Thursday 27 September 2012

Integrating our cities' functions

I've always been a fan of things with multiple functions.  I take great pleasure in the fact that the tree which I've been building a treehouse in with and for my niece and nephew is not just a place of recreation for them, but is also contributing to the air we breathe, supporting various forms of wildlife, and providing a visual and physical barrier at the edge of a field.

But this is a trivial example in comparison to many others.  Cities, one could argue, are the ultimate in providing multiple functions in one space. Within one city block, there will be housing, entertainment venues, cafés, shops, public buildings, transportation hubs.

Within each of those, many human needs may be served at once. The best cafés, in my opinion, are ones which provide good food, a calm environment and wifi access so that I can work on my own, as well as a nice space to meet with friends or colleagues. Even better if the café has a community noticeboard, outdoor seating, enriching art on the walls and a few plants around.

It troubles me that some areas of cities have lost touch with what makes them great - this multiplicity of functions - and have been compartmentalising themselves.  In Norwich, the city centre is a place to shop, but with relatively so little residential property, it becomes dead at night, and seems cold and unfriendly. The suburban housing estates, meanwhile, lay empty in the middle of the day whilst everyone is at work in the city centre, but become active once again in the evenings when residents get back from work.

Flats in the city centre of Freiburg, Germany
OK, some would argue that that's just how cities work. But you only have to cross the channel to see that that isn't entirely true. Cities such as Amsterdam, Netherlands or Frieburg, Germany (above) enrich their city centres with multiple functions, with housing right in the centre, greenery on the rooftops, and plenty of multiple function public spaces and shops, serving shoppers during the day, and residents in the evenings.

Food From The Sky on the roof of Budgens, Crouch End, London
Transition, I feel, is all about this integration of functions in local communities, serving local needs locally.  Why ship food from across the world, when it could be grown on our rooftops? Why get contractors in from London when we could be giving Norwich people jobs, keeping money in the local economy?  Why separate work and living zones when integrating them together will reduce need for transportation and make places more vibrant places to live?

Whilst we operate as individuals, or as single organisations serving their own needs, it is easy to lose sight of how what we're doing might be affecting the things that are going on within our communities and cities.  That's why this Friday's meeting, "What's Happening in Transition Norwich", was organised. It's a chance for us to learn about what is going on in Norwich, and how collaboration can lead to the enriching of community, each action serving multiple human needs at once.

Images: all by Simeon Jackson

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