Why transport projects must make cities more liveable

We have to be more mindful of how projects can benefit the larger cause of city renewal or improvement and in particular, the opportunities and benefits it can bring to the urban environment in terms of liveability, rather than focusing purely on the impact that has to be mitigated.

Top photo: The Shanghai Bund project created a new public space in the city

Etty Padmodipoetro and Camilla Ween


The world is in an unprecedented period of urbanization, ever since the first cities emerged about 9,000 years ago. Within just over a decade the total number of megacities will grow from 26 to 37. Cities will inevitably become denser and homes are likely to be smaller, so there will be growing pressure on public areas to provide the space for social interaction; this space will need to be accessible and socially inclusive for all members of the community. Many cities inevitably have dysfunctional areas created through rapid unplanned growth, past infrastructure interventions or changes in land use and big infrastructure projects create the opportunity to put right some of the disfigurement of the city. But delivering a high quality public realm, that responds to social conditions and climate change issues, and is resilient to changing circumstance, should be at the centre of any mega project.

The opportunity to undertake such infrastructure changes only comes along every few generations and often a century will go by before any such projects are considered. That is why it is so important to keep liveability at the core of major infrastructure projects.

The Central Artery, Boston

The Central Artery project in the US city of Boston is an example of how not to do it. It is the most expensive transport project the United States has undertaken, costing US$14.8 billion. The Central Artery was an elevated viaduct carrying Interstate Highway 93, which bisected the centre of Boston-a much too common legacy of 20th century transport planners in cities across the US and the rest of the world. The traffic it carried had the effect of choking the downtown area and severing the city from the waterfront. The project included the construction of a north-south tunnel (I-93) to replace the old elevated Central Artery, and an east-west tunnel (I-90), as well as associated roadways and ramps. The project’s heart was in the right place–it was driven by the ultimate goal of city renewal and to undo the ‘progress’ of the original misguided 1960’s notion of creating the ‘city of the future’. Many good things were created, but the key opportunity to improve the livability of the city and give streets back to people was missed. So much more could have been delivered if the Boston Big Dig project had been more people-centric.

Its shortcoming was that its focus was narrowly restricted to transport; specifically, it was a vehicle-oriented project. The measure of success was judged mainly by its ability to move traffic expediently. Also public benefit was seen as project mitigation-costs that the project had to absorb in order to gain consent. There was much pressure to move the project forward with the minimum amount of ‘give’ or mitigations, to keep costs down. Furthermore, the drive to depress the viaduct structure led to several megalithic new highway infrastructures just beyond the new tunnels, designed with traffic rather than people in mind, which created another set of problems. In order to depress the Central Artery in the very limited area in downtown proper, the alignment of the highway had to be ‘straightened’ as it entered the tunnel; this re-engineering failed to question the impact on the urban fabric and resulted in complicated spaghetti-like highway interchanges just outside the downtown area, the South Bay Interchange and the North of Causeway Interchange, and a sea of viaducts. It was highway planning on steroids. In many ways the problems were just shifted to other neighbourhoods, severing them and compromising the future of the city.

The Central Artery project would have been a great opportunity to redefine the meaning of an urban highway. But the project did not challenge the existing rules for traffic and highway design or explore the common wisdom of shared use, cycle accessibility, true pedestrian connectivity or public space integration. Instead, the engineers displaced the highway to the hinterland. This is a mistake that should not have happened. Had the concept of high quality public realm been considered as part of its core mission, the solution could have been infinitely more sensitive and delivered new spaces for people.

The Central Artery Tunnel, Boston

The Bund, Shanghai

An example of how to add a high-quality public realm as part of delivering better mobility is the redevelopment of the Shanghai Bund district in China. The Bund district had grown in the 19th century in response to the shipping activity on the Huangpu River and the wealth that flowed from this trade, but in the 20th century, the fine 19th century buildings had been cut off from their river frontage by an ugly elevated highway. The city planners seized the opportunity to reinvent this part of their city in time for the 2010 Expo. The initial objective was to remove the eyesore of the elevated highway but the scope of project was widened to include a major new public realm project. A competition to replan the area was won by US-based architect Alex Kreiger.

