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Ditch the car: Human-centered urban planning

An approach to urban planning that puts people, not cars, in the center

Corona change the business enviroment

For Rotterdam-based MVRDV architects, a human-centered approach to urban planning starts with rethinking the space given to cars. Surprisingly, taking out parking spaces is not only good for people and sustainability, it’s good for business.

In a 1970s fit of modernization, Rotterdam filled in canals and built roads. Now it is looking to get rid of the cars and to bring the water back. “This will not just be nice for people, it will not just be nice for sustainability, it will also be very good for the businesses,” says Jan Knikker, a partner at MVRDV. “And that is why it is always very important that you have a holistic approach to this.

“Already, because of Corona, the businesses in those streets in Rotterdam next to our office basically asked us to get rid of the cars for as long as the Corona rules apply because the businesses are quite small and they wanted to extend into the street. But there were parking spots and there were cars.”

The solution was to give all the businesses terraces where the parking spaces and street used to be. Hairdressers, for example, could meet their clients outside. And the street is now only for pedestrians.

“And it is really also super cool that the businesses actually asked for this, because normally a business would say, ‘I need a parking spot for my clients in front of the business.’ But here, they actually said to get rid of all the cars and make their shops bigger.

“So you see that even a dense city like Rotterdam can be safer from Corona if we get rid of the cars because the car has so much space in our cities.”

A big urban plan with no parking in Oslo

In Oslo, Norway, this thinking was implemented on an even bigger scale, with the country’s  biggest-ever a master plan to redevelop a neighborhood.

“They were really scared of traffic jams and that the city would become unlivable,” Jan says. “And there was a super simple solution: Just don’t put any parking spots into the master plan.”

The redevelopment area was located next to the central train station, so cars were not necessary to access it. And it created 12,500 jobs, 450 apartments and only 20 parking spots.

“This means that you have a minus 6,250 car journeys a day and minus 110,000 kilometers of city traffic per day,” he says. “And then all this CO2 that you save – it’s really fantastic what simply having no parking spots does. You really make the city a better place, and the buildings are much cheaper.”

“The city needs to be for people”

Jan says that such new approaches are needed when creating new neighborhoods. “The city needs to be for people,” he explains. “The ground floor of the city is important, but we think the city is also a three-dimensional object. So life needs to also go up, not just stay on the ground floor.”

For David Schill, Aritco’s Marketing Director, creative architectural solutions that mix functions and create life on different levels are an interesting challenge in designing elevators. “With a lift that may take you to your apartment or to a bistro in the same building, we may need to design lifts that meet both the requirements of a low traffic private lift and a high-traffic public lift at the same time.

“If you need multiple lifts for different purposes in the same building, the lifts need to become more space-efficient and more sustainable in cost and material. Fortunately, we have some very creative minds on our design team.”

It´s all made for the car

Unfortunately, Jan says, a lot of urban planning is built on a model that results in very little life and very little diversity. “It’s all made for the car. And when it’s made according to these very old principles, it really doesn’t create the kind of city that the millennials would like to have.”

Millennials, he says, tend to shop online instead of going to the city to shop, for example, so fewer retail space is needed. need less retail. “Basically, they want to have a nice time in a very good urban environment.”

“Quirky rooms and quirky apartments”

In Bordeaux, MVRDV got the assignment to redevelop an area with two former railway freight stations and a barracks. With computer modeling that took the direction of sunlight into account, they created buildings and walkways that would bring in light everywhere.

The model also resulted in strange shapes and a good deal of diversity. “You have quirky rooms and quirky apartments and therefore you have also a mix of people, because you cannot have 20 identical apartments in these buildings – it’s impossible.”

This kind of thinking is music to David’s ears. “Our designs and technology are already focused around being extremely easy to install in many types of spaces,” he says. “Our lifts don’t need a pit below them or a machine room above them. So even when the space is quirky, there’s a good chance we have the solution.”

UNESCO World Heritage – but modern

In a way, Jan says, the planning is based on the Old Town in Bordeaux, a UNESCO World Heritage site, but with modern qualities, more light, and more green areas. From a distance, even though the main building is more than 10 stories high, it looks a little bit like it fits into the urban surroundings.

“And this is how we sold it to UNESCO,” Jan says. “They understood that it is very modern but it basically looks like a medieval city with lots of spires and roofs, so they loved it. And they allowed it, even though it was visible from the UNESCO World Heritage site.”

This ability to merge and harmonize different styles is one of the things David is proud of in Aritco lifts. “The simplicity and elegance of Scandinavian design makes it very modern, so it works with clean, simple shapes,” he says. “Yet Scandinavian design never clashes with older styles. Overall, we want to create lifts that architects put in because they want to, not just because a regulation requires it.”

From the other side of the river, the eye-catching shapes of MVRDV’s project are expected to help revitalize the neighborhood. “Normally, most people wouldn’t go to the other side of the river,” Jan says. “But we are hoping that people will see what’s happening on the other side of the river, get curious and then go into this neighborhood. And they will find lots and lots of small parks, more businesses and a lot of life in a very intimate neighborhood.”

Jan Knikker’s talk was one in a series of Architects‘ Know-How Sessions presented by The Art of Business.

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