Rethinking cities #1: Ommmm in Paris, the 15-minute commute in Milan, and Amsterdam in a doughnut

As cities are coming back to life with summer drawing to a close and Covid restrictions relaxing …we urbanites and city-dwellers are looking forward to some of the magic that cities offer … chance meetings in the street, lazing at kerb-side cafe tables looking into the streetscape, accidental tableside conversations that spark an idea, chit-chats about current happenings in the city, a kind of “creative proximity” that nineteenth-century economist Alfred Marshall called “something in the air” some 100 years ago.

And we look around for ideas that inspire us as many people around the globe rethink and see their cities with new eyes.

We see …

… a City that Respires      P  A  R  I  S

Paris first launched its eco-friendly “Respire” programme in 2016, but the Coronavirus lockdown has given it further impetus, with miles of traffic lanes turned into cyclist-friendly “corona pistes”.

You can “respire” in the city especially on Sundays with its coordinated traffic-closed-on-certain roadsplan (including the Champs-Élysées on the first Sunday of each month), and on other days you can “ski” down the corona pistes (no-car, no-obstacle cycle lanes!). (For those thinking of going to Paris andusing bikes to travel around, here’s a printable version of its several hundred kilometres of bike lanes – reds are bike-only lanes, blues are shared lanes).

And now these pistes cyclables have spread to Brussels and some other European cities.  Paris, in fact, is targeting to achieve 15% of trips done by bikes (making us think of that Katie Melua song, Nine Million Bicycles, and our several billion “light-years from the edge”)!  (The French President, in the meantime, is not known to travel on bikes, except that he famously got onto a bike with the Danish Prime Minister when in Copenhagen!)

“Pollution is already in itself a health crisis”, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo said earlier in the spring.  The city of Paris targets to have 45% renewables by 2030 and to become carbon neutral by 2050; in comparison, the city of New York has a 70% renewables target by 2030 and plans to become carbon neutral city by 2040.  (C40 has more information on the carbon emission and renewables related plans by cities – e.g. this for Paris.)

Here at Madeleine’s, we imagine and look forward to doing yoga on the Champs-Élysées in the city that respires!  Alors, Ommmmmm …..

Paris, is of course, one of Madeleine’s favourite cities, with 2 of our latest posts from Paris here and here.

In the meantime, we look forward to zipping over to Amsterdam to check out the progress with its “doughnut city” project.

… the city that lives within its ecological ceiling, “Doughnut”-style … A M S T E R D A M

Yes, it’s true, the Amsterdam city government is adopting the idea of a “doughnut” as the starting point for public policy decisions, the first city in the world to make such a commitment.  (Some of the conceptual basis for and details of “doughnut economics” as applied to Amsterdam can be found here.)

The idea is that economic activity should meet the core needs of all but within the means of the planet.  The inner rings of the doughnut represents the minimum we need to lead a good life, ranging from food and clean water to a certain level of housing, sanitation, energy, education, healthcare, gender equality, income and political voice, while the outer ring, where the sprinkles go, represent the ecological ceiling drawn up by earth-system scientists and highlights the boundaries beyond which human kind should not go to avoid damaging the climate, soils, oceans, the ozone layer, freshwater and abundant biodiversity.

Between the two rings is the good stuff: the dough, where everyone’s needs and that of the planet are being met.

“I think it can help us overcome the effects of the crisis”, said Amsterdam’s deputy mayor, Marieke van Doorninck, who sees it as a “breakthrough alternative to growth economics”.  The city’s carbon emissions are already 31% above 1990 levels, and so a series of plans are in place to ensure builders use materials that are as often possible recycled and bio based, and so on.  Cities have taken the lead in fighting climate change, especially during the discussions that led up to the Paris Agreement (2016); some interesting work on smart cities with planned commitments to renewables can be found here.

… and the city that is rethinking and remaking its “rhythms”    M  I  L  A  N

Over in Milan, we take stock of a time when a plague tore through this northern Italian city in the1570s, when shops were closed, mass was sung outdoors, and the church, the Lazzaretto, became a hospital.

Zoom forward to the year of 2020, in the chaotic fallout from coronavirus, the now very historical Lazzaretto, with its quadrilateral Renaissance-style architecture, is once again part of an ambitious urban experiment. Milan’s mayor, Giuseppe Sala, announced in April that the area would host a pilot scheme for “rethinking the rhythms” of the Lombard capital. Amid the dense cityscape and multiple apartment complexes that have built up around the remains of the old hospital, the plan is to “offer services and quality of life within the space of 15 minutes on foot from home”.

The “15-minute” idea is based on research into how city dwellers’ use of time could be reorganized to improve both living conditions and the environment, whereby daily urban necessities – work, home, shops, entertainment, education, healthcare – are within a 15-minute reach on foot or by bike.
Milan has always exerted a kind of magic on us at Madeleine’s; if the Covid crisis has spurred a re-imagination of how space is used, increased attention on rediscovering the neighbourhood dimension, and a bolder re-design of mobility (and a de-synchronisation of work-hours) to reduce the number and length of journeys, this can only be a good thing.  We’d love to see how this musical, spatial and socio-economic concept for elegant city develops.

There is even an English version of the city’s plans here.)

Doughnut, Omm, and everything-within-15-minutes, we want fewer wildfires and natural disasters caused by climate change, we need to take action before the cost becomes too higher or in fact, prohibitive, and we hope that more of these experiments see the light of day, that good programmes get expanded, and that cities keep re-imagining and planning for the future.