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Transport infrastructures must be the backbone of metropolitan growth
Pedro B Ortiz

Metropolises of the world are growing very fast both in population and extent, some at five percent a year, many others nearly that much. Growth at that rate means a city will double in population every 14 years, requiring the equivalent of a whole new city: imagine having to build New York, Washington, or any city in 14 years. That is the reality that many cities of the world have to confront - and they do not know how to do it. The results are disastrous.

Since June 2010, half of the world’s population - 3.5 billion people - has been living in urban areas. And the trend is continuing. The most developed countries are about 80 percent urbanized. We expect to have two billion new urbanites in the next 25 years. That means 80 million every year, more than 50,000 families every day. The world has to build 50,000 dwellings every day, and schools, hospitals, fire stations, administrative buildings, water mains and sewers, roads, trains, buses, metros, and airports to accommodate them. And none of this is happening.

The size of the problem

Fifty thousand dwellings take a lot of land. If we apply American density standards, that would amount to between 1000 to 3000 inhabitants per square mile. Densities of 1000-3000 persons per square mile, however, are not energy efficient or economically viable for many societies, or socially desirable either. Many cities that are growing fast have higher densities because of their histories, their social structures, or their economic capacities. Greater density would produce a more energy-efficient and more economically viable city that could also reach the mass necessary to support an efficient public transportation system. A four-story apartment house with a floor occupancy ratio of 0.4 (a building’s footprint in relation to the entire urban area) will accommodate a population of 40,000 per square mile. If we work toward such a medium-density model, we would need ‘just’ five square miles of new housing per day - five square miles of turn-key urban construction in at least the 600 metropolises with over a million inhabitants that exist today.

We have the manpower, investment capacity, productivity, knowledge, and professional expertise to do this. We do not, however, have the public administrative resources or the means to finance such projects. Even the United States with GDP of nearly $50,000 per capita would find it hard to raise the money needed, and it would be unimaginable for countries with GDPs of, say $5000 per capita. So we have to find the administrative resources and the financial means, and then the urban mechanisms (the planning instruments, the development protocols, and the means of allocation) to deliver the services newly urbanized land needs.

But governments are doing nothing, neither planning for future needs nor providing services to their populations. They say this growth should not be happening and their formula for stopping the growth is not to provide services. Or, they simply deny reality. But it is happening despite them, and with the worst possible results because city administrations are not providing services - they do not know how to provide them in any event - and because they lack the knowledge and the will to raise sufficient funds through taxation or public-private partnerships to attempt a response to the growth of their populations.

The Metropolitan mechanisms

We need mechanisms to manage growth sustainably and rationally. A disjointed incrementalist approach leads to chaos, to cities that grow without containment and structure - slums instead of neighborhoods, cancerous metastasis rather than

 

healthy organic growth.

To provide a healthy structure for growth we must first look at the medium-long term, about 20 years. It does not matter initially if we do not have the money to build the structures and systems we have in mind. What is most important at first is to have something in mind, a plan for each city that will allow us to build according to an individual city’s needs over a period of years depending on the availability of financing.

That is how Latin-American towns were built in the sixteenth century. They began with a rational town plan or map, then infrastructure was added over decades or centuries. It is also how nineteenth-century expansions proceeded, e.g., New York in 1811 and Barcelona in 1864. Infrastructure came generally later, but it was built in the right place when the money and markets permitted.

The other way around - the way it’s happening now - is to let the slums grow and grow, producing an urban fabric very difficult to serve and support. Thus, once the money for the infrastructure is available the cost will be three times more (World Bank calculations) than it is if the urban pattern is organized and rational. To put it differently, you can provide services to three times as much area with a rational urban plan than you can if the slums are allowed to grow.

The structure we can provide is quite simple: as simple as the grid was for the cities of the nineteenth century. But it has to be to on the scale of the twenty-first century cities and problems.

The Metropolitan Plan of Madrid, to which I contributed addressed that problem for Madrid in 1996. It was growing 50% every 20 years, less than the 100% every 14 years that many metropolises are experiencing today. But the problem was nevertheless severe. The main difference is that Madrid was able to produce the investment necessary to build the infrastructure detailed in the Metropolitan Plan: M-45, Metro extension, transversal line, rail access to the airport, location of a new airport, 500,000 new housing units near public transport, logistic freight hubs, leisure parks, and so forth. But that money is not available in the emerging metropolises we are considering.

