The Transformation of our City:
03 - Quality Urban Greenery

30-11-2020

Have you heard of the traditional Japanese practice called Forest Bathing? It means to immerse oneself in nature by mindfully using all five senses. I am relating to this as another example of how traditional Eastern philosophy has got it right on a very basic level. This practice shows the understanding that engaging with nature and green environments has a therapeutic effect on human health. Quality urban green spaces have been celebrated during the months of lockdown as possibly the only aspects of our city we were still able to enjoy uninhibitedly. The scientific evidence that spending time in nature has multiple benefits for people mentally and physically is indisputable and saves the NHS millions of pounds each year.

While human beings have a natural, unconscious desire to be in nature, the disconnect enhanced by city living, makes us forget our origin and our place in nature. It lets us forget about nature as our mother Earth that feeds and sustains us on a very basic yet fundamental level altogether.

We are blessed with a number of fantastic public parks. Bute Park located right in the heart of the city adds to the unique quality of Cardiff. As the city grows in density, we need more quality green spaces not only for human benefit and air quality but to increase biodiversity and carbon sequestration. The council's OnePlanetCardiff strategy pledges to increase tree cover from a current 19% to 25% by 2030 [1] without being specific about earmarked locations. So while we await more detail, I would like to zoom in on some initial suggestions on how to increase the areas of green coverage and biodiversity in Cardiff.

Green Roofs and Rooftop Gardens
When working in Capital Tower in the heart of Central Cardiff, I used to look over the rooftops stretching into the distance in all four directions. I would often wonder about the potential for the installation of green roofs. I acknowledge, there are different grades of green roofs and the myth of the forever leaking flat roof does still haunt some of our clients but buildings with green roofs do benefit from improved insulation values. There is also the added bonus of green roofs acting as rainwater retention systems that can contribute to controlling city climate.
As well as increased biodiversity and quality of life for inner city dwellers, we would have the opportunity for growing food for personal consumption and keeping bees on rooftops. I know that may sound a bit out there but urban beekeeping really is a thing. [2]

Green Urban Pockets
We need to find locations for more greenery, there is no arguing about it. These could be as big as the footprint of a building or as small as a car parking space. Both can lead to a green oasis that emerges from a vacant site. I appreciate the challenge of coming across suitable sites owned by the council because I would think that there are very few private owners generous enough to make their plot available for non-commercial use; but a few is all we would need.   

A brilliant example of this approach, and privately owned, is the well-known Paley Park, Manhattan. This tiny urban pocket merely occupies 390m², accommodates small trees, plenty of moveable tables and chairs as well as a water feature that provides some background noise. This well studied public space is considered one of the world's best urban parks.

 

 

 

 

 

A handful of city centre sites I have identified with a potential to becoming green urban pockets, purely based on my observation of use, access and location are Frederick Street, The Friary and Cathedral Walk (behind M&S). I believe, upgraded in the right way, those spots could enjoy popularity similar to St. John's Garden outside The Old Library.

Upgrading Existing Green Spaces
Some parks located in deprived residential areas adjacent to the city centre are of poor quality. They're sometimes merely a patch of grass and lack any trees and attention. Partially this is the case where vandalism and crime might be an inhibitor to investment. Community involvement in upgrading these areas might be one solution to that problem. A successful transferable example could be the planting of tiny woods or Miyawaki Forests. These densely planted woods are created by the hands of local volunteers and have worldwide ambassadors. The Netherlands is leading by example and has planted around 100 tiny forests since 2010 and we do now have some examples of this Japanese methodology being used in the UK through the work of Earthwatch Europe.

Greener Roads
I am certain Cardiff has ambitions similar to UK cities such as London, Oxford and Bristol who are working towards largely excluding car traffic from the city centre, mainly to improve air quality by encouraging public and active transport.

While genuine reductions in car usage are some way off, permanent road closures to car traffic will, for the time being, be realistic. We can start by thinking about how to make our streets smarter. Let's once again go back to Lennon's 'Image' - introducing trees and greenery to more of our streets. To gain space for greening the streets, we could introduce one way systems or reduce the width of roads with the effect of calming the traffic etc. In some parts of the city this is happening already, including the proposed interventions for Wellfield Road that is to be turned into a one way road with one side of the pavement widened and permanent trees being planted.

