Cumbernauld – the Worst Place Ever Planned


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Glorious urban failures provide us with excellent opportunities to learn and understand mistaken urban planning concepts and their consequences. This post focuses on one of the more dramatic urban failures, which happened to take place in Britain.

After the second world war, the modernistic approach to architecture and urban planning took hold. While many Europeans countries did not build as much as less developed countries after the war, they still managed to build extensively, and especially Britain. Following the New Towns Act of 1946, the British government promoted the development of tens of new towns in the 1950s and 1960s – probably the worst period of town planning in the West and maybe even the entire world throughout history. On top of all the crappy cities built in Britain during this period, Cumbernauld shines the brightest (or gloomiest). Cumbernauld was established during the 1950s as an independent town north east of Glasgow and at the time was considered the greatest achievement of town building ever and a role model for cities across the world.

Before delving into details, we should note the zeitgeist that led to the building of Cumbernauld. It was the height of Brutalist Modernism and the dominant town planners vision consisted of complete separation between pedestrians and vehicles in the name of safety and freedom of movement. This approach created a town with no crosswalks, and plenty of overpasses and underpasses for pedestrians. On top of the brutal architecture and infantile transportation planning there was a complete separation of land uses, meaning the entire city was made of residential buildings only, and only in its center there were commerce and other uses.

The structure of Cumbernauld city center deserves a special scrutiny. This is not a classic city center of commercial streets with mixed-use buildings along them (including residences, offices and public buildings), but a rather a single huge mega-structure that goes by the name Cumbernauld Town Center. This building was supposed to be built in five phases and have an enormous section of 800 meters on its long side (that’s over 13 street blocks in the compact downtown of Portland, Oregon). Instead of a real city center, this mega-structure was supposed to contain all the functions that the planners thought real cities should have in their center- commerce, education, public buildings, offices, a hospital, a central bus station, a large parking lot for thousands of cars and so on in one huge structure. The planners strove to make the the residential areas in Cumbernauld as sterile as possible so that everyone will conduct whatever business they have under the roof of a single structure. The utopia that the planners of Cumbernauld offered won many prizes and critiques and influenced an entire generation of architects and planners for better or worse. Following the criticism of Cumbernauld, a movie came out in 1970 that describes the high quality of life in the new town and its innovative and successful urban planning. The movie makers boasted that Cumbernauld is the city of the future and would serve as a role model for many cities still to be built.

The PR movie in its entirety is here. The essence can be seen from 11:00 at which point the transportation plan which is the root of all evil is described:

Unfortunately, the reality struck in the faces of the planners. The city center mega-structure of Cumbernauld was partially built over the years, and parts of it were demolished (including the hotel that was there once) and transformed to a modern shopping mall. Cumbernauld never became the city of the future and it’s just a poor suburb of Glasgow today. The town itself and especially its city center structure are notoriously known as the worst urban plan ever conceived in the UK and have won prizes for extremely bad architecture, most notably the Carbuncle Award (twice!). Here’s a short video clip from 2005 on the Cumbernauld dystopia (and another article):

The town itself still draws the attention of planning circles and like other bad places offers a great subject for public discussions:

The subject of post-war planning and new towns in Britain and elsewhere deserves further attention, and I hope to return to this subject soon.

Making Room for a Planet of Transit Metropolises



I ran into two short clips by Robert Cervero and Shlomo (Solly) Angel addressing a few key subjects in the current state of world urbanization. Cervero deals mainly with transit and its power to shape cities in an efficient way, while Angel talks about the coming urban expansion of rapidly urbanizing ares, mainly in the Global South. Combining their insights on urbanization processes one can conclude that expanding cities should take the path of coupling transit and land-use planning while reserving the public rights-of-way needed to accomplish this. And now for the details.

Robert Cervero is an expert on transit and especially on Transit-Oriented-Development (TOD). He has also written the still relevant book The Transit Metropolis where he made observations on several metro areas and their transit innovations. In the short talk below, Cervero goes into detail about the way transit can transform cities. He puts emphasis on integration of public transit and land-use – i.e. dense developments should follow the accessibility provided by the transit systems. Among the more prominent examples that Cervero lays out are Copenhagen’s Finger Plan of 1947, Stockholm’s post-war similar expansion and the Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway (MTR) which is quite profitable due to its use of extensive real estate developments above its rail stations. Towards the end of his talk, Cervero mentions that with the invention of BRT (Bus-Rapid-Transit), which the city of Curitiba is famously known for, it is possible to reap the benefits of transit and land-use integration at a much cheaper capital expense than previously thought.

