Architect’s hands: how can we design better streets | Evelina Ozola | TEDxRiga

Translator: Ilze Garda
Reviewer: Denise RQ For a very long time, we have believed that the hand of an architect
should look like this. It is known that architects
are smart and sophisticated. They always wear black, and they know better than anyone else
how our cities should function. They build models,
and they look at them from above. An architect’s hand
is like the hand of God. This particular hand
belongs to Le Corbusier, and in this iconic photo,
he is presenting a model of Plan Voisin, a utopian modernist vision for Paris
that luckily was never built, but the impact of his ideas was enormous. In fact, urban planners today are trying to fix what this guy,
with his hand from above, did to cities. Modernist city planning produced
spaces designed specifically for cars, a city where different functions
like shops, offices and housing, are strictly separated; a city where the traditional street,
along with all street life, is made obsolete. Contrary to Le Corbusier,
I deeply care about streets, and I wish that the streets of our cities
offered a more balanced space for mobility and for social life. I also believe that the hand
of an architect can look like this, and he, or she, can be working
inside of the model, directly on the street. For the past five years, I’ve had the opportunity to work
in several urban design projects in public spaces. I’ve used my own hands
to build these things. I’ve spent many hours on the site, and, while there, I’ve made
some interesting observations. It all started with a project
in Bastejkalns Park in Riga, that’s when I spent a week
crawling on the ground, painting green circles, and constantly explaining
to curious passers-by why I am doing this. I was actually setting up
an outdoor exhibition which was dedicated to a Latvian writer. My experiments with color continued
in Sarkandaugava neighbourhood in Riga, and this time I painted everything red, and, of course, I carried on
explaining why. It was to mark
the first public square in Riga, co-designed with a brave local community. But today, I’d like to tell you more
about the project in Miera Street. The name of the street
means ‘peace’ in Latvian, and the name of the project “Mierīgi”
translates as ‘peacefully’ or ‘easily’. At our studio, Fine Young Urbanists, my colleague Toms Kokins and I started
working with Miera Street three years ago. Now, this was when I had just returned
from Rotterdam, the Netherlands, where I had spent several years
studying and working. When it comes to street design,
the Netherlands is really a superpower. There are so many different kinds
of streets in the Dutch cities: with beautiful big trees,
with canals, with wide sidewalks – and I know you’re probably
thinking this already – with cycling lanes, of course. Living in Rotterdam made me realize that healthy lifestyles
and vibrant street life can be embedded in urban design. Without even thinking of exercise, I rode my bicycle
for at least 20 minutes every day. Without even looking for a park, I had access to greenery
right there on the street. I saw people barbecuing, watching TV,
or selling their furniture on the street, and I gladly took part in that. I felt that I had the freedom to move
around the city whichever way I liked, I was fit, and I was happy. And then I returned to Riga. I saw the streets here
from a new perspective: how sad they really are, how empty, especially the ones
that have been constructed recently. Cycling felt uncomfortable, and quite soon I switched to a car
because it’s so easy. Riga today repeats the same mistakes that American cities
made back in the 1950s: it builds highways
to solve traffic problems, it allows big shopping centers
to pop up next to these highways, and for suburban villages to grow
just outside the borders of Riga. At the same time, the historical center
is rapidly loosing residents, the air quality is the worst
in the Baltic States due to traffic congestion, and there is an empty building
on nearly every block. Riga made me, an urban planner,
feel restricted in my choices and unconsciously switch to a lifestyle
that makes me unfit and unhappy. With all this in mind, we decided we could do something
about at least one street in Riga. The reasons why we chose Miera Street was that there was
an active local community which is quite exceptional
for a street in the center of Riga, there was a great spatial potential
for a high-quality street life, and there was a very obvious problem: 90% of the cars go on tram-rails
leaving the lanes designed for them empty. At the same time, pedestrians
and the increasing number of cyclists have to share a narrow sidewalk and navigate between signposts,
open doors, and parked cars. We were sure that the available street space
can be used in a more balanced way. By creating a shared
car and tram lane in the middle, space would free up for a cycling lane
on each side of the street. That would in turn allow us
to vacate the side walks for walking, for sitting, for bicycle parking,
for outdoor cafes, for plantings and for trees,
for beautiful, green, leafy trees. Did you know that in those
almost 700 meters of Miera Street that are considered to be
a hip, creative quarter, there are only 15 trees? That is one tree for 45 meters,
on just one side of the street. That doesn’t seem so hip, does it? With a better designed street profile, it would become easier and safer
for pedestrians to cross the street, small business would have
better spatial conditions to develop, and there would still be car parking
available where needed, the livability of Miera Street
would improve, and all this would in fact leave the current traffic situation
practically intact. People will simply feel better,
more at home on a street that accommodates
more choices. What we also wanted
to explore with this project was the relationship between an architect
and the local community. The locals are surely
experts of their street, and we, urban planners,
want to know what they know because we want to create a design that fits their needs
and actually improves their street. So at first we made these drawings
and photo-montages to have something to talk about. Then we tried involving
people on the street by showing them our visions. The response was mostly positive,
but we still weren’t really sure if the proposed solution was the best fit
or if we were even understood. So eventually, we decided
to test the idea spatially, and we did what architects normally do: we built a model. But instead of building something small
and looking at it from above, we decided that we would become those small plastic people
inside of the model and test the idea in real conditions
on a scale one to one, directly on the street. The mock-up was built in three days, and it remained in place
for almost a week. It changed the street instantly. On one side, we added
only 30 centimeters to the sidewalk, and that was enough
