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50 years of gentrification: will all our cities turn into ‘deathly’ Canberra?

Canberra in the fog

Canberra in the fog: Australia’s capital has for the second year running topped the OECD’s list of most liveable cities. Photograph: Auscape/UIG/Getty Images

There is little doubt that what makes a city livable would vary across societies. The point of concern is that while we try to define the ‘conditions for livability’, we should not loose sight of the larger picture. A walled city with gated communities might be ‘livable’ but they can create a deeper divide between the super affluent and the middle income groups. Perhaps, an all-inclusive approach needs to be factored in when such classifications are designed. The Global Liveability Rankings for 2014 have been released by The Economic Intelligence Unit. Going by their rankings, we need to think and question – Is this where we are headed to?


Powered by article titled “50 years of gentrification: will all our cities turn into ‘deathly’ Canberra?” was written by Oliver Wainwright, for on Friday 12th December 2014 14.56 UTC

What makes a liveable city? Having lots of nice parks, you might think, a decent public transport system, good schools and hospitals, great architecture, exciting nightlife, easy access to the countryside. These are just some of the factors used by organisations who draw up annual lists of “the most liveable cities in the world”. And yet somehow, they end up with Canberra.

This year, for the second year running, Australia’s political capital was named the best city in the world by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), a result that made northern hemisphere observers wonder if, down under, they were looking at the rankings upside down.

Canberra is a deathly place. It is a city conceived as a monument to the roundabout and the retail park, a bleak and relentless landscape of axial boulevards and manicured verges, dotted with puffed-up state buildings and gigantic shopping sheds. It is what a city looks like when it is left to politicians to plan.

So what other cities make it on to the rankings? The Economist Intelligence Unit puts Melbourne in first place, followed by Vienna, Vancouver, Toronto, Adelaide and Calgary. There is never any mention, on any list, of London or New York, Paris or Hong Kong. There are no liveable cities where you might actually want to live. It makes you wonder if their chief parameter is finding a place where you won’t be disturbed from reading the Economist on a windswept plaza, surrounded by the soulless wipe-clean charm of an identikit downtown. Liveability, it seems, is defined by a total absence of risk or chance, pleasure or surprise. It is an index of comfort, a guide to places where you can go safe in the knowledge you’ll never be far from a Starbucks.

The one thing many of these cities have in common is that they are places where Jan Gehl has worked his magic. The Danish guru of streets and public spaces has made a career out of travelling the world to whisper sweet nothings about pedestrianisation and pavement cafes into the ears of enrapt mayors. He has become the patron saint of liveability.

This week he met up with his old chum Richard Rogers, our own doyen of the public realm, along with Arup’s head of planning, Jerome Frost, to discuss what makes a liveable city, at a Guardian Live event that I had the pleasure of chairing. At 78 and 81 respectively, Gehl and Rogers are titans of talking about how places can be made better, having advised most global cities between them. They dutifully conversed about the primacy of the bicycle, how cities should be for people not cars, the importance of density and sustainability. Copenhagen was held up as the ultimate model, a city that has been turned into a utopia for people and bikes over the last 50 years, in no small part due to Gehl’s pioneering work. He pointed out that it consistently tops Monocle magazine’s liveability list. His granddaughter can now walk all the way to school without having to cross a road.

copenhagen denmark people bikes

Copenhagen … Denmark’s utopia for people and bikes. Photograph: Alamy

Rogers recounted the principles he set out in his landmark white paper, Towards an Urban Renaissance, published in 1999 as the product of the Urban Task Force he chaired under New Labour, which has guided urban regeneration in the UK ever since. Build on brownfield land and build tall, he said; lure people back into city centres with cultural buildings, flats and better public spaces; invest in public transport and build over transport nodes.

Their values are difficult to argue with: it’s all people-centred common sense, with a good dose of al fresco dolce vita. Everything would be fine if everywhere was a bit more like Siena.

“They said pedestrianisation would never work in Copenhagen because we’re Danes not Italians,” said Gehl. “But now we’re more Italian than the Italians.” A contented smile crossed his face.

Yet the nature of what has happened in numerous cities, since both men set out their visionary stall 20 years ago or more, is often a very different animal to what was espoused in their manifestos. In their influential, highly seductive texts, there is rarely any mention of questions of power and conflict, nor who or what will be driving the development. There is no acknowledgement that their new city visions might come at the cost of something else.

Take the holy grail of public space, held up by both Rogers and Gehl as the ultimate good: plazas and piazzas in concrete and granite are conflated with the abstract idea of the civic commons. “It’s good for democracy if people can meet each other on the street,” said Gehl.

But it overlooks one crucial thing. London has built many fine new public spaces over the last decade, but they are not in fact public – they are extensions of the privatised realm, to which the public is granted conditional access. “Welcome to King’s Cross,” reads a sign in front of the new fountain-fringed Granary Square. “Please enjoy this private estate considerately.”

The lofty open space beneath Rogers’s new Cheesegrater office tower may be an unheard-of concession to persuade a speculative developer to make, but it is little more than an office lobby without walls. It is another private doormat, garnished with small strips of grass, that is managed by Broadgate Estates, the company that evicted Occupy protesters from Paternoster Square in 2011. Having cleared out the rabble, they erected a sign that read: “Paternoster Square is private land. Any licence to the public to enter or cross this land is revoked forthwith. There is no implied or express permission to enter the premises or any part. Any such entry will constitute a trespass.”

The 'public space' beneath the Cheesegrater is managed by Broadgate Estates, the company that evicted protesters from Paternoster Square.
The ‘public space’ beneath the Cheesegrater is managed by Broadgate Estates, the company that evicted protesters from Paternoster Square. Photograph: Sonja Horsman/Observer

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