Shlomo Angel has led a significant research effort on world urbanization, which he summarized in his recent book, Planet of Cities. He calls for a paradigm of Making Room, i.e. accepting the fact that rapidly urbanizing metropolitan areas are bound for an explosive land growth, at a much higher rate than their population would grow, while urban densities are destined to decline. He distinguishes between western efforts to contain urban sprawl in stabilized metropolitan areas (many of which sprawled along car dependent suburbanism in the 20th century) and the up and coming metros of the Global South. However, Angel does not mean that a laissez-faire approach is appropriate. As an example he provides Bangkok, which grew in a massive way in the last three decades while staying affordable, but did not secure any arterial rights-of-way and trunk infrastructure leading to an infrastructure disaster.

Angel calls for securing arterial roads of 25-30m width, at distances upto 1km from each other (so people can walk to future public transit on them). This provision should be done ahead of urban growth and can be done also in advance of slum creation/invasion. This was done many times in the city of Lima, resulting in slums capable of relatively smooth improvements over time. As an examples for work on urban expansion in the Global South Angel points to Ahmadabad in India and a few projects he is involved with in Ethiopia and Colombia.

To conclude, Angel’s realistic city expansion plans should be combined with Cervero’s integrated transit-land use planning recommendations, so our still urbanizing planet follow the efficient path of transit metropolises.

An Innovative Pedestrian Transportation Plan and Its Academic Publication



This post describes a planning project I’ve been involved with, in which we created an innovative pedestrian transportation plan for the city of Bat Yam in Israel. Bat Yam is an inner suburb in the Tel Aviv Metropolitan area where about 130,000 people live just south of the municipality of Tel Aviv. Besides the novel transportation plan, we have managed to publish an academic paper, adding to the global discussion on city and transporation planning. The paper was published in Geographic Analysis (together with Dr. Yodan Rofè and Prof. Itzhak Omer) in a special issue dedicated to Street Networks and Spatial Analysis, following a workshop in Dresden last year. A non-final version of the paper can be found here (or you can contact me for the final version). And now to the actual story itself.

Transportation planning is changing. What used to be a concern with motorized vehicles only is evolving into a discipline dealing with multi-modal systems where priority is given to transit and non-motorized means of transport, chief among them being walking. Walking is important for several reasons: reducing reliance on motorized travel, which is rather costly, polluting and accident-prone; walking as part of a daily routine, promotes healthier life-style; and walkability can improve the economy of urban centers. Across the globe, effort are made to improve conditions for pedestrians. Known examples include New York City, Copenhagen and many more. Following this trend, The Israeli government has also published guidelines for streets design (here – in Hebrew). However, pedestrians in Israel are still at the bottom of the transportation and urban planning considerations.

The city of Bat Yam in Israel has chosen to pioneer planning for pedestrians as an integral component of its transportation master plan. The transporation master plan for the city of Bat Yam includes all transportation means (i.e. private vehicles, parking, bicycles and so forth) and was led by PGL Transportation and Engineering Ltd. We were in charge of pedestrian transportation in the overall scheme and we hope that more cities and other public bodies will consider walking as an integral part of urban transportation.

This project touches on one of the growing issues in urban planinng which is evidence-based design. This approach originated in the health and medical fields, and is now entering the realm of city planning. We managed to combine research and praxis and made a contibution towards a change in the area of urban planning. A few different subjects were joined together in this project – Space Syntax, pedestrian movement, general urban transportation and city developement.

Besides analysing pedestrians movement, we had to address expected changes to the urban strcuture of Bat Yam in target year of the plan (2030). The major changes are expected to happen in the southern industrial zone of the city in addition to a new residential neighborhood on open land at the south-western edge of the city. These changes include modifications to the street network as well as land-use changes and plenty of new construction. The southern industrial zone is supposed to grow from current under-utilization to intensely built zone including lots of retail, office and residential high-rise buildings.

We have constructed pedestrian movement models both for the current state of the city of Bat Yam, and for its future state in 2030. The future model included the changes expected to the street network and land-use. The model was constructed based on space syntax methodology and correlated based on pedestrian traffic counts in 69 street segments all over the city. The map of the traffic survey is shown below. I will not go into the entire method (which is explained in detail in the paper) – the large red points represent average movement volume of over 900 pedestrians per hour, the medium points represent average movement volume of over 430 pedestrians per hour, and the small points represent lower volumes.

Three areas in the map have groupings of high movement points. These three areas have some kind of combination of high centrality with high presence of retail. The northern points are in the old center of the city (Memorial Square), the points further south are at the junction of the main commercial street (Balfour Street) and a major east-west street, and the points at the eastern edge are next to the (new) main entrance to the city and its largest shopping mall. Contrary to the municipality’s expectations, pedestrian movement along the beach front (on the western edge of the city) is relatively sparse. Most of the everyday pedestrian movement on a weekday probably is related to functional activity and not to leisure. This movement takes place mainly on the streets that define the epicenter of the city.

