The heart of the city – From core to cell

We recently found some bits and pieces of text we wrote in October 2015 – a period that shaped the core ideas for the outset of MMKM. After an invisible life on a local hard disk for nearly 18 months, we recomposed them into a new blog post. Happy reading!

 

The longing for an altered city core is by no means a new given. Even in the early days of the automobile – decades before the car would become an ultra-popular and invasive species that took over modern urban life – well-known architects expressed their love(-hate) relationship with the automobile in various ways. These ambiguous feelings for the personal car resulted in a continuous search for the balance between embracing and repulsing mobility technology.

Villa Stein - de Monzie and Le Corbusier's beloved Voisin automobile, 1927. At the time, both as fresh and modern as could be.

Villa Stein - de Monzie and Le Corbusier's beloved Voisin automobile, 1927. At the time, both as fresh and modern as could be.

Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier, was a big fan of the automobile and its entire automatised industry. The Plan Voisin, the maison Citrohan and the Voiture Maximum are perhaps the best-known direct links between automobiles and the architect. Nevertheless, nearly his entire oeuvre is drenched with a glowing passion for the automobile. The promenade architecturale in Villa Savoye that starts and ends with riding in a personal car; the modernistic high-rise city planning that located traffic in generous wide and straight roads with elevated crossings in order not to slow down its flow; the attempt to unite infrastructure and architecture in one continuous building that meandered the world: shops and housing underneath, a road on top…

Alas, all this wonder and adoration for the automobile and the car industry had a backside. Already in 1933, the attending members of CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne) discussed the intolerable appropriation of the city by the personal car. They reasoned that the European urban centre was formed by a successive extension of the medieval street pattern and therefore was completely unsuitable to host this new type of traffic. The congress participants argued that the distances between the crossings were too short for the new speed of traffic and therefore formed a threat to the user of the road, resulting in a large quantity of casualties.  An arbitrary grown city would furthermore be very unsuitable to navigate. False representation such as axes or monumental buildings would often impede a fluent traffic management. The solution to these rising problems was bundled in clear guidelines for further city organisation. The resulting Charter of Athens was set-up around one central idea: there should be a clear division of four urban functions: living, working, recreation and traffic. It is obvious that these guidelines are subject to a certain ambiguity. On one hand, they uncovered a new dimension of urbanity in which each individual function can grow and perform unrestrained to its own logic. On the other hand though, the city becomes completely dismantled and resembles the lay-out of a giant machine.
Then war came.

During the reconstruction of European cities that were partially or completely destroyed during the war, new questions raised about the completeness of the Athens Charter. Could one build pleasantly liveable new city centres, suburban expansions or new towns for the baby-boomers by only using the guidelines of the charter? Diverse investigations concerning social planning (MARS group, Giedion, Sert, Léger…) lead to an ill-balanced synthesis in which the initial pre-War charter was revised and humanised at the CIAM congress of 1951. The material expression of a community feeling was added as a primary function of the city and was called ‘the core’ – in the language of Le Corbusier le cœur: the heart . While initially the core was investigated as monumentality to express the community, it swiftly became the expression of the human scale, spontaneity and a synthesis of arts.

Saul Steinberg, Piazza San Marco, Venice (1951). The car-free core par excellence.

Saul Steinberg, Piazza San Marco, Venice (1951). The car-free core par excellence.

The resulting document stated that a core should be a place where the pedestrian could wander freely and therefore should be traffic free. Automobiles should not be able to cross the core, but should be lead around it, or should be parked in the periphery, so their drivers could access the centre by other means of transportation. These measures had one primary preoccupation: the core should above all be a place where people spontaneously meet each other to exchange ideas. It should be a means to liberate the citizen from its passive role as an observer, a listener and a sufferer to an active human being that is again able to participate in society. The core should be a suggestion to move freely again, and be an escape from loneliness and boredom. It should be an atmosphere of participation in a spontaneous and impartial game; a whiff of warm humanity with the possibility for new encounters, generating a renewed urban consciousness.
The heart of a city should be an expression of the collective mentality and spirit of the community, which humanises, shapes, and gives meaning to the city itself. Maybe it is here that things got a bit confusing and implementation got slightly out of hand. The glorious rise of the empire of the affordable car for the masses was still to come. Soon, the collective mentality and spirit of the community pointed out that a car free centre was a violation of citizens' individual freedom...

The sixties at Piazza del Plebiscito, Naples, Italy. The collective spirit of community gives a new expression to public space. It would take until 1994 for the square to become car-free again.

The sixties at Piazza del Plebiscito, Naples, Italy. The collective spirit of community gives a new expression to public space. It would take until 1994 for the square to become car-free again.