The innovative initiative of 'Greener Grangetown' [4] introduced 135 new trees and greenery into the community, all associated with retrofitting a selection of streets near the river bank with a sustainable drainage system (SuDs). The resulting new green beds, rain gardens and tree pits are absolutely wonderful throughout all seasons and a pleasure to discover and explore. There is talk about the scheme being rolled out across other suitable parts of Cardiff as well which sounds positive.

 

During my research I came across a quite similar approach, the San Francisco 'Pavement to Parks' program where street parking spots are turned into parklets. What a refreshing thought. I wasn't even familiar with the word parklet: a small low budget intervention like landscaping and/or street furniture that converts a piece of tarmac into a tiny park adding to usable pedestrian space. Maybe this could be a simplified Greener Grangetown concept that can be applied to Cardiff's residential streets (without the integration of drainage to the nearby Taff). A more bold approach, is being taken in Barcelona: The local council is taking forward a scheme where every third street of (a number of) residential city blocks is being closed for vehicular traffic and turned into a park.

It seems that with creative thinking and gumption, interesting things are possible. I think we are presented with an exciting future opportunity for obsolete roads to be turned into more green spaces, outdoor activity centres, small new woods, cycle parks, play grounds, gathering spaces etc. Let's make our cities about people not about cars.


We started with the benefit of green spaces for human well being. We understand that additional green coverage will help with carbon capture and improve air quality.

I'd like to conclude with a quote from David Attenborough's latest book that emphasises the importance of creating more, better quality greenery in our city in order to increase biodiversity: 'To restore stability to our planet, we must restore its biodiversity, the very thing we have removed. It is the only way out of this crisis that we ourselves have created.' [7]

If maximising biodiversity is key to the sustainability of our city then let's also take into consideration our river edges. Some might say the Taff's river edges are commercially underutilised but maybe we want to keep it that way. Indeed, we want to preserve them and their biodiversity and even strategically enhance them with more greenery. The eastern river bank between Cardiff Central station and Cardiff Bay is a long stretch that would greatly benefit from rewilding and the widening of green edges.

However, this being a run-down industrial estate you can already imagine the appetite for new construction spilling over from Central Quay and the Cardiff and Vale College. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if you told me such master plans were already approved by the council. Scenarios like this feel like important junctures. Are we going to take on this opportunity and revive the river edge's biodiversity by creating park-like landscaping that weaves together different parts of Cardiff and can be enjoyed by all, plants, animals and humans? Or not.

Cycling along that green river edge sounds a wonderful thing to me.

Romy Franke
Associate Architect
Gaunt Francis Architects

[1] - https://www.oneplanetcardiff.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/OPC%20vision%20document%202020%20ENGLISH.pdf
[2] - https://www.flowmagazine.com/flow-magazine/as-seen-in-flow/urban-beekeeping.html
    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-38227113
[3] - https://www.outdoorproject.com/united-states/new-york/paley-park
[4] - https://greenergrangetown.wordpress.com/
[5] - https://twitter.com/gwcarpenter/status/1330532706971742211/photo/1
[6] - https://twitter.com/jen_keesmaat/status/1330155392538730500/photo/1
[7] – David Attenborough, A Life on Our Planet, p.121

The Transformation of our City:

02 - Shared Spaces and Shared Values

23-11-2020

 

The city centre is a stage. We all love to indulge in people watching, seeing all kinds of colourful characters. People like being where other people are. The majority don't want to be tucked away in their homes but go out to socialise, find entertainment, relax, connect and enjoy culture. Let's remind ourselves, a sustainable city is also one, where people actually like living!

 

Populating Cardiff's CBD by offering attractive city accommodation is one aspect of reviving our slowly deteriorating shopping high street. But to keep the city centre alive, we need to consider and give people new reasons to come back into city centres other than be drawn to the gradually disappearing retail magnets.

 

People want to consume and be entertained in new ways. Cultivating a sustainable lifestyle promotes the mindset of 'Less is More': I know, not everyone is going to adopt this philosophy, but to me it means less shopping for consumer products. A growing number of people do instead want to spend their money on experiences, preferably local experiences. In an interview with the RIBA, Martyn Ware suggested that the future of cities is experiential and communal, not retail based. [1] Do you find yourself agreeing with that? What would it mean for you?

 

We need to see our city centre become the location for new leisure and recreation facilities, such as free outdoor live events, outdoor cinemas, pop-up stages, theatres, as well as opportunities for young people to engage in street art, music workshops etc. Cardiff Bay does some of this very well already. The oversailing roof of the Sennedd is a fantastic place to stage a live band with plenty of integrated seating right in front of it. However, I don't think the city centre currently has many well-designed outdoor spaces that could host such activities. Can you think of a space that would be suitable? Is there an exciting opportunity for town planners and landscape architects here? 