Pedestrian movement survey for the city of Bat Yam


In the movement model itself we managed to achieve a correlation rate of 62% using three variables (not bad compared to similar studies), where the major variable is based on street centrality and the second variable is associated with retail front presence. Thus, we have reached two main conclusions that enable this method to be used in other cities:

1. Pedestrian movement distribution can be explained mainly by spatial structure of the street network. Changes to this network structure are relatively rare, and therefore pedestrian movement distribution will be similar in the year 2030, and the main streets for pedestrian movement will not change in a fundamental way.

2. Because the model is not accurate it should be used with caution. Therefore, we have taken 20% of the streets where pedestrian movement volume is highest and they were declared as the pedestrian core network. This layer was then overlayed on other transportation layers – public transit, private vehicles and bicycles.  This is the place where our model can have impact on the real world and on the future work of the municipality – by directing the focus to streets and places where conflicts among the various road users (pedestrians, bicycles, transit vehicles, and private cars) are expected. This conflict analysis can be used to develop a policy that favors pedestrians as well as to highlight areas where safety improvements are needed. The model also can enable an urban development policy that seeks to improve public space where the highest pedestrian movement rates are expected.

A map of the Superimposed future pedestrian core network, public transit (including planned light rail), bicycle routes (planned), and major vehicular roads.  supermap bat-yam-NEW

As the map shows, there are few important streets, but these few streets carry a large share of the different kinds of transporation means and they are the places where conflicts among road users are expected. These streets deserve most of the planning efforts and investing in them has a large impact on the city and its residents.

The entire paper can be downloaded from here.

The Festival of Ghent



Have you heard about the city of Ghent? It’s a rather small city in Belgium (in the Flemish part called Flanders) used to be known for its textile industry and is now home to a large university and medical services centers. It’s also quite picturesque as many Flemish towns are (most notably Brugge) with narrow streets, lively suqares, and plenty of beer.

For ten days every year the city of Ghent turns from just another small and beautiful city to an all out party, drawing massive crowds from all over Belgium and beyond. During last July we had the fortune to stay at an apartment in the middle of Ghent during the time of the festival known as the Ghentse Feesten. The festival takes place right inside the urban setting of Ghent transforming the city in a profound way. We arrived a few days early and saw the transformation taking place. A complete festival city was built inside the original city with plenty of music stages and food and drink booths.

The festival grounds are taking over the city of Ghent, including its river
Getting Ready for Gentse Feesten

This festival has a tradition of more than 150 years, but reached its current size about twenty years ago. It consists of several independent mini-festivals, most of them are centered around free music stages with a coherent line (world music, rock, etc.). The actual money to support the festivities comes from the beer and food consumed in the booths that are spread all over the place. The organizations that pull everything together are pretty small and the only corporate involvement is found in the beers billboards. Most of the activities start around noon and last till around 1 am, but some of the music stages keep playing till 5 am (!), when the sun is already up again.

Pedestrians are taking over the city
At Gentse Feesten

Besides the free parts, other events that charge cover fees also take place during the days of Ghentse Feesten such as the Gent Jazz Festival. All this commotion draws a large number of street performers which add their touch to the general revelry. The festival area takes over about one quarter of the inner city of Ghent shutting down most of the vehicular access to that part of the city and also interfering with public transit access. This helps to make the festival area a huge pedestrian gathering gournds and also allows for extensive make over of the city utilities. For example, bus stops that are decommissioned during the festival days can be turned to small drink booth:

This used to be a bus stop
A bus station turned into a bar for Gentse Feesten

The huge crowds present an opportunity for the small businesses in Ghent, many of which change their hours to accomodate the hours of the festival. Instead of closing down at 6 pm, many of the businesses stay open till much later, which is quite unusual in Belgium.

The festival itself is very Flemish (with French translation, being the other language of Belgium) and the crowds are mostly local , making it somewhat difficult for non-Flemish speakers to figure out everything that’s going on. There are also plenty of activities for children and elderly, making this festival and all-ages event.

A city park is turned into a beer garden for Ghentse Feesten
At Gentse Feesten

In conclusion – with it’s Flemish spirit and beautiful city setting this festival turns a small town into a major happening, providing income to many tourist related and retail businesses in Ghent. In addition, it caters to all ages and boosts local pride in the city itself. I truly recommend visiting this festival if you can , and probably many small cities can learn a few lessons from the city of Ghent and the incorporation of a big city festival into the city fabric.

The crowds are out
At Gentse Feesten

Stuttgart 21 – A Delayed Discussion



Comprehensive urban projects centering on central train stations transformations can be a boon to a city and its urban environment. They can also be the center of a slow struggle between the public and the authorities. Such is the case of the rather well known Stuttgart 21 project which is focused on Stuttgart central train station. The station is to be upgraded to improve the high speed rail connections in Germany and Europe and allow for new urban developments in the city of Stuttgart itself. Stuttgart is an industrial city with plenty of traffic jams made of Mercedes cars, which also provide the city best known tourist attraction.

