delivered by H.R.H. the Prince of Orange, Patron of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation
Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,
‘Public space’ is a fairly abstract term. It can be a virtual public domain on the internet but that is not what I mean here. What I mean is physical space, here on the ground. The areas where individuals, families, communities, even masses of people gather; where they go about their business, where they meet for leisure and pleasure and where they move from one place to another. The places where people live when they are not at home: squares, parks, shopping malls, railway stations, and so on. It is this public space that plays a vital role in ensuring quality of life.
All over the world, urban areas are growing faster and faster. More and more people are looking for work and fulfilment in the city. In many countries, large metropolises and their suburbs have grown into enormous, unlivable conglomerations. Big cities have their own dynamism that seems to defy human control. All the more reason to impose control through design.
The design of public space determines how individuals and groups experience and use it. This is the challenge for urban planners and architects. They have to meet people’s need for a place to live and work, and combine it with a shared public space, with easily recognisable orientation points where people can meet socially. What are the assumptions underlying urban planners’ planning processes? How do they perceive and formulate peoples’ needs? And finally, how do people experience the results?
To the Board of the Foundation these are crucial questions because they have to do with the design of a society that aspires to offer a home to many different groups of people. That is why we chose the design of public space in the city as the theme of the Erasmus Prize 2011.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Planning for a sustainable city of the future involves dealing with many unknowns. It requires visionary thinking.
Scientists once feared that by the end of the 19th century European cities would be deep in horse manure. That was their environmental nightmare, and they were convinced that the most pressing concern for urban planners in the 20th century would be how to deal with all that dung. That made perfectly good sense at the time. Horses had dominated commerce and transport for centuries, and as the population and economy grew explosively, it was logical to expect that this problem would loom large. Of course they could not foresee the invention of the combustion engine, which solved the excess manure problem before it happened. Of course, it created new problems of its own…
As Chair of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation (UNSGAB), I would add that human excrement was also a big problem in our cities in those days. It continues to be a problem in much of the developing world. The construction of water and sanitation infrastructure led to a spectacular decrease in mortality and morbidity rates in Western Europe and North America. Sanitation is still recognised as the most important development in medical history.
Access to safe sanitation and the management of wastewater remain essential preconditions for sustainable development. And they are among the greatest challenges facing urban planners around the world today.
Current problems inform the way we build towards a better world. But the future needs of cities will almost certainly be very different from what we are planning for today. Successful solutions to the problems faced by cities need to address current needs and be sufficiently flexible to accommodate technological progress and unexpected changes in human behaviour.
Joan Clos, the executive director of UN-Habitat and a former mayor of Barcelona, often illustrates this point by pointing to the 1811 Commissioner’s plan for Manhattan. Two centuries ago, urban planners had the vision to allow for 35% public space in their designs – and that in a world without any need for or knowledge of large transport infrastructure. That is what I call Vision with a capital V. It also teaches us that master plans should not be over-detailed. The planning horizons extend too far for us to know exactly what will happen in the future.
Manhattan today is blessed by the vision of the 1811 Commissioner. The contrast with the one per cent public space in the developing world’s expanding, unplanned urban slums couldn’t be greater. It illustrates just what urban planners have to deal with. We all need some room to manoeuvre, room for human development.
Obvious as it may seem, city planning has many different faces. Much depends on the economic situation. You cannot compare urbanisation in South America and Asia with urbanisation in Europe.
In the western world, urban planning has run into some heavy weather. Until recently, detailed urban growth plans were taken for granted. But because of the economic crisis, urban development is no longer what it used to be. We have been forced to rethink how we should shape and improve the built environment. So urban planning is under stress and has to re-invent itself. This applies to the way work is commissioned, and to the relationships between stakeholders in decision-making on both architectural and urban issues. Amidst these changes, urban planners have to manoeuvre carefully, adapting flexibly to new circumstances.
Professor Busquets, I should now like to focus more closely on your work, and the reasons why our Foundation decided to award you the Erasmus Prize.
In your view an urban planner should work on a project with an open mind, not with a fixed idea in his head. To you, this is not some politically correct statement, but a matter of principle. Urban designers are often tempted to start the planning process by visualising the end product – how a railway station or a city square should ideally look. Such plans may be easily frustrated by new developments, by unforeseen practical obstacles, and by lack of funds.
Your approach is different. You hold the deep-rooted conviction that the urban design process should be non-dogmatic and leave room for future adaptations. One cannot and should not make rigid long-term plans for a project that is likely to undergo unpredictable changes along the way. In the view of our Foundation, it is this non-dogmatic approach to town planning and architecture that can set an example and help the discipline move forward.
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is typical of Professor Busquets to base his work on solid historical analysis and in-depth research of the environment in the broadest sense of the word. The first stage of any project is a thorough analysis of all its aspects: historical, sociological and morphological, the role of water, street patterns and technical factors. Professor Busquets calls this process ‘reading’ the city in different layers.
Once every aspect of an urban planning project has been analysed, he re-interprets the assignment. His solutions are based on this broad analysis and so are always rooted in the historical environment. What others would call an urban design, Professor Busquets prefers to see as constructing a programme for the city.
It is also this aspect of his work – high-level analysis of the different layers of a city – which he shares with his students. This is visible in his publications. An example is his book on New Orleans, entitled New Orleans, strategies for a city in soft land. The workshops with students at Harvard were held before Katrina. The book was finished after the disaster, and gained much more relevance.
I could say a lot more about Professor Busquets’ method of creating programmes for cities. Besides research, two other basic elements of his work are strategy and action. A typical example is mediating between the parties involved in a project. By listening to peoples’ own views about a space and presenting them with a range of different solutions, he manages to secure their commitment to the design process.
For example, in 2007 the Stadgenoot housing association in Amsterdam asked Professor Busquets to improve and condense an existing area round Amstel station and Wibautstraat – the Parool triangle – by adding new apartments, offices and other facilities. He held several workshops where he presented various ideas and a wide range of possible solutions. By involving the client and other interest groups he started a form of interaction that proved crucial to achieving consensus. By being flexible and adapting his plans time and again, he made all the parties concerned feel that their views were being heard and taken into account.
He was convinced that, in this way, the discussion between client and stakeholders would ultimately yield results. He adopted a similar approach to a new design for the old city centre of Toulouse. Professor Busquets’ idea of creating an octagon with green links between squares and boulevards became a topic of discussion well before the plans were executed.
Professor Busquets, your work started with projects in Barcelona. These projects have become exemplary of your work and have drawn much attention internationally. Despite the modest size of your office and staff, your oeuvre has grown steadily with assignments all over the world. You have been involved in such diverse projects as new metropolitan centres, reconstructions of old and neglected city centres, development of infrastructure, waterfronts, port areas, residential districts and individual buildings – too many to be mentioned here.
Many of your projects have been in the Netherlands, where your approach to urban planning has been appreciated for years. You have worked in The Hague, Rotterdam, Delft, Helmond and other Dutch cities. Now, your work can be seen in Europe, the US and China, and we expect to see even more of it in the years to come. Your work appeals not only to professionals, colleagues who admire your consistent approach, but also to non-professionals, ordinary members of the public. Your presentations show how urban spaces are structured, how they can be manipulated and how such interventions – sometimes small, sometimes substantial – can bring about a great change for the better.