No need to put road signs everywhere

Cofounder of the architecture bureau OKRA (the Netherlands) Boudewijn Almekinders has his own vision of city development. He talks about healthy cities and defines main principles of their functioning.

You have taken part in many international projects, including vast program ‘My Street’ in Moscow. It’s been a week now that you are in Perm and you must have had an idea, which Perm problems you can help using your international experience …

— Perm is different in a way, as it is a really vast city, too big even. Distances between centre and suburbs are absolutely unjustified. It makes centre accessibility, especially pedestrian accessibility, difficult for suburbs inhabitants. Maybe, it might be a nice walk from Gaiva to centre in summer, but it is certainly not in winter. In wintertime, life is concentrated inside – in which circumstances compact city is more comfortable for living. There is a concept of ‘inner city’ in Europe – compact and easy to get across on foot city centre where all the shops and similar objects are within reach. I think applying this concept in Perm might help the situation in the city, at least in its centre.

— Many people speak about compact city, but compact city suggests necessity of sacrificing green spaces and risk of turning into concrete jungle, doesn’t it?

— It is true, there is always such a dilemma. But Perm has its own specifics – it is situated alongside the river, and thus has a very line structure. You have to consider these specifics through all the urbanistic decisions. For example, this city needs a very special organization of public transport. Yet, there are also advantages: however compact we make Perm, its centre will always be close to the river and forests. For saving city green zones, compaction is even better than expansion. If city expands, then forests will definitely be in trouble.

Generally, interchange of intensive development and open spaces is a long-time solved issue for the world urbanism. Perm also solves this question in a peculiar manner. Your central square is not even a square; it is a huge open space…


— Yes, esplanade. It is impressive, for sure, but it is a bit large in the ratio with human being and its capabilities. Therefore, there are many more options in Perm to balance between compact city and concrete jungle.

One more problem of Perm is its streets — they are too wide, too much space for cars, and almost none – for pedestrians. A lot of bitum, you can also improve that. For example, if you need parking, make it green! It is easily done with melt-water, and grey water. No need to be afraid of concrete jungle, if you think beforehand how to organize greening within compact city.

— Theme of your lecture at the Main Architect School is ‘Creating healthy city. How to assure its feasibility and dynamic development’. What do you mean by using term ‘healthy city’?

— This term consists of three principles. First one is accessibility for all means of transport, including pedestrians and bicyclists. I understand, climate is uneasy in Perm, but you have to work on accessibility even in winter. The second principle is liveliness: more people in the streets, many interesting storefronts, and good permeability of the first floors making it easy for people to get in and out. The third principle is greening and creating friendly environment.

— Could you give us some examples of healthy city successful projects?

— Boston, for example. They were very determined there, when they moved most of the transport underground using the newly created vast spaces for new zones of city improvement. Amsterdam where I live, could also be called a healthy city, but not due to some decided measures of late, just because it grew that way. Throughout its history, city dwellers cared about people’s mobility. Amsterdam people are very concerned about climate change; there is an organization in the city that watches out for citizens to affect climate change as little as possible. About 50% of traffic in the centre is people cycling, in Moscow this percent will be around one, based on my observations.

— You know, bicycle is not very comfortable during snowfall…

— It is true. Still, you need to think how to organize cyclists at least in summer. In Perm, many people are for cycling and are proud that there are cycling paths in the city. But what for?! For three cyclists in summer and one in winter, should we take space from pedestrians and car owners? With this quantity of cyclists, they can all share space as well. It doesn’t seem such a problem to me.

In Europe, shared space becomes more and more popular. For example, there are no wide malls in ancient European cities. It happened within course of history that there are only narrow streets there, which you can’t divide even into pedestrian zone and car zone, needless to say cycling paths. So what? Locals perfectly well share them: car drivers go slower when they see pedestrians, and pedestrians try to move along the house walls to give place for cars.

— Amazing! It was always thought that streets should be wide, allowing cars to move fast, in order to avoid traffic jams…

— City should be transparent in all directions. Perm has a problem with it: streets are wide, there are not too many cars compared with population number, but there are still traffic jams, many locals complain about it. If there were lanes, passes, alleys connecting main roads, then both cars and pedestrians could get from one street to another, cut the way, unload main streets giving way to public transport. That’s your decision for traffic jams issue, not endless street enlargement, or cutting trees, or dressing the whole city in bitum. Open the lanes and passes – make them shared space for pedestrians, cars and bicycles, and city will be equally filled with transport.

By the way, don’t be afraid of self-organization of road users. I’ve mentioned that in Russia – maybe it’s a leftover of the Soviet times, when everything was regulated from above – everyone believes in signs and regulations. Truth is, civilized people can regulate moving across the crossing, or way to share the street between cyclists and car owners, themselves. No need to put road signs everywhere.

There were several experiments in the Netherlands on traffic control omission: no signs, no traffic lights, and no police officers on a rather vast city territory.

— So?

— No accidents! Of course, when we speak of the highway with large speeds, we understand the need in traffic regulation. But when we talk about city centre, where high speeds are not expected, we can start creating shared spaces for different types of traffic.

Don’t undermine man’s capability of self-regulation.

Source: «New Companion» newspaper
Photo credits: Konstantin Dolganovsky