The Stuttgart 21 project itself has been in the air since the mid-1990s but ran into major opposition and demonstrations throughout the years, much of it the result of ignoring public discussion. The jist of the project is transforming the Stuttgart central train station from an end station to a through station improving the time of the ICE express trains in Germany and the intrenational trains crossing Europe (from Paris to Budapest and everywhere in between). This change calls for a 90 degree rotation of the train station alignment and also involves moving large chunks of the train tracks underground. Furthermore, like other projects of this magnitude, this project involves extensive changes to its surroundings. Moving the tracks underground frees up inner-city land for new urban construction resulting in plans for two new quarters inside the city (the Europa District and the Rosenstein Quarter). These projects promise to offer top notch contemporary urban qualities based on mixed-use and high density and also return some of the project costs. The project itself is currently estimated at 7-9 billion Euros, much of it covered by the federal German government and portions of it also covered by the state of Baden-Wurrtemberg (similar to the USA, Germany is also divided to states) and by the European Union itself.

Stuttgart rail track to be buried in the future and allow for new urban developments
The view from Stuttgart Hauptbahnhof

While visiting the project grounds last summer and the extensive visitor center at the station it seemed like the project people are very proud of the engineering feats that are needed for the realisation of this project. While engineering capacity is extermely important, the main cause for the project two decades delay was the missing public dialogue. The Stuttgart 21 project is also the main reason that the Green Party is now in control in Baden-Wurrtemberg, a traditionally conservative area with a strong industrial inclination. The Greens, after initiating the public consultation have managed to somewhat improve the project and actually get it finally going.

Still controversial after all these years
Stuttgart 21 area in Stuttgart
In conclusion, the Germans could learn a lot from the Dutch way of engaging with the public and I certainly hope other public entities in Germany (and elsewhere) can learn from the lessons offered by this extensive and slow project.

For further information on this project (which is called now Stuttgart-Ulm rail project) you can visit its website here. The rather long clip below sums up the entire transformation (at least from the authorities point of view):

Israeli Planning is Homogeneous and Wasteful

This post is based on an academic paper by Daniel Orenstein and Steven Hamburg. The paper sheds light on the Israeli planning system which seems to be producing homogeneous and wasteful products. The full name of the paper is: “Population and pavement: population growth and land development in Israel” and it was published in Population and Environement journal.

The reserach examines the connection between the population growth in Israel and the urban development in the years 1961-1995 (based on four population censuses in the years 1961, 1972, 1983 and 1995). The authors looked at the national level, district level (the six districts that make up Israel) and local level (by examining 40 local authorities). The paper focuses on the conversion of open land to built-up land across time. This land conversion process is compared with population growth has and the way regulation impacts on this process. This reserach was carried out against the background of the necessity to avoid obliterating the remaining open land in Israel. The researchers raise three questions:

1. What is the connection between population growth in Israel and the rate of converting open land to built-up land?

2. Does the scale of analysis affect the strength and magitude of this correlation (scale means national, district or local)?

3. What are the regulatory means that infulence the rate of open land conversion and in what ways?

To carry out the research a number of specific areas all across where chosen including urban, suburban and rural settlements which are also ethnically diverse (meaning taking into account also predominately Arab settlements and not only predominately Jewish settlements). Out of 250 local authorities in Israel 40 were examined (for more please see pager 9-10 in the paper itself). After the selection of the research areas the paper elaborates on the methods used, which employed analysis of aerial photos from different years in order to assess the amoung of land that was converted from open to built. To make the story short I’ll focus on the major findings that arise from this paper.

The first important finding in the national level is that the rate of open land conversion to built-up land is higher than the rate in which the population is growing. Furthermore, this conversion rate is even higher if the sparsely populated Galilee and Negev regions are taken out of the equation. Namely, the open land we build on for the additional population is being eroded at a rate that is growing over time. We waste our land faster than we used to. Another somewhat intuitive finding shows that the rate of sprawl (open land conversion for each additional resident) is higher for the rural settlements and for the northern settlements.

In contrast to the national level, when looking at the sprawl rate at the local authority level, we see that the planning gets more and more homogeneous. The rural regions have a lower sprwal rate than in the past, while the urban areas have a rising rate of sprawl approaching the rural rate. The Arab settlements (which had a tendency for higher sprawl rate) have a decreasing rate of sprawl, while the Jewish settlements have a rising rate of sprawl approching the Arab rate. Thus, while at the national and district levels we are eroding open land at a rising rate (also by establishing new settlements), at the local planning level the urban planning becomes more and more homogeneous. In the words of the researchers:

Sprawl (more space consumed per additional unit of population) is increasing over time at both the national and district scale, yet the locality data do not corroborate these results. The locality data suggest a growing homogenization of development across the Israeli landscape.

