Long live the city! This was the 2008 theme for the Designboost event, where the opportunities and problems of cities are scrutinised through the sustainability magnifying glass. The role of the city for the development of the country is at the centre of attention once again. The competitiveness of cities has long been a strongly felt need, nowadays reinforced by the recognition that we also need sustainable cities. The merger of these two objectives meets with unified acclaim by the visionaries who seek to answer the question: “How can cities enjoy a long and good life?”
We strongly believe that these efforts must be guided by and based on the very foundation of the urban conglomeration, its origins and its raison d’être – the people in the city and their motives and needs. What are their driving forces? What dreams do they have? Could it be that entirely new approaches and actions are needed; forms of collaboration that are totally different from the conventional solutions that we are used to applying?
Design as a process has been brought to the fore as an important resource for creating innovative and sustainable solutions in a large number of contexts. The hallmark of the well-functioning design process is the holistic approach. Real people’s needs and desires, both emotional and physical, are used as the point of departure and the basis for developing ideas and solutions, rather than adapting or improving already existing measures.
Nevertheless, when the demands for growth are voiced ever more vociferously, business as well as cities and regions still tend to choose conventional, short-sighted and environmentally unsustainable solutions. And it is still the stick and the carrot, money and legislation and appealing to the good will of citizens that are used to build the sustainable city. We believe that the real challenge for the cities of the future is to change people’s attitudes and behaviour by developing sustainable solutions that are seen as the best and the most attractive alternatives.
From looking to the city as a prerequisite for national growth, regions and regional expansion have taken on greater importance in recent years. Without an attractive region there is no basis for the establishment of business with a consequent downward competitive spiral. The first and most important ingredient in this recipe is infrastructure. A region that can offer attractive commuting possibilities has a better chance of expanding, thereby creating strong cities. In Sweden, the Malmö and Skåne region is an excellent example of such infrastructural coherence. But are our cities really equipped for taking the next step towards a sustainable infrastructure?
September 11 this year, Gothenburg got the major part in this year’s infrastructural budget, compared to Malmö and Stockholm. Close to SEK 1.5 billion was allocated to improvement of the neglected infrastructure in this urban region. About 75% of this money is earmarked for road improvement and the rest for railway projects. What hope can be derived from this for the sustainable city of the future? What message does this convey to the motorised commuter who is stuck in an endless queue to get into the city on a Monday morning?
Ironically, the infrastructural budget priorities for Gothenburg, coincided with the European Mobility Week, promoting new, environmentally friendly road practices, and the associated campaign by Gothenburg municipality, which appealed to citizens from advertising pillars all over the city to “Go to work without your car.” We can also read on the website of the Swedish National Environmental Protection Agency that “The idea behind the campaign is to get the inhabitants in the municipality to discover, in a practical and pleasant manner, the positive aspects of cycling, walking, using public transport or car-pools or travel with other people in one car. The campaign is intended to help the inhabitants in the municipality discover different ways of travel that can save money and improve health.” But full-page ads where teletubby-like creatures in fluorescent colours choose a flying carpet or a whirling leaf to travel to work on are unlikely to persuade a commuter who lives outside the fairy forest to leave the car at home.
And who can blame them? Why wait in the rain for a stinking, crowded bus or train, rid of all identity, when you can choose the safe, flexible and identity-creating private space of your own car?
People will not change their habits because they are made to feel guilty or thanks to puerile ads attempting to promote environmentally friendly alternatives. Does price matter? Yes, probably. What about service level and design? Absolutely! If what’s on offer reinforces our image of ourselves, if the offering equates doing good with being right and being easy, than we will probably be able to discern change over time that will have a much greater effect in terms of the sustainability on the city than massive efforts during a week of campaigning.
If the great challenge for the city of the future is to change people’s behaviour without lecturing to them, where are the decision-makers, directors and purchase managers who realise the potential of basing their decisions on human needs, such as comfort, confirmation and attractiveness? A good starting point is to make an inventory of the city’s public transport fleet as a priority area. How can public transport be made more competitive, compared with less environmentally friendly alternatives? When bus or train operators understand the importance of making their products so attractive – both in terms of their physical design and the services on offer – that the most uncool alternative is to be stuck in a traffic jam on a Monday morning, then we can start talking about developing real visions for the sustainable city.
Long live the city!
Iréne Stewart Claesson
Design Strategist, LOTS