Monday, January 22, 2007

Post Asphalt: Thoughts on Athenian Civic Space

Step1. Post Asphalt

We are concerned about Athenian urban space, the space between buildings. It is the locus of our public life, of our quality of life to a large extent, of the quality of our civic society and our civic culture.

In Athens might makes right. In the Athenian public space, the car is mighty. It has taken over most of the open space, it has climbed on sidewalks, it is heard deep residential blocks. And it keeps multiplying / proliferating. With current rates of multiplication, by the year 2020 it will have taken over every square meter of open space. And it won’t be able to move.

We do not hate the car. We appreciate its comforts. But we do not accept its almost total domination over civic space.

Step2. The Future is not Singular

We are concerned about the almost total lack of dialogue, and the total lack of collective decision-making, on the future of the city and our life in it. It does not seem to be recognized that future Athens will by definition be different from the city of today, just as today’s Athens is different from the city of the 50’s or even the 70’s. And that by this simple fact opportunities arise but so does individual and collective responsibility.

We can imagine many possible futures for Athenian public space. We do not however consider civic space as solely the province of specialists and bureaucrat. We need to find out what other Athenians would like for their city.

Step3, Analysis. Where is the Problem?

What precisely causes this degradation of public space, in a city whose climate and history have made it a place of outdoor public culture par excellence?

We examine a typical central neighbourhood, that of Aghios Meletios. We find out that open space is approximately 30% of the total area, of which 27% are streets and only 3% are real civic spaces such as squares and small parks.

Examining the streets, we find out that anywhere from 50% to 76% of space is officially taken over by cars, but that in many cases they climb on sidewalks and take over part of the little remaining space.

We also examine connectivity in the neighbourhood, in the sense of ease and speed of pedestrian travel. We find out that sidewalks, even when sufficiently wide, are too often blocked by illegally parked cars as well as incorrectly placed road signs, public utilities, trees, building staircases, and the ubiquitous Athenian kiosk.

Paradoxically, where a sense of neighbourhood and local use of open space is most important, i.e. in the small neighbourhood streets, there the least and worst quality space is left over for civic life. Civic life, which cannot happen from the inside of a car, withers, and unsuccessfully moves to very localized spaces which are becoming progressively commercialized.

This step is important. It confirms that Athenian public space is overwhelmingly given over to the car. But it also points out something which was not so apparent: that the remaining space is not necessarily too small, but it is also not structured in a way that permits public life and connectivity. And that is a problem which design can solve.

Step4. Landscape Ecology?

We are trapped in the problematic of form versus process. Architects deal with form. The city however is characterized by process, dynamic operations in space and time.

Landscape ecology is the science dealing with the relationship between spatial form and function in ecosystems, systems which are as complex as the city. Landscape ecology accounts for shape, size, quality, position, relationship, network, systems of elements and networks, and the interrelationship between these formal characteristics and the processes which form them and are formed by them. This renders landscape ecology seminal for the examination of urban phenomena.

We examine how landscape ecological principles can be used to understand and represent the form / process relationship in the city. Through the patch we examine urban blocks, or uniform urban areas. Through the corridor we examine streets, strips, and islands. Through the edge and the boundary we test qualities of the limits between different urban elements. Through the mosaic and the matrix we begin to understand the relationship between form and function of urban systems comprising a multiplicity of elements, such as areas, networks, flows, and change in time.

Step5. The landscape ecology of central Athens

The next step is to examine Athenian urban space though landscape ecological models, at the level of pedestrian urban life. We define the pertinent scale, which is that of an area comprising a number of neighbourhoods. The area in question is the historical centre of the city, and especially the more dynamic western centre.
We begin by charting the major street network, and the identifiably different neighbourhoods. Next we test the nature of the edges between these neighbourhoods. We find out that they are not identical. Some edges form a hard limit, such as a wide avenue where cars develop speed, which makes its traversal by pedestrians difficult. Others, narrower and slower for cars, form a very soft limit easily traversed. Others still form not an edge between neighbourhoods, but part of a new patch: we identify a long strip which crosses most of the city centre which acts as a filter among neighbouring patches.

We then approximate the core and boundary areas of the patches: the cores are the areas where the neighbourhood’s predominant character is clearly present (e.g. entertainment, or commercial). The boundaries are the remaining areas, where there is a gradual transition from “outside” the patch to its core.

We then approximate the core and boundary areas of the patches: the cores are the areas where the neighbourhood’s predominant character is clearly present (e.g. entertainment, or commercial). The boundaries are the remaining areas, where there is a gradual transition from “outside” the patch to its core.

Finally we examine the pedestrian network in the form of pedestrian streets. What we find is a great degree of discontinuity: while certain neighbourhoods have a well developed pedestrian street network, others do not. And in terms of total connectivity, there is none at the level of obstacle-free pedestrian movement.

From this analysis it becomes clear that the centre of Athens is a rich field with well differentiated patches. At the level of pedestrian civic life however this field does not have the connectivity which would allow it to function as a dynamic whole. In terms of circuit connectivity, the centre of Athens does not work. Furthermore, there seems to be a negative effect whereby major car roads degrade the spaces immediately adjacent to them creating a kind of no-man’s-land boundary around vibrant neighbourhood cores.

Step6. Goals

Athenian public space is characterized by points of great dynamism and urban simultaneity. These are local occurrences however. We aim to take this Athenian vibrancy and re-inject it into the majority of public space, which has become disconnected and degraded. We will use the insight gained through the analysis as well as the potentialities provided by landscape ecology and Athens itself.

We aim to retain the autonomy of the individual areas, not to unify them into a flat social and cultural space. We aim to bridge these mini-universes so that they are no longer disconnected fragments but rather part of a rich tapestry.

Urban thinking, we feel, is stuck in black-or-white simplifications. Either an area is a pedestrian only zone, or it is dominated by the car. We spend so much of our time moving around the city that the modes of doing so cannot be separated from the quality of individual and public life. We see the city of the future as a place of simultaneous presence, not dualistic exclusion. The “car or pedestrian” mentality is thoroughly outdated, as is the fascination with the car as a harbinger of the future. It was so in 1950. It is not so today.

The future belongs to possibility and choice: pedestrians, wheelchair, rollerblade, bicycle, power-assisted bicycle, motorbike, citycar, smart, private car, SUV, taxi, bus, tram, metro, and future means will coexist in this public realm. The time of exclusion, which populations from the handicapped to the simple pedestrian have felt so strongly, must end. In the place of antithesis, we propose synthesis.


Anonymous said...

ευχαριστουμε που και εσεις επιλεξατε να δυσκολεψετε τους Ελληνες αναγνωστες αυτου του blog χρησιμοποιωντας Αγγλικη διαλεκτο. Τουλαχιστον θα μπορουσατε με καποιο τροπο να υπαρχει και σε Ελληνικα το κειμενο...καπως...μηπως?Ας υπαρχει στην Αγγλικη..μιας και το προσταζει η μοδα του καιρου μας...αλλα οχι μονο σ αυτη!!!

mitrolis said...

h eikona me tis nhsides einai gamath. 8a mporouse na einai kai profhtikh, fantasou to anaglufo tou zwgrafou h tou polugwnou otan anebei h sta8mh ths 8alassas...

Anonymous said...

So what do you propose?

doxiadis+ said...

Αγαπητέ anonymous,

το τελευταίο post ήταν μια περίληψη των βημάτων που εχουν γίνει μέχρι τώρα και έγινε στα αγγλικά για τους αγγλόφωνους επισκέπτες του blog.
Η εξέλιξη του project θα γίνει όπως πάντα στα ελληνικά.