Particular attention was given to the effects of the Jewish population dispersal doctrine on the rate of open land conversion (this doctrine goes back to 1948 and aims to redistribute of the Jews in Israel while idealizing rural agrarian lifestyle). It was found that this doctrine is responsible for more open land erosion than the rest of the faulty Israel planning regime. And here is the text itself:

The amount of land developed in the peripheral areas was significantly higher than in the core area, once variation due to population growth and other related factors are removed. Likewise, development in Arab localities was less than in Jewish localities (controlling for other factors), although this difference was statistically significant only for the full 1961–1995 study period. These results reflect a consistent Israeli policy to encourage internal migration of Jewish citizens to the peripheral areas, while concurrently restraining the growth of Arab localities (Falah 1991; Khamaisi 1993; Yiftachel and Rumley 1991), despite the preference of most Jews to live in high-density urban communities in the geographic core area of the country (Kellerman 1993). Various national policies have attempted to attract Jews to the peripheral areas (Kellerman 1993; Newman 1984, 1989). Among them was the development of small, exurban communities with larger homes. By attracting people to these communities, policy magnifies the impact of local population growth on open space in Jewish, rural localities where the amount of land developed per capita is an order of magnitude higher than in any other type of development.

The most astonishing find is the failure to stop open land erosion even in districts where there is not much open land left. Namely, even in places where there is not much open land left, the sprawl rate is not declining. Here it is (emphasis mine):

One somewhat surprising result of the population–development relationship is that for districts in which open land is becoming increasingly scarce, an expected slowing of land development relative to population growth with a concomitant increased importance of open space was not evident. We would have expected to see the rate of land development slow as open space became increasingly rare. Rather, we see the rate of loss of open-space increase (and the rate of land development increase) as open land reserves become smaller. This is true even in the case of the Tel Aviv district, where only a small amount of land (*20%) remained open space by 1990.

In conclusion – at the local level our planning is becoming more and more uniform and provides indication about a central technocratic systems that operate with no context, and creates a uniform built environment. At the district level we are unable to save the open land at all. And at the national level, the loss of open land is at a higher rate than the rate of population growth. For the good of this small and precious country, its planning systems need to be completely reorganized and most of the regulation and the ideology standing behind them have to be shredded – the sooner the better.

You can access the full paper here (and if you do not have access and still want to read it you can leave a reply or contact me).

Stations to Nowhere


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The two largest municipal authorities in Israel, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, decided to help their train stations regain their former glory from the Ottoman period (a period that was definitely better in terms of urban planning). Unfortunately, instead of using the money to improve the convenience and operation of the actual train stations, they have spent an enournous sum of money on defunct stations that serve no trasportation purposes.

The city of Tel Aviv has revamped the Hatachana Compound (literally – The Station) and turned it into an open air mall, but its usage is rather low and the market that opened there has already closed down due to slow business. This came as no surprise, since the compound sits on the remnants of Manshiya (a neighborhood of Yaffo which was completely destroyed in the 1960s in a slum clearence scheme that created a lot of surface parking while diminishing housing supply). This compound is relatively inaccessible, and can only be reached by car, but since parking lots are not that interesting to visit this compound is not succeeding.

The Station Compound in Tel Aviv. On the road to nowhere.
ריקנות במתחם התחנה

Not to be left behind, the municipality of Jerusalem decided to turn its deserted old train station to an open air mall, too. In contrast to the Tel Avivian compound, the Jerusalem station compound (which is called The First Station) is slightly less disconnected from the city, even though its hiding behind the German Colony neighborhood, which has its own successful commercial street. The common featrues of both these stations is that no trains have pass by them in years. The station in Tel Aviv has been defunct since the establishment of the state in 1948 and the station in Jerusalem has been deserted for 15 years.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. Many cities in the world are renovating major transport terminals that are actually used for transportation and not just for consumption. Train station are obvious examples – the Utrecht central station is undergoing a major renovation. Another good example is the Antwerp central train station, which may be the most beautiful station anywhere in the world, and has undergone a major renovation in the previous decade. Even in North America there are more than a few examples. For instance, we can look at the Ferry Building in San Francisco. This building was opened at the same year as Jerusalem first station (1892). It was never completely abandoned, but it was run down for many years, due to the highway that ran over it and came down in 1989, among other things. In 2003 this building was reopened after a massive overhaul and the ferry service came back and was expanded. On top of the maritime accessibility that this building has, it is also situated near a major intersection of the San Francisco light rail system (which is rather flimsy).