By the end of the sixties, the broad consensus in urban planning and architecture was that the presence of the car should be seen as a normal occurrence and should be accepted the same way as audio systems and higher standards of living were accepted as a normal evolution of modernity. Alison and Peter Smithson, who had critiqued CIAM's machine-like approach with their own concept of urban re-identification (a sort of scalable nostalgia for community) by this time were in search of contemporary spatial expressions that reflected modern society. They claimed that until then, we were not able to capture the spirit of our time and did not taste the sweet fruits of the new possibilities brought to us by the recently optimised means because we do not know where to walk and where to ride in our bouncy new clothes and our shiny new cars. They observed that these new means demanded a lower urban density and a larger distance between all things in order to generate a space where it all can happen. The biggest difference with former life, they say, is that modern people seldom walk from one place to another, if the distance is larger than 500 meters. The car does not allow us to see people, houses or even the sky, and thus we experience the city no longer as a continuous entity, but as a series of events. According to the Smithsons, a city that responds to these new life forms is a widespread configuration of comprehensive elements with in-between easy and anonymous ways to move ourselves around. This would lead to an organisation of space that corresponds to the image people have in their minds about the daily urban life.

It is somehow curious to note that it was commonly known that people are not willing to walk more than 7 minutes. But instead of proposing an ancient urban set-up that supports all daily needs and is organised around neighbourhoods within walking distance, growing cities were the longer the more formed around the idea of widening everything up, which made the car indispensable. A lot of American cities are built upon this principle: one storey high, widespread, no clear centre and a main road or even highway passing through. The obligatory possession of a car is clearly noticeable in the fact that American citizens do not even have an identity card. Since everybody owns a car and has thus a driver’s licence, an extra identity document became redundant, or at least quite rare.

Saul Steinberg, Stops for the night (1958).

Saul Steinberg, Stops for the night (1958).

Europe was subject to a variation of the same story. Earle Hitchner wrote a splendid line that stresses the dissimilarity between both continents: "The difference between America and England is that Americans think 100 years is a long time, while the English think 100 miles is a long way.".  European cities are mainly the product of many centuries of evolution and adaptation without (the space for) drastic changes. Their streets used to be a common space that served as a platform for social encounter. Most streets were not designed, but came to existence as a result of everything else around them. They are a direct part of daily life and as a consequence are in origin as complex, capricious and intangible as life itself. Streets are the place of freedom, of changeability and receptiveness while keeping an own character: no two streets are the same. From the end of the sixties on, groups of people started to revolt against the loss of the street as a common place: a battle that is still ongoing. Mainly in the last decade, the street that glances at its original signification is slowly gaining the upper hand. Historical European city centres are increasingly being liberated from motorised traffic: almost every big city started to experiment with its own pedestrian zone, although usually as a monofunctional shopping street.

The traffic road which used to stop at the city gates, and did not bear the name "street", has now invaded the city. The common space of a city, the street, has degenerated into mere traffic space. For this new feature, the street is naturally so unfit that it can only be used with complicated regulations. There is no longer place for a spontaneous encounter, talking, playing, strolling... Every human contact is reduced to an abstract sign; usually a prohibition sign. – Still and text from Jef Cornelis' documentary: "De straat", 1972 (translated)

The traffic road which used to stop at the city gates, and did not bear the name "street", has now invaded the city. The common space of a city, the street, has degenerated into mere traffic space. For this new feature, the street is naturally so unfit that it can only be used with complicated regulations. There is no longer place for a spontaneous encounter, talking, playing, strolling... Every human contact is reduced to an abstract sign; usually a prohibition sign.
– Still and text from Jef Cornelis' documentary: "De straat", 1972 (translated)

The idea of an urban heart that is dedicated to a human scale has been yo-yoing its way through the past century. The current trend is again to reclaim the city by (re)creating spaces where citizens can dwell at their own pace: on foot, by bicycle or by micro-mobility. The main problem is that cities evolve at a much slower rate than vehicles, fashion or technology. They should thus be constructed as a resilient buffer that can cope with the perks of ever evolving modern life. Nevertheless, the idea of a single constant, a resting point within the ever evolving city, does not appear out of thin air. The human scale in its broadest sense probably evolves even slower than the city and will always be a relevant tool to give a spatial expression to humanity.

The core as described in the 1951 report of CIAM VIII has quite a bit in common with the cell as described by MMKM. Although the modernist idea of a rigorous separation between urban functions is absolutely not what we envision, the theoretical approach of the core as distinct human entity is quite appealing: a thought that does not de facto excludes a sense of humanity from the rest of the city. As James Lendall Basford once wrote: new ideas are but gathered fragments from the past...

(Wouter Haspeslagh)

The symbiosis of mobility, part 3

Third and last blog in this little series! If you didn't read the previous entries, you might have a hard time following the discourse. Catching up is easy: here are part 1 & part 2.

