A united approach

Urban Life 3 November 2017 Trine Stausgaard Munk

US cities are increasingly inspired by an integrated way of looking at urban planning.

8 mins

A few years ago North American cities began talking about “Copenhagenizing”, and leading magazines like Wired wrote feature articles on how the Danish capital inspired bike lanes and other two-wheel-friendly initiatives in cities like New York, Montreal and Detroit.

Now, experts and researchers point to the fact that US cities are also seeking broader, more general inspiration for urban planning.

“We need to create long-term solutions for our cities,” says Malik Benjamin, an architecture professor at Florida International University.

“If we want to make smart changes and add value, not just in terms of dollars and spreadsheets, but for citizens’ quality of life, we need to move to a more open, transdisciplinary conversation. Holism and public involvement are keywords.”

Malik Benjamin recently visited Copenhagen – as one of the increasing number of American guests on inspiration tours.

“I’m very inspired by the holistic approach to cities that I’ve seen here in Copenhagen,” said Mayor Jeri Muoio of West Palm Beach, Florida, on the same trip.

The right combination of skills

The flow of holistic planning ideas across the Atlantic is not new. For decades the famous Danish architect, Jan Gehl, has been a central figure in the drive to create vibrant, people-centric cities around the world. But collaboration is growing more widespread. Ramboll, for example, has partnered with the City of Copenhagen on exporting Danish solutions, which has led to agreements with US cities like New York and Washington, DC.

In New York it was the combination of Ramboll’s technical hydraulic expertise and its holistic cost-benefit calculations that made the city pick Ramboll to conduct a “Cloudburst Resiliency Planning Study”, according to Alan Cohn, Climate Program Director at The New York City Department of Environmental Protection (NYCDEP).

“Ramboll not only has the water engineering techniques but can also factor them and all the other aspects into the big calculation – and simplify it. Cost-effectiveness means not only the amount of savings in terms of avoided property damage but also the extent to which the new green areas will improve residents’ health and
quality of life,” Alan Cohn explains.

In other words, Ramboll used integrated planning to combine knowledge about hydraulic engineering with New York City’s strategic goal: to become more climate resilient within a socioeconomic context.

Stakeholder involvement

The study provides insight into ways of advancing climate resiliency projects and traditional storm-water solutions that can mitigate inland flooding and accommodate future increases in rainfall intensity by being integrated with on-going urban planning development. Drawing on this insight, Ramboll has now been engaged to take the study a step further and develop a number of pilot projects in the Southeast Queens catchment area.

“In line with the first resiliency study with NYCDEP, focus will be on integrated planning and stakeholder involvement throughout the process,” Trine Stausgaard Munk, Project Manager at Ramboll Water and project lead on the New York studies, explains.

Landscape architecture in-house

In a related project in Washington, DC, Ramboll will assist the Department of Energy and Environment in assessing the effect of flooding from the Potomac River in terms of rising sea level, storm surges and extreme stormwater events. In this case and in New York another decisive factor was that Ramboll has its own experts when it comes to landscape architecture and how urban planning affects people. Ramboll has consolidated its expertise in this field and has set up a ‘Liveable Cities Lab’ in Boston. The Danish company also has projects in Chicago and on the US West Coast, for example, in San Francisco.

The Californian metropolis, which is highly prone to more intense rain and higher tides, has approached Ramboll on three major frameworks for planning services.

A blue seal for a green approach

In 2016 Ramboll’s green approach got a blue seal of approval from independent experts at the National University of Singapore, Zeppelin University in Germany, Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The experts delivered input to a study spearheaded by Ramboll’s Liveable Cities Lab, and revealed the multiple, interrelated benefits associated with blue-green infrastructure: It improves water quality and very effectively controls stormwater and flooding. It increases urban resilience and adaptability to climate change compared to traditional grey infrastructure. It creates enhanced spaces for mental and physical recreation and social activities, thereby also attracting residents, businesses and tourism. At its best, blue-green infrastructure contributes to a city’s symbolic capital.

Written by Michael Rothenborg and Martin Zoffmann.