics utilised, with activists deploying their skills in artwork, street stalls, drafting planning objections and facilitating workshops. “And it was a symbol of a much bigger problem,” she adds. “So many people have felt a lack of agency in their community – they were excited that a group had managed to make their voice heard.”

Campaigners are quick to point out that the fight is still on: the developers still own the property and have a chance to appeal the decision (when approached for a response, Drum said it was considering its options and had no comment). Save Leith Walk’s original petition had the clear – and now, realised – ambition of stopping the demolition and retaining the businesses, but it continues to advocate for any development to be put to community use, and campaigns more broadly for better provision of social housing. But for the activists, everything has changed.

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Staff from local business RS Coachworks in front of a campaign sign. Photo: Save Leith Walk/Deborah Mullen

“I’ve got a family now that I didn’t have a year ago,” says Neal of his fellow campaigners. “And it’s shown the community that their faith in their voice has won out.”

“I think everyone agrees the world sometimes feels messed up,” Boeker agrees. “It’s been great to channel all that energy in a way that feels productive locally and shows people what is possible.”

 

Eve Livingston is a Scotland-based journalist specialising in social affairs, activism and inequalities. You can find her on Twitter or her website 

Preserving public art in a city of earthquakes

Mexico City’s public art is an integral part of the city’s identity and history. But in a country prone to devastating earthquakes, what is the fate of these creative monuments, asks Martha Pskowski – and is meaningful preservation possible?

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Centro SCOP’s vibrant mosaic murals before the 2017 earthquake. Photograph: Thomas Ledl

Mexico City is a bastion of public art in the Americas, with murals, mosaics and monuments lining its most important streets. Yet the city is also highly vulnerable to earthquakes. Currently Mexican historians, artists and architects are contending with a unique predicament: What do you do with historic public art, when an earthquake can bring it tumbling down in a matter of seconds?

When a massive earthquake hit Mexico City in September 1985, roughly 10,000 people died. Alongside this devastating tragedy, hundreds of buildings were also destroyed – among them, some of Guatemalan artist Carlos Mérida’s defining works. 

“I think to some extent it was fortunate that the maestro Mérida died before 1985 and did not see the destruction of the work that he was most proud of,” wrote Alfonso Soto Soria, artist and curator, in his 1988 book on Mérida’s work.

The work he was referring to is the bas-relief figures that once adorned the exteriors of the Benito Juárez housing complex in the Roma Sur neighbourhood of Mexico City. Mérida employed dozens of stoneworkers who chipped and painted Mesoamerican figures out of the housing complex’s concrete slab blocks, designed by architect Mario Pani in the early 1950s. 

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Carlos Mérida’s work on the Mario Pani-designed Benito Juárez housing complex in 1985, before the earthquake that destroyed it. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Mérida was an exemplary proponent of integración plástica, the mid-20th-century artistic movement which sought to merge sculpture, painting and architecture in public works, and brought a distinctively Mexican twist on the otherwise typical modernist apartment blocks. The movement coincided with the Mexican government’s biggest investments in public works and public art, and so has become the most emblematic style of the city – a part of its identity.

32 years to the day after the 1985 disaster, in September 2017, Mexico City was hit by another major earthquake. Hundreds were killed. Again, important buildings and works of public art were damaged. One of these was the Morelos apartment complex, originally completed in the city’s Doctores neighbourhood in 1971.

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A remaining tower of the Morelos apartment complex following the 2017 earthquake. Photograph: Martha Pskowski

At Morelos, architect Guillermo Rossell de la Lama enlisted the Arte en Acción collective, led by muralist and leftist activist José Hernández Delgadillo, to design murals built into the sides of the apartment buildings. After sustaining structural damage during the 2017 earthquake, two buildings in the apartment complex were demolished this year, destroying over 100 apartments as well as the Arte en Acción murals.

Another structure, the Secretariat of Communications and Transportation building in the Narvarte neighbourhood (known locally as Centro SCOP), is an iconic example of Mexican modernism by architect Carlos Lazo, inaugurated in 1954. The building is covered in 20,000 sq m of celebrated mosaic murals, designed by Lazo in collaboration with artists Juan O’ Gorman and José Chávez Morado. Despite suffering damage in the 1985 earthquake, the art and architecture was rebuilt following a long restoration project. But following renewed structural damage in 2017’s earthquake, the building is now condemned to be demolished, and the fate of the sprawling mosaics remains unclear. 

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Centro SCOP before the 2017 earthquake. Photograph: Pablo López Luz/Archivo Diseño y Arquitectura

A suggested plan to relocate the murals to a new airport on the outskirts of the city has been interrupted as the construction of the airport itself was (controversially) cancelled by Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in October 2018 following a public referendum and criticism from environmentalists and urban planners. A new airport, on a smaller scale, will most likely be built at the Santa Lucía military base. Overshadowed by the controversy surrounding the airport, there has been no further discussion of relocating the Centro SCOP murals.

Some had argued against the relocation of these unique works of art, however. “The murals were conceived as part of the architectural whole of the building,” wrote Renato Mello, director of the Institute of Aesthetic Research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), in an open letter addressed to federal officials in April 2018. “It would be difficult to conserve their value as cultural and artistic patrimony in a different architectural context, in which their function would not be the same as in the original.”

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Centro SCOP under scaffolding following the 2017 earthquake. Photograph: Martha Pskowski

Integración plástica remains a celebrated age of Mexican art and architecture, when the country’s top architects were employed to build homes for Mexico City’s middle classes, instead of the super wealthy. Mello believes relocating the Centro SCOP artwork from a public building in the heart of the city to an airport an hour away, which aims to attract tourism and international investors, would fundamentally disrupt its meaning. “It’s a difficult dilemma, because the building is seriously damaged,” Mello says when I speak to him. “Yet at the same time its cultural importance is staggering. We have to seek solutions that consider these two realities.”

Earthquakes have fundamentally shaped Mexico City’s urban landscape, erasing iconic buildings and influencing a strict building code. The vestiges of collapsed buildings are quick to be built over, to meet the housing need of a burgeoning population. Mexico City is going through a construction boom, but a public art programme on the scale of the integración plástica movement is unthinkable in an age when developers are more interested in minimising square-metres and maximising profits than beautifying building exteriors. 

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The Centro SCOP murals alongside a Mexican flag, before the recent earthquake. Photograph: Oswaldo Bautista

Mello believes that the spirit of the movement has not been entirely lost, though. “The great architects of that era were the teachers of the important architects over the next decades,” he says. “On an ethical and conceptual level, there was a lot of continuity.”

What’s more, Mello cautions against a purely nostalgic view of integración plástica. The movement was promoted alongside vast public works projects, overseen by presidents from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in the mid-20th century. “These buildings are testimonies to a specific era,” says Mello. “But admiring them does not mean abandoning a critical vision towards that time period, because the government was very authoritarian.”

The PRI government may have spearheaded major public works and housing complexes, but it was also deeply undemocratic. The 1985 earthquake also shook the country’s politics, as the PRI’s failure to contain the tragedy spurred a citizen movement against one-party rule. People were disillusioned; the seeds of opposition to the PRI had been planted.

On Mexico City’s unsteady ground, buildings and monumental art are ephemeral. Not all the lofty ideals of mid-century architects can coexist with the city’s seismic activity. The public art of mid-century Mexico City must be preserved not to glorify it, but to understand a defining moment in Mexican history.