This final entry is at first sight the most positive of all three. We'll be completing the table of interaction by zooming in on mutualism, the type of interaction that grants every involved actor a favourable outcome.

 
 

Mutualism is all about cooperation; about teaming up with partners to achieve goals you are unable to accomplish all by yourself. In extremis, such relations could exist to the level that the individual partners cannot exist without each other. Although you might remember the example of the lichen from your biology classes in school, this extremity is quite rare. Most mutual relations occur on a less rigorous level, as is also the case for mobility.
 

Ride sharing

A classic case of mutual mobility is the paid variant of ride sharing. Take BlaBlaCar for example, currently world's biggest long-distance ride sharing community. The platform allows people travelling with seats to spare to offer their services to strangers, that in return pay a fee to cover a part of the driving expenses. Contrary to the classic form of hitchhiking in which generally no financial compensation is required and therefore classifies as commensalism, the BlaBlaCar system is beneficial to every party involved.

"Eighty percent of city-to-city travel in Europe is done by car. What we’re doing is tapping into empty seats in cars – and there are maybe ten times more empty seats in cars travelling between Paris and Brussels than seats in trains or buses. So you unlock by far the biggest world inventory of seats available."

BlaBlaCar COO Nicolas Brusson in Wired Magazine, May 2015

The Norwegian startup Nimber operates in the same spirit, although its service is not meant for people but for freight. Even though the platform is accessible worldwide, the service is currently only being promoted in Norway and the UK. The company's slogan suits the basic idea of ride sharing very well: "going your way, anyway"!

 
Brian always combined the hell out of existing ride sharing apps...

Brian always combined the hell out of existing ride sharing apps...

 

Vehicle relocation deals

Companies like Transfercar, iMoova or Jucy help rental car companies around the world to relocate vehicles between their branches, while offering a way for travellers to travel for free or nearly nothing. The locations for pick-up and drop-off are defined beforehand, together with a deadline before which you'll need to reach the destination. Trips are per definition always one-way. All that is required is a full driving license valid in the areas you'll cross on your trip. It goes without saying that travelling this way lacks any kind of flexibility, so you'll need to be quite flexible yourself to make good use of it.

For a rental agency, relocating a car or RV for any reason is expensive. It involves hiring a transport vehicle, or paying someone to drive one way and cover their flight back. The mutually satisfying alternative is to sway customers with a low price. This ensures a prompt booking when a vehicle urgently needs to be moved, and best of all, creates a cheap road trip!
(Fragment kindly stolen from Thrifty Nomads

The upside is that all sorts of vehicles need to be driven across the country. Fancy a short journey with a fully equipped camper, a sedan or even a commercial truck to finally move that fridge to a next-state relative? No problemo! Sometimes it is even possible to buy yourself some more time for a very low rate. Potentially a great start for a motoring holiday!

The same principle was added to the operation of Villo, the Brussels bike sharing system. The Belgian capital is quite hilly, which makes that more bicycles are borrowed from stations located on higher grounds, while later returned to stations in the city's lower areas. To go uphill, citizens tend to walk or take motorised public transport rather than cycling. This behaviour results in a system out of balance, in which the poor operators are busy all day relocating bikes back uphill. After assessing the Villo system in 2012, researchers found that 36 percent of its frequent users would be willing to return bikes to higher stations more often if some sorts of compensation would be granted to them. Not much later, the operators started to reward the fit users leaving their bikes at the highest stations with extra credits on their card. In the light of these series, we could say they improved the resilience of a limping system by including a mutualistic relation.

A modern Sisyphus redistributing shared bicycles to uphill stations in Brussels. Picture by TIMB.

A modern Sisyphus redistributing shared bicycles to uphill stations in Brussels. Picture by TIMB.

Joint venture for a better user experience

Recently, the Dutch railway operator NS added targeted media add-ons to their monthly subscription model. Travellers can now choose to include the add-ons for a reduced fare, giving them access to services that increase their on-board experience. The first collaboration of such kind was with the digital media company Blendle, which offers an online platform with access to over 120 newspapers and magazines. By understanding the potential of the time spent travelling on trains, the NS was able to focus on experiences that benefit the user on a different emotional level. In this case, the need of self-actualisation by reading trumps the need of getting from A to B. Not only do these types of media add-ons create a new type of value for the NS, they also allow for young and innovative companies such as Blendle to promote their services to a large user-base.

Such deep understanding of user-journeys and the potential of downtime, is something the airline industry has traditionally been very good at. From offering tax-free products at airports, to integrating car-rentals in the online booking process - add-on media and services are an integral part of how companies create value. The extent to which these add-ons contribute to the user experience is of course up to debate, but what is clear is that they are resulting in more networked and shared value propositions.

