Where a city breathes

Some of the world’s iconic town centres offer lessons in creating compact, diverse and walkable community areasImage Credit: Supplied

Given that a large part of governance relates to the business of running cities, it’s not surprising that the Government Summit in Dubai, held from February 9-11, reiterated some fundamental urban planning principles. A  key feature of creating better quality, vibrant and sustainable urban communities is going back to the basics designing cities around humans by developing diverse and walkable communities.

The impact of an urban community or city often lies in the experience and image of its town centre or centres. These have always been designed to be the single most frequented public place for congregation, commerce, recreation, tourism and political activity. This makes town centres the focus or starting point for re-envisioning a compact and enjoyable urban lifestyle.

Centres of variety

Commonly a balanced combination of landmark structures and open spaces, town centres are varied and diverse. Add the dimension of human occupation over time, and their uniqueness becomes more pronounced.

There are various individual contexts and layers of human activity that impart distinct characteristics to such areas. Observing some world-famous centres offers insights into what makes them the beating hearts of their communities.

Paris congregates at the grand Place De La Concorde or the Jardin du Champ-De-Mars, to name a few places, while the spirit of Berlin resonates loudest at Pariser Platz, Potsdamer Platz and Alexanderplatz. The heart of Stockholm lies in Gamla Stan (Old Town), the buzzing central square of Sergels torg and Norrmalmstorg. Variety is essential for a city.

Of the features that lend town centres their distinctiveness, architecture is foremost. For instance, Prague’s historic Old Town Square is dominated by the Church of Our Lady before Týn and the town hall famed for the Prague astronomical clock, the oldest one in the world that’s still functional. Likewise, the imposing neoclassical green-domed Helsinki Cathedral towers over the city’s Senate Square, while the Burj Khalifa is the central attraction of Downtown Dubai and the emirate.

Visual representations of some of the world’s most famous cities have often been synonymous with imposing structures, such as Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, a symbol of Germany’s turbulent history and European unity, the Eiffel Tower in Paris or Merlion in Sentosa, Singapore. But the most crucial aspect of a town centre, along with its aesthetic value, is its space, where people can gather for recreational or cultural purposes.

Trafalgar Square in London is one of the most popular town centres. Madrid’s versatile Plaza Mayor, which once saw bullfights, markets, symphonies, soccer games and executions, now hosts religious celebrations, while Helsinki’s Esplanadi and Oslo’s Eidsvolls Plass are common venues for family picnics and live performances. Town centres are the cities’ breathing spaces.

Replicating success

Complementing land use and built form is transport planning. Getting people to nodal centres efficiently and comfortably is key to their success. Great town centres are now linked with efficient, high-capacity public transportation, with limited access for private vehicles —an eco-friendly move.

Redeveloping existing town centres and planning new ones should draw inspiration from successful examples globally. Exceptional architecture, landmark monuments, landscaped open spaces, traditional markets, pedestrian comfort and safety, cycle access and parking, public transportation, events and performances and eyecatching lighting are important considerations in towncentre planning.

Bold architecture can truly epitomise a new city centre, as demonstrated by the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The emirate offers a great blend of historic context and New-Age grandeur to its districts — from souqs to multiple master-planned communities with a variety of activity centres, including high-activity malls and beaches. Each such  community is a small-scale town centre in its own right, making the concept of compact, diverse and walkable communities even more relevant to Dubai.

While Downtown Dubai, with its expansive and vibrant public space, has emerged as the main town centre, there could be opportunities to create more openspace oriented, pedestrianfriendly town centres. These will reinforce its popularity as a tourist destination and highly liveable city.

Planning a successful town centre must encompass a holistic, multidisciplinary approach that takes into account economic feasibility, financing, demographics, historical context, sustainability, the environment and micro-climate, urban and transport planning features, architecture, utilities, tourism potential and more depending on the area and project. But what makes a town centre iconic is a bold vision grounded in history, culture, pedestrian-friendliness and the desire to build a progressive community.

Source: Rupak Chatterjee, Special to PW


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