How can cities show their human side?

 —  Article by JP Pelosi
Wynyard Quarter in Auckland, New Zealand
Image credit: Shutterstock

Our cities are attracting ever growing numbers of people, but as they grow upwards and outwards there’s a danger the human touch gets lost amid all the concrete, steel and glass.

Given the chance to start a city from scratch, most people wouldn’t replicate their existing Central Business District (CBD), according to JLL research. Rather, the focus would be on multi-purpose buildings and eco-friendly campuses where people could live, work and play within a single community.

Such cities would increase human interaction, bring residents closer to nature and improve their well-being to create a future dependent on people – not machines, says JLL’s Australian Head of Corporate Account Management, Rajiv Nagrath.

“While technology continues to evolve at a rapid rate, our basic needs and wants of human connection remain consistent with what they were 100 years ago,” he explains. “There will still be a desire for continued human engagement, connected communities and workplaces that foster co-working and entrepreneurship.”

And creating accessible public spaces and walkable connections between amenities are key to the development of thriving urban environments.

Paths of the future

This desire for connection is hardest to achieve in large and crowded cities – yet some are taking steps to make it a reality. The Jiyugaoka district of Tokyo, for example, is specifically designed around the pedestrian. Its leafy promenades are lined with stores and eateries, and encourage locals to linger. As a result, the majority of commuters walk or ride to Jiyugaoka, while only 5 percent drive in.

Similarly, new walking trails in South Korea’s capital Seoul are making its CBD more pedestrian friendly, safe and vibrant. One such trail will transform a vehicle overpass into a pedestrian-only walkway that better links Seoul Station Square to surrounding areas. An elevated path will also revitalize Sewoon Shopping Mall and connect pedestrians to other parts of the city.

Meanwhile in Perth, the Western Australian government has significantly invested in the city’s Cultural Centre Project, helping to revamp the area around the James Street Mall. Markets, shops, galleries and cultural events draw pedestrians into the area between the CBD and the suburb of Northbridge.

Chief executive of The Committee for Perth, Marion Fulker says many cities have committed to the car, so having a convenient place to relax is now paramount.

“What government practitioners and developers in Perth have been working on is creating more urban environments – places with a finer grain that are pedestrian friendly” says Fulker. “But so much regulation works against achieving this. For example, we have car parking minimums not maximums in developments, and traffic signals mostly work to achieve free flowing traffic rather than ease of pedestrian movement.

“So to my mind, it’s a shift in paradigm – what do you want a place to be? What do you need to change to create that environment? It takes a mind-shift in regulation and perception.”

Starting over

In some rare cases, such as in Christchurch in New Zealand, there’s actually an opportunity to redesign a city center from scratch.

Tom Barclay, National Research Manager for JLL in New Zealand, says that Christchurch’s rebuild was only possible because 1,100 commercial buildings were demolished due to the 2011 earthquake. The Avon River and South Frame precincts, for example, are being beautifully revamped with green spaces, cycleways and playgrounds.

Christchurch’s new center also offers improved pedestrian access with laneways, more inviting building facades made of glass instead of concrete, and shade provided by rows of trees. Now, the spaces between buildings are regarded as important as the buildings themselves.

“The focus on these areas is making it very easy to traverse through the CBD either by walking or cycling,” says Barclay. “Christchurch has long been labelled the Garden City of New Zealand and there had been a lot of beautification going on – even before the earthquake. Now they’re really taking it to the next level.”

“The local government also introduced a 30 kilometer speed limit in the city to make it more pedestrian and cyclist friendly. And they’ve widened Manchester Street, one of the main arterial routes through the city. But this is much easier to do from scratch than to an existing CBD, like in Auckland.”

Finding space to walk

Cities like Auckland and Sydney face different challenges, after rapidly building motorways from around 1960. This trend continued for many years, making it difficult to reshape their respective CBDs to favor of the pedestrian.

However, old industrial yards and ports have recently been redeveloped with people in mind. Take Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter; its new stores and markets are specifically accessible to walkers with the goal of connecting them to the wider city. The narrowing of Jellicoe Street as well, together with a new tram line running along it, has helped to prioritise pedestrians over traffic.

Similarly, in Barrangaroo in Sydney, foot and bike paths have reinvigorated the city’s shipping yards, a part of town that was once closed off from pedestrians. New parks, public squares and a range of shops are forging a new pedestrian-centric culture along the north-western edge of the CBD.

Such changes reflect an ongoing shift toward the pedestrian in cities. Whether it’s creating a new footpaths or revamping existing spaces, urban planners are focusing more on how residents prefer to interact with their city. In the end, CBDs, or at least public centers, are increasingly becoming places people want to spend more time in.

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