The Ferry Building in San Francisco. (cc-by Bruce Turner)Ferry Building

Another good case is Lonsdale Quay in a city called North Vancouver (which actually lies north of Vancouver). This is another main station of ferries leading from Vancouver’s northern suburbs to the city itself. Before the conversion to a ferry station, this place was a dockyark. This is another fancy transportation hub, which not only cater to tourists, but also to many locals who pass there every day.

Public space in Lonsdale Quay in North VancouverLonsdale Quay Public Space

How to Upgrade the City Center and Stay Alive – the Case of Utrecht


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What is Utrecht? Utrecht is just another Dutch city, a generic Dutch place if you will. Not really important, not really interesting and not really pretty. Lots of bicycles, rain and Dutch food. Holland in its most common form. So what is special about this not so special place? Utrecht currently leads one of the most complex projects I have come across, and it does so rather successfully.

At the foundation of this urban program called CU 2030 (the target year of the program, which has a bilingual website and a Facebook page) stands the central train station, which is also the largest train station in The Netherlands (due to Utrecht’s location). The train station consists of 14 platforms and almost 300,000 passengers pass through it every day. As part of the program, the station is being expanded to 19 platforms and on top of it dozens of construction and transportion projects are taking place all around. Here is what they say (I’ve highlighted the section that deals with the program partners):

Utrecht is building a new Station Area. This was much needed; ever since the Hoog Catharijne shopping mall was built in the 70s there had been overdue maintenance, neglect, a growing number of passengers, a growing city and the desire to get water back in the old canal. With the contruction of a new and renenewed area all these things are tacled at once.

The historic inner city and the Station Area were two seperated parts of Utrecht; these parts will be connected again to form one coherent centre. Liveliness and safety will be improved. There will be space for culture, leisure, the area will be better accessible and last but not least: water will flow once again in the canal that was filled in during the 70’s.

We’re building a future that’s sustainable: low emission buildings, plenty of pleasant space for bikes, public transport and pedestrians, and solar cells on top of the platforms.The building of the Utrecht Station Area is a close co-operation between the City of Utrecht, Corio (owner of Hoog Catharijne mall), Dutch Rail, ProRail and the Jaarbeurs (tradefair).

You can notice that this complex program involves five major partners – the municipality, the mall that is conencted to the train station and goes by the name Hoog Catharijne (we’ll get to it shortly), both of the Dutch rail companies and the fair grounds. There is no single boss that dictates everything for everyone. Like in many other places, The Dutch built many bad malls in the 1970s, and one of them was placed on Utrecht’s central train station. In fact, to exit from the station to the city center, one must go through the mall (also at night when all the shops are closed). The mall itself has an incoherent internal structure, which became pretty unsafe over the years until they had to shut down the upper floor entirely. As part of the train station upgrade the internal strcuture of the mall is modified so as to make a cleaner and more navigable space eventually. Before we delve further, here is a fantastic clip that explains almost everything:

The Dutch work on a grand scale. This is not a transportation plan nor a construction plan. This is solid urban planning that goes beyond just construction and transportation and includes also contact with the various stakeholders (including the residents), financing and execution. An important aspect is the day to day project management itself. The entire area of the train station lies in a complete disarray, yet the station and its shops are open for business, the mall works and accessibility for bikes, pedestrians and public transit is provided all throughout the project (even though it’s a little bit messy for Holland). The program has an information center open to public, which also provides guided group tours. Yep, the guys from Utrecht city hall do not hide beyond blank walls like is common in other countries.

The new bike parking strcuture is used for seating and relaxing in front of the new square outside of the train station. The 2015 Tour de France will start here.

Jaarbuers Stairs and Bike Parking in Utrecht

The clip shown above was uploaded to the web last March. I visited the Utrecht during the month of July and it appeared to be going as planned. The new concert hall (Tivoli Vredenburg) next to station was already open. The luxurious bike parking strcture, including over 4,700 spaces is in operation, and serves as a convenient platform for relaxing. Overall, more than 30,000 bike parking spaces are planned to built around the station area (and it will not be enough). The new city hall is just about ready. You can see the other projects around the station, including daylighting of a canal that was covered during the 1970s (when even the Dutch thought that the city needs as much asphalt as possible).

Not a dull moment. The new concert hall in the background.

Tivoli Vredenburg Halls

This post demands further discussion on the lessons that can be learned from this urban program. In the meantime, you can keep calm and know that there are public organizations that plan, manage and execute big and complex urban projects. And they do it while sticking to schedule, holding a public discussion and in the right place.

For your convenience, here is a map of Utrecht and its central train station (which is located on the western edge of the old city):

Do Comprehensive Land-Use Plans Have any Real Meaning?