Thanks to a simple joint venture, all NS trains transform in a kick-ass riding news library.

Thanks to a simple joint venture, all NS trains transform in a kick-ass riding news library.

Mobject

A mobject (short for mobile object) is a vehicle concept conceived by MMKM – not to be confused with a concept vehicle. The key point of this concept is that a mobject should rather be approached as an object than a vehicle. The reason for doing so is quite simple: the essence of a vehicle lies in its ability to move. Therefore, it is only relevant for its direct users: the people it carries around. This means by consequence that the vast majority of people in the vehicle's environment are not addressed at all. The essence of an object, on the other hand, lies in its set of attributes that make it what it fundamentally is. Motion is not necessarily part of this set, which makes an object potentially useful and meaningful for everyone interacting with it.

Too philosophical? Some might say so. Nonetheless, this approach has a lot of relevance that reaches far beyond mere semantics. A mobject becomes very meaningful in places characterised by lots of direct interaction with people, such as urban cores and pedestrian cells. By blurring and fading the boundaries between urban infrastructure and vehicle, it makes a positive contribution to its complete environment of users as well as non-users.

Investigation from a pre-mobject era. The publipods as designed in 2012 had interactive screens, making them more versatile for urban dwellers. The ideas were later deepened into the mobject concept.

Investigation from a pre-mobject era. The publipods as designed in 2012 had interactive screens, making them more versatile for urban dwellers. The ideas were later deepened into the mobject concept.

Afterthoughts

After writing these 3 blogs, an interesting insight we gained is that there isn't really such a thing as a symbiotic hierarchy in which you have to endeavour reaching the top. Parasitising a mode to prevent monopolisation and challenge market convention might be as valuable to the entire mobility system as mutually sharing a ride. A single mode can have many concurrent relations: it's not a story of "or", but one of "and". The one is not necessarily excluding the other.

Nevertheless, some types of relations do seem to put a primary negative mark on the system. Think of the parked cars taking up public space as example of amensalism in our first post. Other types have a rather dubious position in the system. From a sheer ecological point of view, a mutualistic service like vehicle relocation might even be a poor idea, since transporting those vehicles all at once by trailer or train is arguably better for our environment. From an economical point of view, the practice makes sense though...

It is nonsense to strive for a mobility ecology that is entirely based on mutualistic systems. This shouldn't really surprise, since the very same applies for symbiosis in nature. The question we initiated this series with – which relations are strong enough to withstand the test of time? – is therefore poorly chosen. All relations persist in one big system of constant challenge in which one is potentially as valuable as any other. The part of our introduction that does remain relevant is the aim for insight in the entire interactive system and how to use it to design resilient mobility solutions able to leapfrog shortcomings.
Let's find out how this theoretical approach translates into practice!

(Wouter Haspeslagh, Sebastian Lilge, Joost Bianchi, Vincenzo Seminara)

The symbiosis of mobility, part 2

If you did not read the first entry of this short series, we highly recommend doing so before continuing – you can do so here.
This second entry is about commensal mobility, in which the interaction between the two actors gives one of them an advantage, while the other remains unaffected.

 
 

Note that we deliberately skipped neutralism, since it is a special case of interaction that has absolutely no effect upon its actors whatsoever. Most ecologists would argue that true neutralism is virtually impossible and therefore does not even exist. Moreover, within the field of mobility, nothing comes to mind promptly that would classify in this category. Therefore, we will leave it aside for now. If any of you might know good examples of mobility suiting the term “neutralism”: feel free to let us know!

Commensalism in its turn can be divided in several subcategories, depending on the nature of interaction. We’ll just go over a few of them that seem most interesting to us.

Phoresy

Phoresy is perhaps the most straightforward form of interaction in this entire series, because it goes straight to the root of mobility. In biology, we can speak about phoresy when one animal is attached to another exclusively for transport. You can find tons of beautiful pictures on the web showing lice hitching a ride on the back of a larger insect. The larger animal experiences no downside or benefit from its passengers.

Translated from Franquin's comic Gaston n°13: "Lagaffe mérite des baffes", page 23. (Editions Dupuis, 1979)

Translated from Franquin's comic Gaston n°13: "Lagaffe mérite des baffes", page 23. (Editions Dupuis, 1979)

Unlike the suction seat that divests income from the bus company (as presented in our previous post), the neat invention of Gaston is not having any influence on the cars. The vehicle is arguably light enough not to affect the performance of its "engines" in urban traffic. Its attachment, hitchhiking and detachment might stay unnoticed to the motorised driver.

Apart from crazy inventions, there are also more down to earth examples of phoresy in mobility. Think about a stroller that you can fold in the back of your car, a hoverboard or monowheel that you can take on the bus, or even a simple folding bicycle that allows you to commute partly by train.

