Friday, 18 January 2013

Squaring the Circle - How to Reconcile Apparently Impossible Contradictions in Contemporary Urban Policy

                                       The Siemens Crystal Building dedicated to Smart Cities

Yesterday I went to the Siemens Crystal Centre in London's Docklands to hear a lecture on this subject from my former tutor Professor Peter Hall, one of a number organised jointly by the Town and Country Planning Association and the International Federation of Housing and Planning in celebration of the IFHP's centenary. 

When I first heard about this event and its subject I was not at all sure what its focus would be and what might be Sir Peter's proposals for reconciliation of the contradictions. It never occurred to me that these would include the development of tram-rail systems (and I readily admit to being a tram-fan) and place branding and marketing based on them as city assets. Bear with me and I will get you there.

The paradoxes he highlighted were that around the world cities are developing in a variety of ways with the city cores of some beginning to grow again, often at a faster rate than their suburbs; some with city cores growing at the expense of their suburbs; some with the suburbs growing at the expense of their cores and some with declining cores and suburbs.  So some cities are decentralising while others are centralising, often at the same or faster rates. Fascinating data and observations delivered in his usual punchy and stylish manner.

In attempting to explain and understand these contradictory changes Sir Peter has been looking at the effect on cities of their investments in public transport systems, in particular on the effect on new tram and tram-rail systems. Essentially in car dominated cities the suburbs have been growing and in cities investing in public, in particular tram and tram-rail transport, connecting their suburbs to their centres, the centres have been growing. And he also noted that investment in tram-based systems can lead to both centre and suburban growth.

He shared with the audience his thinking on what he described as the "Heineken Model" for investment in tram-based transport that reaches the parts of cities that other forms of public transport do not reach (buses and surface rail) and illustrated this thinking with examples from Freiburg, Kassel and Karlsruhe in Germany, Ypenburg in the Hague in the Netherlands and Strasbourg and Montpelier in France.

The Montpelier example was particularly interesting as its major investment in tram-rail infrastructure was pushed through by a maverick mayor against the wishes of many vested interests and resulted in significant growth of the city. Montpelier is now the fastest growing city in France and over the last ten years it has opened three long distance tram lines connecting the city from one side to the other, a circular route around the centre connecting the spine routes and extensions to the spines out into the surrounding countryside, with connections to the TGV rail network, as illustrated in the map below. 

                                                    Map of the Montpelier Tram System

In parallel, the city developed proposals for major new shopping, leisure and entertainment centres along the new tram routes and proposals for new suburbs along the routes and around the new centres, such as the Odysseum shown below, and promoted these proposals to investors using the new infrastructure as an enabler and as the brand identity and differentiator for the city. 

                                            The Odysseum Commercial Centre, Montpelier

It went further and hired the well known French fashion designer Christian Lacroix to design the exterior paintwork for the new trams, illustrated in the photo below - "une ligne haute couture"

                                                           A Christian Lacroix tram design

These infrastructure investments attracted many knowledgable, qualified and talented young people and businesses to the city and the new suburbs and, as a result, a new sector - a knowledge economy - has developed along the tram routes and in the new suburbs, in particular in a new university quarter - Porte Marriane.

                                                             The Port Marianne Campus

I have assumed that either a transcript of Sir Peter's lecture or a video download will soon be available from the IFHP at