But that is not the immediate problem. As I said, given a good plan, sooner or later you will have the money to build what is necessary where it needs to be. If not, then you will have a dysfunctional slum at three times the original cost. Madrid set up a regional ‘reticular matrix’ that provided for growth as needed and financed. The matrix was and is based in the interplay of the private and public transport systems, which are in turn the backbone of the mechanisms for growth.

The principle underlying the matrix, like the grid, is quite simple, combining five regional subsystems: transport (‘gray’ infrastructure), environment (‘green’ infrastructure), housing, productive activities (industry, commerce, offices, etc.) and social facilities (education, health, leisure, etc.). The gray and the green infrastructures are continuous and must be carefully coordinated lest their continuity be broken. Once the two systems are bound into a complementary structure, the other three subsystems - housing, production and social facilities - are easier to distribute within the structure since they are not continuous and so allow more flexibility of distribution. These functions can take a more urban scale (1:5000) in contrast with the metropolitan scale (1:50,000). The gross differences of scale require a different type of dimension skills. The Balanced Urban Development unit (BUD) model can be adapted to each municipality within the metropolitan structure, making the process more manageable.

The framework or reticular matrix is based in a simple geographical fact. Metropolises do not form, as Walter Christaller’s Central Place Theory suggests, in a ‘featureless plain’ that produces a homogeneous hexagonal-rank pattern. Metropolises are located at strategic geographical points where two ecosystems meet: land and sea, plain and mountain passage, the crossing of a river - that is, a shift of transport mode is required. The great metropolises like London and New York are the product of transport strategies, incorporating roads, ports, and the means to connect them. The frontier between two ecosystems is mostly linear: coast, mountains, river. The structure of

 

the metropolises is thus more influenced by the linear pattern than by the featureless hexagonal, and thus is a reticulum, or flexible grid.

Based on those principles, Madrid developed the reticular matrix system, and most of the projects undertaken in the next 15 years were based on the proposals from that Plan. The principle is applicable elsewhere and provides a base for sound and sustainable metropolitan growth that responds to public needs and avoids the metastasis of slums. Nairobi, Cairo, Colombian Caribe, and Dar es Salaam are examples of places where proposals and decisions are being made in an approach applying the reticular system.

Conclusion: What should we do? What can we do?

Public administrators should first define and address the problem and accept that we have to provide solutions for it. Part of the problem in the last 20 years has been the denial by governments that they have problems. Convincing them to accept the existence of problems and their responsibility to solve them is a first requirement. The second is to be open to hearing possible solutions, like the ones “political economy” consultants can provide, solutions that will take into account not only the economic constraints but also the political framework and objectives. If those solutions reach those political objectives as well as the general interest objectives, then we will be able to engage those firms to develop the infrastructure-building or transport-management projects that their the proposals rely on. We know local government does not have the money to build the infrastructure and there is a lot to build. We know our public administration cannot manage these infrastructure projects, so we must rely on the private sector to do so. The best ideas and the best-prepared construction and development consultancies will get their confidence and then the work.

The private sector can provide the solutions we are seeking. Global and ambitious firms need to approach the top ranks of decision-makers in the countries and metropolises that need comprehensive solutions. Ambitious firms given, their prestige and past involvement in those places, should have little trouble gaining access to the senior civil servants who might embrace their rational solutions because they address both their infrastructure needs and their political agendas. And this is how the public and the private sectors, in my view, may be able to proceed together.

A lot of work lies ahead of us. Current urbanization trends will continue or accelerate for at least 30 years, and they need an intelligent framework to make them sustainable in financial, environmental, and social terms. It is up to the global transport consultancy and construction firms to provide it.

Pedro B. Ortiz (www.PedroBOrtiz.com) is a metropolitan planner, actually senior independent consultant at the World Bank, consultant for more than 20 years to diverse metropolitan and national governments around the world, author of the Madrid Metropolitan Plan of 1996-2016, and researcher in the Metropolitan Reticular Matrix Planning methodology application in 20 metropolises. He is also the author of The Art of Shaping the Metropolis.

Pedro will be speaking at World Architecture Day 14 in Shanghai this November. More details about the event can be found here.

© Copyright 2012, Pedro B Ortiz. All rights reserved.

All materials, content and graphics, unless stated, are the intellectual property of Pedro B Ortiz and may not be copied, reproduced, distributed or displayed without Pedro B Ortiz's express written permission.

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