to create space for benches and small café tables next to the wall; which is very convenient if you want
to sit down and wait for somebody, have a meal, reorganize your bags
after grocery shopping, rest after a long walk, or simply enjoy sitting down
and looking at other people. On the other side, as soon as we put down tables and chairs, people from a nearby café
started serving coffee and cakes. People instinctively know how to use
a good street when they see it. We at Fine Young Urbanists believe this kind of urban prototyping
with mock-ups is the cheapest, fastest
and most reliable way for testing changes
in the urban environment. Urban prototyping is collective imagining,
collective wishful thinking. It allows you to feel the space
with your body to see if you can find
a comfortable place for yourself, if you want to stay there. It is also a way to avoid
costly design mistakes later. We have learned that these small actions in a public space is a great way to involve the public
in design process. During construction time,
we were constantly there: building, painting and talking to people
that were interested in this. The most frequently asked question was,
“Why is this thing blue?” Well, the vivid color provoked people to start a conversation
with strangers about street design; that is really the dream
of an urban planner come true. And this time we got
all kinds of questions: from highly positive, very supportive
to rather critical, and even aggressive. It is understandable that not everybody supports
the idea of more cyclists on the streets, it is a nuisance. Not everybody wants
to give up their parking space for an outdoor café or potted plants. But here I would like
to refer back to a smart advice that my mother once shared with me: “No one can resist good manners. People are entitled to have an opinion
that is different from yours, but be polite, talk calmly,
and listen to what others have to say. Perhaps you’ll learn something, and perhaps they will start
listening to you.” As urbanites, we must understand that cycling lanes are not built
only to please cyclists, and street furniture is not installed
for the profit of shopkeepers, and streets in general do not exist
only for the convenience of cars. Thinking that would be like still believing that phones
are only made for calling. Cities are not that simple. Cities are very complex organisms
where everything needs to be in balance and where everyone – young, healthy and financially secure, as well as those whose income is modest
and whose movements are limited – can equally take part
in mobility and in social life. Why do I think
that streets are so important? The American urbanist and famous
people watcher William H. Whyte once beautifully said that streets
are the rivers of life in the city. Of course, streets help us
effectively move around, but streets are also a stage
where public life can take place. And public life really is
the essence of cities. People have not built urban settlements to remain hidden from each other
in their homes or in their cars. They have come together to exchange knowledge, to share resources,
and to create something collectively, and the good city has a capability to embrace all the different choices
of the people that live there and to help balance them spatially. After finishing the “Mierīgi” project,
a video was made, and we posted it online. The idea resonated with people worldwide. Our little video has now been viewed,
tweeted, shared, liked over 60 000 times. That goes to show that urban planners, activists,
and community leaders all over the world are looking for new ways
to let their cities know that people want to take street space back
from cars and profit-hungry developers. And we are definitely not alone: there is a whole new breed
of architects and urban planners that are less concerned
with designing iconic buildings and more interested in humanizing
the rigid, unbalanced city. They are not afraid to take risks,
to work with their own hands, and they are masters in finding loopholes in regulations
and alternative ways of communication. Forget about the arrogant modernist. This new architect is more of a hacker. Practices like Exist in France,
or Raumlabor in Germany, or Assemble in the UK, are successfully transforming
the role of architects and changing the way we look
at congested streets, empty buildings, and undesired areas in our cities. For example, Parkind Day
started as a small initiative of Rebar Art and Design Studio
in San Francisco, and in 10 years, it has grown
into a global movement, and several cities have even
incorporated it into their urban policies. Or the architectural firm ZUS in Rotterdam managed to transform
an undesired office block that had stood empty for 15 years into a creative hotspot
and a testing site for new ideas. That is a place now
that many other cities are envious of. How could we convince even more
architects and urban planners to become actively involved
in city making? I think one of the ways
is through education. Every year, we organize a summer school
for students and young professionals of architecture,
urban planning and design. And in this summer school,
they get a chance to go through a full design cycle
in just two weeks. This is something rare
in architectural education. The participants do research,
come up with a concept, and test it immediately
by building it in a public domain. Through this, they learn
how heavy real materials are and how scary power tools
can sometimes be. And they don’t just build
for the sake of exercise; they create something that the local municipality
– in our case, Cēsis – or a local organization
is genuinely interested in. Finally, at the end of the summer school, they see the finished construction
being appropriated by the public. They see whether it works as intended
or it fails to live up to the concept. This hand-on experience
completely changes the way these young architects
view their profession. In our summer school, we teach that architecture
reaches beyond buildings and that urbanism
is not just the space between them. We believe that building is a social act, but let’s not forget that prototypes are just a step
towards creating real public spaces, and a summer school will probably
never replace a university. I don’t really think that Miera Street
should be painted all blue, and I know that professional builders have much more skill operating
a screw gun than architects ever will. What I am suggesting is that to keep a clear and critical mind
we often need a change of perspective. To build better cities, we need both: a thorough understanding of street life
and a view from above. I believe that taking small steps can lead
to major transformations in our cities. And I really, really hope that in the future there will be
more architects and urban designers that rely less on Mega Lo Mania visions
and more on their humanity. Thank you. (Applause)

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