 

We are looking for well functioning gathering spaces that invite us to leave the save haven of our homes and enter the realm of the city, urban squares that are well connected with each other and within the urban grid. They need to be designed at the right scale, provide plenty of flexibility, seating, edges, maybe soundscapes, water features and so on. We also want to bear this in mind: Not only kids and teens like to hang out and enjoy urban spaces but we need to create spaces that are attractive to grown ups as well. Abundance of successful examples exist and have been studied around the UK and beyond.

Image source [2] : Granary Square, London by Townshend Landscape Architects: are some of its features transferable to Cardiff?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image source [3] : Simple urban interventions creating gathering space. La Banc De Neige, Quebec by Atelier Pierre Thibault

Image source [4] : Creating active leisure scapes in restricted urban settings. Red Planet, Shanghai by 100architects.

Is Cardiff lacking its city square?

Quite a big question that may cause some commotion but I found myself thinking: I'd like to take my daughter for a walk into town this afternoon. Where could we go? Where can we both hang out and feel comfortable, have fun, relax and play together as well as feel safe and feel part of the city? Cardiff Bay springs to mind but for the city centre I fail to be drawn to a particular space that fits my spec list. Please, can you help me here? Am I missing something? Is Cardiff lacking its city square?

 

Central Quay

The new development of Central Quay promises a total of three new urban squares of different scale, once completed. This exciting scheme, creating a whole new city block, also engages with the river edge. I very much hope, that when it comes to detailing and executing the outdoor spaces, they will have been considered with the same level of thoughtfulness, as the integration of the retained historic Brains brewery features were considered. CGIs we have seen suggest there will be plenty of greenery and seating, seating, seating that will invite and encourage pedestrians to linger, stop and gather.

 

Callaghan Square

Let's think about other urban spaces with potential: For example, what does the future hold in store for places like Callaghan Square? At the moment it is underutilised because it is difficult to get to. With improved connectivity this could be a skate park? A gathering space for small outdoor gigs? A market? An ice ring in the winter? A beach? A place allocated to the clubbing scene? What to do with this space that seems to be receiving so little attention and love? It is such a big space and it is not working. We first must identify why that is the case. I am sure, you have already had some thoughts on this! 

 

Castle Street

With great curiosity, I watch the alterations being made to Castle Street. I find it such a shame that the city's own castle is separated from the city by this dominant strip of tarmac. With the right interventions, Castle Street could not only be car-free but it carries the potential to be transformed into an urban square that acts as the green gateway into our castle. Many people will prefer the convenience of driving into the centre via Castle Street but these days are over as the council has recently restricted vehicular access to buses and taxis. I carry on dreaming of trees, hard and soft landscaping. A gathering space right in the heart of Cardiff. Many people already gather just outside the castle walls so why not extend the green across the street and connect it with the building fabric of the city.

Image source [5] : The green in front of the castle walls are a popular spot to hang out on Castle Street .

Castle Grounds

This year's relocation of the Christmas market inside the castle grounds may help to remind people of this fantastic public space that is often forgotten about. Especially during the warmer months this tranquil oasis is a great spot to relax, meet friends or sunbath. The council seems to be making efforts to promote better use of this unique backdrop by the locals who have free access to the grounds. Maybe, this is where I should have taken my daughter to play.

 

What other functions can we create to bring people into the city? Cardiff council is engaged in revamping one of Cardiff’s main tourist attractions, the indoor market into a 'sustainable and local food market'.[6] Proposals include the introduction of new functions, like a pop-up live music venue and revised opening hours that embrace leisure activities.

 

The opportunity that lies in enhancing and creating new public gathering spaces in Cardiff is not only in building a resilient, creative city centre but also in attending to another predicament our population is facing: loneliness and isolation. If we can design for sustainable connectedness of our city infrastructure we can help and enable social connectedness as well. Transforming Cardiff into a sustainable city, that offers a vastly improved way of living for all, represents a shift in mindset of building our urban environments for people not for cars and profit.