Part of the pleasure of the cyclist is to redefine the term 'transport'. (...) Folding bikes are an excellent example. No means of transport is as suitable in combination with other modes of transport. A folding bike goes in the trunk of the car, on the bus, on the train, in the subway. (...) [The folding bike cyclist] does not expect my fanciful Utopian city with only monorail and cyclists, but combines the existing means of transport. He makes a quick metamorphosis into subway passenger. Or jumps on a bus.

Translated from: Hans Declercq, "Een filosofie van de fiets - Londense notities", De Bezige Bij, 2012, pp. 145-146
The metamorphosis of a folding bike cyclist as phoresy. Image courtesy of Brompton.

The metamorphosis of a folding bike cyclist as phoresy. Image courtesy of Brompton.

Inquilinism

Inquilinism is the use of a second organism for permanent housing, like certain birds that live in holes in trees. In mobility, we could argue the "house" to be the infrastructure of a certain transport mode, like a parking, a railway or even a pedestrian tunnel. When infrastructure is permanently abandoned or temporarily unused, neo-mobilis can claim it and introduce a completely new use to it.

During the last months of 1973, several governments of European countries declared a number of car-free days. In an attempt to safeguard oil reserves during the occurring oil crisis, motorists were not allowed to use their cars on specified Sundays. As a result, roads remained empty and were gracefully occupied by citizens in a variety of ways. Many cities still organise car-free Sundays on a regular basis, although mainly motivated by ecological awareness.

Inquilinism on abandoned roads in the Netherlands, 1973. Images courtesy of Hollandse Hoogte and ANP.

Inquilinism on abandoned roads in the Netherlands, 1973. Images courtesy of Hollandse Hoogte and ANP.

In urban renewal projects, this principle can contribute significant inspiration to questions about obsolete infrastructure. The High Line in New York City is perhaps the best known urban example of inquilinism. Created in the late 2000's, it is a linear park, built on an elevated section of a disused railroad track. Where trains used to ride until the early 1980's, now pedestrians stroll around above the regular traffic.

The concept of using infrastructure to your advantage can occur on a much smaller scale too. Almost a decade ago, Czech artist Tomáš Moravec modified a standardised EUR-pallet to fit his city's tram tracks. His approach aimed to bring change into the spatial perspective of a passenger in motion. One could skate the pallet guided by a map of the city lines.

 
 

Much more recent, Sebastian Lilge made use of the very same principle of inquilinism for the development of yet another neo-mobilis device. The created apparatus is part of his ongoing research towards the understanding of opportunities and boundaries in symbiotic mobility. Like the previously presented suction seat, it needs to be seen in the light of incitement rather than approached as an effective form of transportation.


Metabiosis

The almighty Wikipedia describes metabiosis as a more indirect dependency, in which one organism creates or prepares a suitable environment for a second. This actually frequently happens in our daily environment too. In many cases, cities make great efforts to increase accessibility for prams, wheelchairs, and elderly people. The smooth surfaces in combination with "aiding obstacles" like banisters or benches are ideal grounds for skaters to perform tricks or to comfort their ride.

Stay tuned for the ultimate part!

(Wouter Haspeslagh, Sebastian Lilge)

The symbiosis of mobility, part 1

Mobility never exists in absolute isolation. It is always an interplay of user, mode and environment, jointly enduring in various possible relations. In this light, modes of transport operate as agents effectuating interaction between people, sites and the modes themselves. They are designed to outsmart, outperform, complement or cooperate with each other. But which relations are strong enough to withstand the test of time? How can we use them to design resilient mobility that leapfrogs shortcomings? To discover the underlying principles of these relations, we created a series of blogs in which we put on our ecologist’s hat to investigate possible interactions between different actors involved in mobility.

Each interaction can be an inspiration to reinterpret the existing system and to develop new design solutions fitting the ever-changing needs of mobility. Rather than focusing on a finished and closed design, the strength of this approach lies in its flexibility to adapt to situations based on inherent logic. It aims to create resilient answers by playing the system, not the object.

This first entry is about mobility with a negative outcome for at least one involved actor. In biology, this category is subdivided in three subsections: competition, amensalism and exploitation. A  is detrimental, a 0 has no effect, and a + is beneficial:

 
 

Competition

In competition, both species involved are harmed – like male deer fighting. Only the fittest will survive in a never-ending contest. Obviously, this type of interaction plays a powerful role in natural selection. Quite similarly, economical competition is a fundamental pillar in the creation of a free market in capitalistic ideology. Nevertheless, when it comes down to the physical level of the mobility mode itself, it can be tricky to find concrete examples of competition. Based on the example of two deer clashing their antlers into each other, we can easily imagine the parallel image of two vehicles crashing into each other. But that does not really count as competition, since it is rather unlikely that such incidents happen on purpose. So what does classify as mobile competition?

