Saturday, May 5, 2012

Technical, Social, and Scientific Planning

I feel Tartu city planning lacks a social dimension. The ideas and decisions are  dominated by technical requirements and standards while city as a human environment fills rather little in the debate. One of the main purposes of planning should be to improve the city as a living environment. We should aim toward making the streets, parks and squares better places for being. I agree that technical standards are part of the solution. But they are not the purpose of it. I would like to see a lot more focus on the human well-being in related debate.

Riia tn, Tartu 
Riia Street in the inner city.  This 4-6 lane way essentially splits the downtown into two separate parts.

I have my own understanding about what makes a livable city. To put  it briefly, it is pedestrian-friendliness. In particular, the city should be compact. The streets should be narrow enough to be easy to cross and the sidewalks sufficiently wide to make it convenient to walk with children.

I agree that these are just my preferences, and in a democratic process they should weight no more than those of the others'. However, it is perfectly feasible to study the impact of traffic speed, or street size on "livability" of a city. Obviously, the results may look different depending on what kind of urban environment one prefers, but all this can be analyzed. This means that when making adjustments in traffic, like opening Lai street for two-way driving, or choosing the location for a new building, the planners should consider the impact on the life on streets. It is all right to calculate the optimal placement of sewers or impact on traffic jams, but how do these decisions impact people on street must be discussed and analyzed as well. Even more, I am sure similar ideas have been extensively studied, and a lot is known about what makes an urban environment a comfortable place.

Unfortunately, in Tartu the technical and human planning are going on their rather different tracks. I have the impression that when doing more important (and expensive) decisions like the new Vabaduse bridge, or currently the Eastern Beltway, no one cares what it means for the human environment. There was only a little discussion before constructing the Vabaduse bridge (and it was largely ignored anyway),  I have not seen any debate about the Eastern Beltway. At the cheap end, opening Lai street for two-way traffic was not accompanied by corresponding analyzes either. All these examples include calculations from the motorized transport point of view, such as placement of traffic lights or the suitability of the bridges for river boats. But little arguments were voiced about the social side of the project. For instance, my impression is that by replacing the former pedestrian Raudsild bridge with the current 3-lane Vabaduse bridge, one made it virtually impossible to merge the dense human-scale environment in the old town with the Konsum and Economicum area on the other side of the river. The new street crossings are too inconvenient, and the wide lanes makes the bridge to a traffic corridor which we try to pass as fast as possible. I stress here that this does not mean the decision was necessarily incorrect but I strongly dislike the fact that this kind of impact was neither analyzed nor discussed. Human behavior is predictable to a certain degree. The methodology to assess it exists and is widely available.  This kind of analyzes are necessary when planning a city.

In conclusion, I feel Tartu city should strengthen their educated planning team and devote a lot more focus on the human side of the urban environment.

This posting is largely inspired by a discussion with Mikk Pärdi.