The Israeli planning system deserves a few posts on its problems and challenges. Today, we’ll deal with a study that attempts to evaluate the effectiveness of district master plans with regards to the actual implementation. This post is based on an academic paper written by Dr. Nurit Alfasi, Mr. Jonathan Almagor and Prof. Itzhak Benenson, and which can be found here. This paper was published in Land Use Policy Journal under the title: “The actual impact of comprehensive land-use plans: Insights from high resolution observations.” The researchers have made an attempt to estimate how much does actual construction conform to the actual plans by comparing aerial photographs to district master plans. The results of this study shed light on the ineffectiveness of the urban planning in Israel and should signal to the Minstry of Internal Affairs (that is responsible for most of the actual planning) that it is time to change the way in which the system operates.

First, we must clarify what is meant by district master plans. Israel is divided into six different administrative districts. This division was first created during the British Mandate period and was slightly changed after the establishment of the state of Israel, but is no longer relevant. For example, the Tel Aviv District includes the contiguous urban area that was already built in 1948 (Tel Aviv and its inner suburbs from Hertzliya in the north to Bat Yam in the south). The Central District includes what used to be the agricultural hinterland of Tel Aviv and is now part of the suburban sprawl from Natanya to Rishon Letziyon. Even the Southern District includes part of Tel Aviv Metropolitan area, especially the large suburb of Ashdod. So, after understanding this anachronistic districts division we need to deal with the actual district master plan. This is a comprehensive plan that describes the entire land-use specifications (built and planned) for the whole district. Each district has such a plan and this plan is supposed to set the expected development in the district and has to be updated once all of its planned development have been built. In theory, most of the construction should follow the district master plan, and the discussions in the district planning comittee should ensure that all roads, buildings and parks are built according to the approved plan.

The study dealt with the Central District for its area of reserach. This is the district with the most intense real estate activity in Israel and includes all the growing suburbs of Tel Aviv outside of the inner ring. The study focused on the district master plan also knows as DOP 3 (District Ouline Plan no. 3), which was approved back in 1982. In order to compare the actual construction to the plan aerial photographs from the years 1980, 1990, 2000 and 2006 were used – all in all 26 years of development. DOP 3 itself has undergone an update process in 2002 and became DOP 3/21. Twelve different areas inside the Central Districty were sampled, constituting about ten percent of the entire district area.

Several key findings are revealed when examining the plan compared to the actual development. During the years 1980-1990 more that 50% of the areas developed did not conform to the plan land use map. Yep, you got it – 50 perecnt of the development did not conform to the plan. During the years 1990-2000 the plan was getting even further from reality and more than 60 percent of the areas developed did not conform to the district master plan. It can be concluded that only a small part of land development actually occurs in accordance with the plan itself. It should be added that almost all of the non-conforming land developement was approved by the planning committees themselves, meaning that the planners themselves completely ignore the plan that they have approved to much fanfare. We need to remember that the district master plan is a public plan that costs a lot of time and effort. Additionally, this plan is used for countless comittee discussions wasting even more time. In light of the plan irrelavance it would actually be better to work without such a plan that only wastes resources and does not contribute to the actual planning and developement. The reserchers have also checked whether there was so much developement that the plan allotted areas for development were just insufficient. In a thorough examination it appears not to be the case. There remained enough approved land for development that was not devloped, while the actual construction took place on land that was not slated for development. In the words of the authors themselves:

It appears that despite the vast effort and time invested in preparing and authorizing district land-use maps, this is not an efficient planning tool in terms of restricting development in specific locations

Of all the anecdotes that come out from this study, the most ridiculous case is illustrated in the case of a newly established suburb in the 1980s titled Shoham. Shoham was founded entirely on and area defined as a future public park,  meant to be kept open for its unique environmental values (in sharp contrast to the area defined as farmland, which are easy to run over with urban development.) DOP 3 was approved in 1982 and just a few years down the line, the National Planning Council made the decision to build Shoham. But the problems do not relate just to the 1980s and 1990s. In 2002, a new DOP 3 was approved under the name DOP 3/21 which paractically approved almost all the deviations that occured in the preceding years. Over the four years that were checked after the new DOP was approved, non-conforming development has already started to be prevalent and reached 30 percent in a number of the sampled areas.

At the conclusion of the study, the reserachers elaborate on effective planning methods to replace the current system. These methods do not include rigid and meaningless land-use maps, but a defined set of planning principles by which to evaluate local plans before their approval and execution. Such an action can guarantee a faster and more flexible design that also gives better results. I hope that theserecommedations will not remain only on paper.

The complete paper can be found here.