The common SUV might be an example of such interaction. Why? Because it surfs on the same principle as an arms race: each party competes to produce bigger, larger, greater and superior products with as main goal outperforming the competitor, who behaves in exactly the same manner. This one-upmanship of successively outdoing an adversary is also happening on our streets. Many families are buying a crossover to cruise the city with a better overview on the road and sturdy protection for their children in the back. However, the very presence of such vehicles creates exactly the situation they try to overcome: less overview in traffic and more potential harm towards other road users in accidents. It progressively develops drawbacks for smaller or less protected road users, including these very same families that decide to bring the kids to school by bicycle on a sunny morning. As a result, more people are tempted to buy an even bigger vehicle, thereby largely nullifying its original purpose.

 
The protective ram only wanted to safeguard his children. Little did he know that they'd suffer his good intentions themselves...

The protective ram only wanted to safeguard his children. Little did he know that they'd suffer his good intentions themselves...

 

Amensalism

When one species is doing harm to another while remaining unaffected itself, it is called amensalism. Studies show that on average, a car is used for hardly 5% of the time. The remaining 95%, it takes up precious space without having a useful purpose. Meanwhile, its presence as a lifeless artefact at the side of the street influences the quality of a streetscape heavily. As public space is limited, any form of space consumption prevents other actors of entering the urban scene. Urban infrastructure is so heavily customised for cars, that it imposes massive pressure on the existence of a human scale. Compare it to an invasive weed that takes up so much space that smaller lifeforms are struggling to see the daylight. Just imagine how different our streets would look like without parked cars; how little place the actual traffic flow takes and all the opportunities to redevelop newly vacant ground! Cars are capable of sucking out the life of a city as much as they could enhance it in the postwar decades.

Transformation of the Place de la Resistance / Verzetsplein in Brussels (Belgium), as seen on Google Streetview.

Transformation of the Place de la Resistance / Verzetsplein in Brussels (Belgium), as seen on Google Streetview.

Exploitation

When one species obtains a benefit by harming another, it is called exploitation. Nevertheless, let's call it parasitism, just for the sake of it. And because the term reminds me of nasty creatures sucking life out of others. Think of tapeworms, vampire bats or leeches and the like. Nevertheless, the concept of parasitism is a valuable mechanism to prevent overpopulation and enables the possibility to directly change a rigid system. It is exactly from that angle that we are approaching parasitic mobility: as an opportunity to provoke and change.

Due to rising costs for public transport in Europe and insufficient compensation for low incomes, some groups of people are increasingly facing the problem of limited access to mobility. Deprived of being amply mobile, they might lack connection to society, resulting in fundamental social issues. Without alternatives, it can even be seen as a violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.

In order to find a solution for this issue, creative design student Sebastian Lilge came up with the idea of a suction seat: a newly designed device as a tool of direct action, which allows activists to dupe the failing system. As a parasitic means of transport, it is profiting of its host while deliberately harming it. Attached to the outside of public transport vehicles, the user of the suction seat can take a ride without paying for a ticket. This provocative act shifts the focus from being solely a mode of transport to also being a tool of performance that creates awareness about the problem itself.

Sebastian trying out a prototype of his parasitic seat.

Sebastian trying out a prototype of his parasitic seat.

Stay tuned for the next part of this series!

(Wouter Haspeslagh, Sebastian Lilge, Vincenzo Seminara)

Urban mobility going airborne

Airbus intends to have a prototype of a flying urban vehicle ready by the end of 2017. In as little as ten years, they claim to be able to revolutionise urban travel for millions of people. Urban mobility going airborne could open up a completely new range of possibilities. Alas, there might be just as many concerns…

“La sortie de l’opéra en l’an 2000”, a drawing made by the french illustrator and novelist Albert Robida in 1882.

“La sortie de l’opéra en l’an 2000”, a drawing made by the french illustrator and novelist Albert Robida in 1882.

Imagine leaving the office at peak hour: roads are completely jammed while trains, buses and metros are terribly overcrowded. According to Airbus, the best you can do is having you picked up by a shared, battery powered autonomous sky taxi that flies over all modern world’s traffic misery. Apparently the company’s feasibility study resulted in a favourable conclusion.

It is hard to get a grip on the scale of ambitions of this CityAirbus. To reduce traffic, it should be massive. To avoid traffic, it will probably result in something for the happy few. Airbus describes it as a taxi, but at the same time, it requires very specific infrastructure that is not widely available. Providing such infrastructure is not simply about constructing urban landing pads. Since it is very unlikely every home, school and office will have one, these pads need to be designed as hubs. They will need to provide a splendid connection with “regular” (under)ground mobility together with all other facilities that are usually found in transit terminals.