 

Romy Franke

Associate Architect

Gaunt Francis Architects

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v1rVYKdgzCs&t=835s

[2] http://landezine.com/index.php/2014/03/granary-square-townshend-landscape-architects/

[3] https://www.archdaily.pe/pe/805345/le-banc-de-neige-atelier-pierre-thibault

[4] https://100architects.com/project/the-red-planet/

[5] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cardiff_Castle_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1247290.jpg

[6] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-54513348

The Transformation of our City:

01 - Increased Density for Sustainability

15-11-2020

 

 

I have lived in the UK for two decades and still haven't figured this one out: Sometimes when I walk through the city I am aware of how few people live in the city centre. What's missing here? Why can most European cities achieve this and make it work so well and Cardiff fails to do so? Does owning a city apartment not appeal? Is it because in the UK we like to separate our work life, leisure and retail facilities from our homes? With the current (Covid) situation, these strong boundaries have become more permeable and blurred. We find ourselves working from home, schooling our children from home, exercising from home etc.

 

I grew up in Germany where it is common and highly sought after, to live in a city apartment located above commercial units along shopping high streets, overlooking market squares and city parks. Is there a big opportunity to tap into the currently underutilised residential potential of Cardiff's city centre in a similar way? Just think about all the space above retail units along Queen Street, Castle Street, St. Mary's Street, Cowbridge Road East. Surely, all that space cannot be used for storage above the shops alone? The recent, purpose built St David's 2 residential development that incorporates a shared garden space, was received with great popularity and has started to transform people's perception of living in the heart of our city. Rightacres' Central Quay development promises to bring more contemporary living accommodation to Cardiff's CBD.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image source [1] : New urban living at Rightacres' Central Quay Development

Predictions suggest that the South Wales belt of urban areas, especially so Cardiff, will double its population by 2050. This reality calls for innovative ways of increasing housing stock not through unsustainable urban sprawl but new models of living within the existing footprint of our cities. We need our infrastructure, including housing to be built more densely to future proof and accommodate the ever increasing number of people living in cities.

 

What we're saying here is: to be sustainable, effectively, more people need to occupy less space. OK – but there's a dilemma as I also believe that we need to review and innovate the current standard space recommendations to ensure most apartments and even houses are designed to be more spacious than they currently are. As we are moving towards a new, sustainable life style where our homes take on functions beyond the family hub for relaxing, eating and sleeping, we need to consider more flexible space requirements. In mainland Europe, generally speaking, people occupy housing that is more generously laid out. So, how do we resolve this conundrum? How can planners, architects and developers balance sustainable density and attractive residential unit sizes? Here are some initial suggestions for providing more city centre housing. I'd be interested to hear your reactions and alternative ideas -

 

Opportunity 01

As I outlined earlier, creating more residential use above retail units along our shopping streets plus the provision of associated infrastructure, would be one idea to increase city density.

 

Opportunity 02

The full Covid-19 impact on our economy is not clear at this stage but it surely has contributed to the downward spiral of our high streets. There will be a few retail and office based businesses that will not be reopening their doors. This may present the opportunity to review the use for some properties left vacant in the city centre. Can we create more shared, flexible workspaces? Can we transform them into residential units?

 

Opportunity 03

Inner city living, as it exists at the moment, tends to be attractive to young people and students. These are the groups that seek out and desire the most social contact and are generally happy with less living space. The trend for the city centre housing market is indeed in the provision of one and two bed residential units. But, to make the city centre truly sustainable, we need to design for mixed demographic groups to exist next to each other. A mixed use of services within the block of a city will ensure walkability. A mixed use of demographic groups will help sociability. Besides a variety of residential unit sizes, what's currently missing for this to happen are infrastructures such as recreational spaces and places of education in the city centre. Why not transform an obsolete office building into an inner city school?

 

Opportunity 04

Fortunately, not every square metre of the city centre has been built on which puts Cardiff in a good position to increase its density. There are inner city sites still available with the opportunity to build high rise, zero carbon housing. These are dotted all over the place and one that stands out due to its scale and current use is – you've guessed it: the prison which is in the ownership of the council.

 

I do believe, providing more attractive living accommodation within Cardiff's city centre could just be one answer to building a sustainable city as long as we attend to the quandary of constructing flexible, generous housing units whilst at the same time building the infrastructure more densely. This solution works two-fold as it also helps by bumping up the number of people spending time in the city centre. When I walked down Cardiff's shopping street straight after the end of lockdown it didn't look like it was lacking people but we all know the high street has been suffering in the recent years. We now need to draw people into the centre for reasons other than a trip to Primark.