Christopher Leinberger and the Urban Option


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Israel is going through an extreme housing crisis. On top of it, inner city housing prices are skyrocketing in both in Tel Aviv and in Jerusalem. It’s quite obvious that all the most coveted areas where many people are eager to live in are the older sections, built before the advent of modernist urban planning. A lot of people want the advantages of high density, centrality, the variety of land uses that can be found in proximity and the opportunities that this combination gives. Prices show that may of us are willing to pay much more for this kind of urbanism than for the quiteness of the suburbs. The real estate market should have been responding to this demand for urban living and provide the appartments for the rising demand, but this is far from simple.

Christopher Leinberger, an American urbanist and real estate developer, describes a similar phenonmenon in the US in his book “The Option of Urbanism”. For years, the central cities in the US were dwindling and their affluent residents have been moving away to the suburbs, but now the dense urban centers have come back to be the most desirable the most expensive from a real estate perspective. Leinberger claims that the change in lifestyle and urban culture lead more and more people of all ages to prefer dense urban living in city center flats with a variety of transportation choices over spacious living with ample parking and greenery in the suburbs. He also finds parallels in mainstream culture. In 1939 Ford presented the suburban dream for the first time on a large scale, and in the 1970s the major sitcoms like the Brady Bunch have praised the good life in the suburbs, and then in the 1990s Seinfeld (and Sex and the City afterwards) have brought to TV the urban dream of living in a busy city.


The book subtitle is “Investing in a New American Dream”. Leinbereger is not just another researcher of real estate and urbanism, but also a developer that works toward building walkable urban neighborhoods, which are very hard to create under the current regulations. Leinberger does not divide the urban fabric to city and suburbs according to arbitrary municipal lines, but rather to walkable urban sections and drivale suburban sections. Walkable urban areas usually offer multiple transportation choices besdies walking such as biking, public transit and private vehicles, while in drivable suburban areas that only rational transportion option is private vehicles. Leinberger demonstrates that older suburbs consist of walkable urban areas, while central cities have parts that are drivable only.

The growing demand for walkable urban living over drivable suburban houses is expressed by gentrification processes that change entire neghborhoods from slums to luxury areas where every built square meter is worth its weight in gold. Besides describing the change in consumer preferences, Leinbereger describes how the price of urban built square meter have risen over the years and surpassed the price of built square meter in the suburbs. He goes on to show an interesting reason for the high urban housing and it does not involve a crazy free market running wild, but rather too much regulation in the housing market. This regulation allows for suburban housing only (Leinberger specifies 19 standard real estate products in the American market) and impedes the building of urban housing in walkable areas.

The Israeli equivalent to the American standards are the regulations on parking and public open spaces. At first sight both appear to be logical – all we need is parking for our cars a little bit of grass for grazing. The minimum parking regulations, which enforce developers to provide at least one parking space for each appartment, raises the housing costs and inhibits the creation of high density which is needed for vital urban life. The public open spaces standards also serve to reduce the density. The combination of these regulations makes sure that all newly built neighborhoods will be drivable only and a car will be used for each and every daily errand. This might fit a few people wishes but not everyone. It appears that also in Israel there is a growing population that desire to live in an intensive and dense urban environment. In such an environment more destinations can be reached by cheaper transportation means such as walking and biking. Kids can walk to school and do not need to be chauffeured by their parents – and there is always a coffeeshop nearby. Such environments can provide plenty of opportunities, and there are more than a few people that are willing to pay good money for this.

The jist of Leinberger’s argument is that after over 60 years of building only parking and grass based housing, the dense urban housing became rare and precious and is coveted by young and old alike. At the end of the day, to enable the market to supply new urban housing (and not neccessarily cheap housing in the suburbs) we need to enable the creation of dense neighborhoods wasting little space on pakring and underused large grassy places. Not all new neighborhoods need to be dense and urban, but we should not outlaw the option to live in high density for those who want it. After all, those who live in high density areas also save public infrasturcture expenditures such as electricity and sewage.

Leinberger also expands on the differences between suburban places and urban places, and explains how building in a drivable suburban area actually lowers the quality of life there (new construction hampers movement with private vehicles, lowers the amount of parking available and reduces open spaces), while building in a walkable urban area actually impoves the quality of life (more options to reach a restaurant or an office by foot, more people to support more businesses, more options to provide better transit). At the end of the book, Leinbereger offers ways to create new walkable urban areas and options to fix stagnant suburban areas and deserted malls by building new developments and fixing the road network to make it more walkable (this process has been termed Retroffiting Suburbia by Ellen Dunham-Jones). To conclude, while this book is planted in the American reality, similar suburban processes have occured and are still taking place in Israel. Hopefully, Israel will not have to go through the entire cycle that the US has gone through before realizing it needs to fix the failures of drivable suburbanism.

And whoever want to see the man in action – here’s a recommended video. The first 54 minutes are a lecture that presents the main subjects of the book:

For further reading:

About Christopher Leinberger

Cities Versus Suburbs Is the Wrong Debate

To buy the book on Amazon