In a system designed from an operator’s perspective, air traffic would be bundled in few but keenly designed large hubs – at a high risk of creating new bottlenecks. On the contrary, a user-centred design would spread out many smaller hubs in a cloud over the city. Such a decentralised system should relieve main nodes in the existing traffic network. Using it would allow a lot more flexibility, bearing a better resemblance to human behaviour. In addition, technology came to a point on which it can actually control dispersed mobility.

Availability of helipads in LA: downtown vs. 2 miles more west.

Let us take a closer look at Los Angeles for example: the metropolis crowned as North America’s most traffic congested city. At first sight, it has quite some potential for Airbus's plans. Due to a law dating back to 1958, all high-rise buildings are provided with a helipad on the roof, resulting in a downtown district littered with potential hubs. However, the major part of the city – being the place where most citizens reside – begins at not even a mile from central downtown and consists out of two or three storey high buildings in an endless grid structure. Fitting hubs in this kind of tissue without creating additional nuisance seems – slightly understated – a bit more challenging. The very same applies to all other cities in which helipads are a scarce commodity.

If the flying pods will operate in a corridor system as shown in Airbus's article, it will probably result in a network of skyroads. Many cities already have such basic structures for helicopters, mainly located above highways to reduce noise disturbance and minimise damage and casualties in case something goes wrong. Mirroring highways in the air does not really allow benefiting from a shortest possible skyroute. Above all will zenHOP (as the sky-taxi service is called) only be able to fulfil a door-to-door service in rare cases. This makes that the CityAirbus would only solve the middle part of a commute. The last mile problem and all affiliated side effects would make the entire system highly dependent on the use and availability of other means of transportation, with a very high chance in the US of that being the car. Travelling “through the mobility chain” thus remains the future standard.

The most easy and straightforward scenario for the implementation of skypods is probably to link airports to business districts. Even then, there will be a lot of wrangling about the location of skyroads and the use of private property for a public function, since downtown buildings are often private property. Linking Airbus's flying taxis with our very own publipods might also be an interesting road to wander.

Considering hubs on a wider scale, an interesting new architectural typology might emerge. To operate flying pods in a dense urban environment, we will probably need bi-hubs that unfold in a sky pole and a ground pole, connected by a vertical street in-between. This high-volume vertical circulation remains the tricky part: escalators are extremely slow while elevators are highly inefficient. If Airbus would really succeed in making their aircrafts “zen” (meaning “zero emission and noise”), perhaps it could be easier to unite both poles on ground level. Unfortunately doing so would require a new urban layout, going hand in hand with massive infrastructural works and huge investments.

Taking off the urban roof, opening the city up to a sky of endless possibilities: it certainly fuels dreams. Let's see how Airbus takes it further from here!

(Wouter Haspeslagh)


Addendum (March 6th, 2017):

MMKM recently received an article by Allison Crady as a reaction on this post. According to her, our discourse is a bit too sceptical. Being written from within the American context, Allison's text might add some different shades to the story. Her full article can be read here.

Auto&Design Magazine

MMKM is featured in the latest issue of Auto&Design Magazine! Issue 219 also has an extensive cover story about Granstudio's Senova OffSpace concept car that was presented at the 2016 Beijing Motor show.

You can download both full articles here.

Europalaan, Genk

This project is developed as an entry for an urban design competition, issued by the city of Genk and Team Flemish Government Architect. For its design, MMKM teamed up with 51N4E (BE), Mobility in Chain (IT), Rebel Group (BE) and Technum (BE). The team was appointed as one of four laureate teams. The text in this blog are fragments of the design brief.

Genk is an atypical Flemish town where a quite specific history has led to an unusual spatial structure and a socially differentiated fabric. A town that thrives on diversity, but which thereby finds itself facing the complexity of a polycentric urban structure with extremely heterogeneous focal points and varying forms of connectivity.

Genk opts for the ‘grid town’ as its developmental model, where the polycentric development can be a starting point and an asset. The development of the station surroundings plays a crucial part in the link between the centre and the focal points and in the development of the town in general.

The city is currently looking at a reorientation of economic activity, with new urban dynamics as a consequence. The spatial form this will take is still unpredictable, but it is thus even more important to define a clear framework within which these dynamics can unfold in the future.

We determined 3 essential fields of transition. Each one approaches the city from a different angle.

We determined 3 essential fields of transition. Each one approaches the city from a different angle.

A crucial element is a sustainable transport model, which underpins the specific spatial composition of the town and enhances the connectivity between people and the various parts of the town. The station surroundings should become a paragon of new, green mobility and play a key part in this model. The station surroundings should be a catalyst for the launch of new and innovative transport projects.