 

[1] https://aasarchitecture.com/2018/03/central-quay-cardiff-benoy.html/

 

Romy Franke

Associate Architect

Gaunt Francis Architects

The Transformation of our City:

00 - Imagine a Collaboration towards Carbon Zero

08-11-2020

 

John Lennon said: Imagine. I encourage you to follow his invite and imagine the creation of our future being collaborative rather than competitive, holistic rather than everyone on their own. Imagine breaking down political barriers and obstacles and for our profession to closely work with policy makers towards a green future for Cardiff. Imagine operating on new paradigms in the architectural world, to transform our city in such a way that helps tackling the unprecedented challenge climate change represents in human history.

 

This autumn, Cardiff's council leader Huw Thomas made a brave and aspirational statement referring to the revised One Planet Cardiff paper. Wales does have a reputation for pushing boundaries and leading the way in the creation of a better future for its people. Quite a claim I know, but let's remember that in 2008 it was the world's first country to become a Fair Trade Nation. Wales was also the first country of the UK to declare Climate Emergency. Now, once again, Cardiff wants to be in the vanguard by making the operation of its entire public sector carbon neutral within a decade. In fact, the leader ‘urges businesses and the public to work with them to ensure the city as a whole ends its contribution to global warming by 2030’.[1]

 

2020s Coronavirus has brought the world to a halt and we are all desperate to see the back of this challenging time. But is there anything that we can gain from the last few months in lockdown? For me, two positive things come out of the pandemic. Firstly, we have demonstrated and reminded ourselves that the human race is able to adapt drastically, at large scale and in a very short space of time. We need to. It is now reasonable to say that we have a narrow window of opportunity to save our planet in its habitable form. Secondly, for me, this time of slowing down has provided an opportunity for reflection on how we live our lives and how we can get our house in order.

 

It feels like climate scientists and activists have for years been shouting that this is the most crucial year for getting our economy and society on track towards green growth with no more time to waste. This warning now really seems to be resonating. It was with some surprise that I heard about UK major businesses including Iceland Foods, Barratt Developments and The Body Shop, calling on our government for a 'green economic recovery'.[2]

 

My time in lockdown has led me to imagine Cardiff as a city that is sustainable, green, and forward thinking. What about you? What do you think Cardiff could look like in ten, twenty, thirty years? How does the city's infrastructure need to be adapted? How is the city going to survive the disastrous shut-down of some parts of our economy through Covid?

 

The way we build our future city needs to be a reflection of the kind of society we want to live in; how we engage with one another; live, play and work with each other. Many resources suggest that by 2050, 70 percent of the world's population will be living in cities and in the UK, Cardiff is said to be one of the fasted growing cities.[3]  Cardiff's growth could take many directions and which we choose will be a key driver for the success of preventing climate change.

 

Just like a natural ecosystem, there is a complexity to a city that works in many layers. All these layers need to be assessed for sustainability in their own right but also in context with each other. As professionals of the built environment, there are a number of city infrastructures that we directly impact, and others that we indirectly influence with our decisions and projects.

 

The intention of my writing is not to offer simple solutions to highly complex challenges but rather to ask questions that need to be asked. I don't know about you but I admit to suffering with climate change anxiety and experiencing many moments of feeling overwhelmed. Since becoming a parent, I feel a heightened responsibility for doing everything within my power to help address the climate crisis. I am not here to criticise all those things that our profession or our city is struggling to deal with but what I am interested in, is a conversation and exploration of what might be possible within the framework of the City of Cardiff.

 

To be frank, I am not aware of everything the Welsh Government/Cardiff Council are already doing but one thing I truly believe is that there needs to be a novel willingness to learn, work and co-create with each other harmoniously and innovatively in order to correct the course of our climate crisis.

 

These days I make a conscious effort to look for positive, hopeful change. I have my antennas attuned to feel good news. The more I look around, the more promising, exciting changes I see instigated by the Welsh Government and Cardiff Council. However, I feel all the action needs to be scaled up so we can succeed on this quest. I am asking myself, is there a way for our profession to help and accelerate the progress of turning Cardiff into a sustainable city through a collaboration with the council to pull towards zero carbon together?

 

Design Circle has given me the opportunity to share my thoughts and exploration of this topic in a number of articles on your website. Over the next few weeks I will be looking at some related areas in more detail. I am really interested in making this a dialogue rather than a diatribe so I'd love to receive thoughts, comments, reactions and ideas.

 

Romy Franke

Associate Architect

Gaunt Francis Architects, Cardiff

 

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-54513348

[2]  https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-52580291

[3]  https://www.cardiff.gov.uk/ENG/Business/Support-and-Finance-for-Business/Pages/Locating-in-Cardiff.aspx

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