Our proposal is an overlapping network of 4 interventions, each focusing on a different area, mobile mode and field of transition. Together they form a vast framework for the future of Genk.

Our proposal is an overlapping network of 4 interventions, each focusing on a different area, mobile mode and field of transition. Together they form a vast framework for the future of Genk.

(51N4E, Mobility in Chain, Rebel, Technum, Wouter Haspeslagh, Lowie Vermeersch)

The wandering bench

A common feature of pedestrian cells that are only of a temporary nature is a lack of affinity with the human scale. As is often the case, a wide an iconic road serves as a transitory test case or periodical project, alternating between regular traffic and pedestrian use every other weekend for example. Even if such a cell is permanent, it can take a while before adapted human-centred infrastructure finds a way to its new destination. In all these cases, there is a feasible risk of an infrastructural misfit…

As a result, the pedestrian cell might only be attractive when there is an abundance of people, their multitude blurring the gap in scale. The wanderer’s perception changes from ‘individual’ to ‘group’ or ‘mass’, which naturally fits the broad avenue or square better. On less crowded moments, people might feel less at ease in this oversized concrete jungle.

As a design research, we united an elementary form of mobility with the ability to create a more human-scaled environment. Introducing the wandering bench: an autonomous moving object that people can relate and hold on to.

(Frederik Deschuytter, Wouter Haspeslagh, Vincenzo Seminara)

An oddly shaped status symbol

Nowadays we grant high status to big spenders. Driving an SUV, wearing fancy jewellery or having an extensive wardrobe are all signs of prestige. Status is accorded to manifestations of mass consumption, while from a sustainable point of view we should do the exact opposite. Should green be the new gold? When looking closely, it already is…

MMKM_prius

In recent years, hybrid models have flooded the automotive market. Although every manufacturer has one in its fleet, only a single vehicle has become part of our collective memory: the Toyota Prius. To many, it is hard to imagine how this unusually shaped car has become the absolute bestseller in the hybrid segment.

While having plenty of competition, the Prius managed to outscore all of its more ‘ordinary’ looking rivals. This contrast in aesthetics might well be the key to its success. Apparently, people do not want to pay extra for an option that is hidden under the hood. Instead, they want the world to know that they make a financial effort.

Being environmentally friendly usually goes unseen, there is no public glory in washing clothes at 30°C. Therefore, when the opportunity arises to create a sustainable statement through visual oddness, people start standing in line. Eventually, the Prius was the first car to create a sustainable image, resulting in a resounding success.

Most of its owners care more about the image a Prius creates than the ecological difference it makes. Despite the public’s questionable motives, being environmentally conscious out of self-interest is still better than being not interested at all.

(Frederik Deschuytter)

The iCloud of mobility

Although public transport is omnipresent in modern cities, many people still prefer taking the car, which in many cases is undeniably more user friendly. A car takes you directly to your destination whilst public transport tends to be more complicated. Often, multiple changes are required and the interconnection between different means of transport seems to be absent or unduly complicated.

Besides efficiency, cars are a personal possession. It puts people at ease to travel between places in their individual, secluded bubble. Public transport from the other hand makes you feel like one of the many. Everyone being offered the same service often results in a lacking personal experience and a missing continuity throughout a journey.

While the longer the more cities aim for a car-free core, the demand for mobility continues to expand. Could it be possible to utilise technology in order to transform outdated transport systems and make them more attractive to use?

mCloud

Look at a different field: IT for example. Multinational Apple succeeded to create a continuity of experience throughout all its devices. The iCloud service ensures that preferences, e-mail, contacts, documents, pictures, bookmarks and so on are accessible from whatever device you are using. The experience of using an iPad is quite similar to the one of using an iPhone for example. You immediately feel at home and have access to all your personal files. If you buy a brand new device, chances are that you do not need to make any configuration: personal apps, documents and settings stored in the cloud will set-up the device to your liking automatically.

Imagine this principle being implemented in the field of mobility. What type of information is vital to have in a cloud in order to create a continuous experience regardless what mode of transportation you take?

MobilityCloud

This ‘mobility cloud’ unites personal and transport information: the former must ensure a better user experience, the latter a better efficiency. The platform should be able to suggest interconnected routes based on real time information and personal preferences. It does not only bridge the gap between various vehicles, it also provides a reservation and digital payment system covering the entire journey.

The necessary transport information is provided by the different service operators, comes from other users, or from sensors that are integrated in the vehicles. All these sources are combined and processed in order to provide users with the most accurate and efficient information possible.

In order to serve individual needs, travellers can pre-set parameters like speed, price, comfort, environmental impact etc. In return, they can enjoy a personal service within a public system. This experience might offer a valid alternative for the personal space and atmosphere cars provide nowadays.

(Frederik Deschuytter, Wouter Haspeslagh)