With spectacular efficiency, the city removed the highway and buried the traffic in tunnels below and created a human-scale surface street and a new boardwalk along the river with pocket parks along its length. The new surface street provides crossings for pedestrians and integrates the local street network. Above all, the project has created a magnificent setting for the historic buildings and created a new public space in the city. It is remarkable that such a large-scale urban transformation could be conceived and delivered within four years; a time frame that is inconceivable in the West. The results are a testament to Chinese determination, values and project management skills. Clearly, having political backing opens most doors in China, but the important thing to recognize is that the promoters of the project saw the engineering project as a major opportunity for sensitive urban renewal.

Crossrail, London

London’s Crossrail project is an example of how community engagement can create more livable areas for local residents affected by the multi-station development across the UK capital. After years of negotiation, the project was signed off by Parliament in 2008, very specifically granting planning permission to build a railway within fixed boundaries. This project is now underway and is due to be complete in 2018.

The permission was purely to build the tunnels, tracks, stations and station modifications as required, but nothing beyond the entrance area of any of the stations. They did, of course, have to ‘make-good’ where streets and surroundings had been disturbed, but if these areas were unattractive environments before, there was no requirement to put back anything other than what had previously existed. The wider stakeholders such as the many local authorities, Transport for London, the Greater London Authority and others, did not deem this approach acceptable.

As a result Crossrail established an Urban Integration Programme to review the opportunities at each station through collaboration, partnership and joint working relationships, many opportunities have been identified, such as creating new pedestrian and cycle links and addressing poor lighting, signage, street furniture and planting. Public realm designs for 31 stations have now been created that go well beyond just putting back a bit of asphalt, through this process of partnership, £90 million of additional funds have been bought in from various sources to fund the additional works, but this is an invisible drop in the ocean compared to the £16 billion price tag for the railway. These enhancements will transform many grotty corners of London into delightful new public places.

By bringing the stakeholders together that have a vested interest in the area at each location, a joint vision was created. It is well known that improved transport infrastructure enhances local property values, but providing high-quality public realm links to the new infrastructure can further enhance these values. The public realm schemes have built on existing long-term plans from local authorities, transport providers’ aspirations for better integration of modes; heritage bodies’ desire for better settings for their asset and environmental bodies seeking local improvements. By bringing all the stakeholders together in collaboration and partnership, the funding burden will be shared and projects that seemed years off are now becoming a reality.

London’s Crossrail project will involve the redevelopment of Liverpool Street Station

Capturing the Future

A liveable city is one that provides for a decent quality of life for all its inhabitants. Individual needs vary and the urban realm must support diversity be accessible to all and be adaptable to future needs. Annoying detours, clutter and degraded environment as opposed to convenient logical access and good quality public realm can make the difference between high levels of anxiety and stress or a pleasurable experience. Remove an irritating detour and you might even put a smile on someone’s face. Can we, as a society, afford to ignore the opportunity to improve the quality of our cities and make our citizens happier?

The three case studies discussed demonstrate three very different approaches. The Big Dig was a single purpose megaproject and essentially a transport oriented solution even though, at its heart, the intention was urban enhancement. The promoters were fixated on delivery of the technical solution and many opportunities were missed. The parks, which have been created in the footprint of the old Central Artery, have not been properly integrated into the city fabric and as a result it is not uncommon to see people walking along the streets adjacent to the parks, rather than crossing into the parks. The streets on either side of the parks are much too wide and carry one-way traffic which isolates them as islands in a hostile car dominated environment. Failing to integrate the parks into the city fell short of the original intent to connect to the waterfront.

The Shanghai Bund project, on the other hand, is an exemplary illustration of seizing the opportunities and putting back something that is much more than an engineering solution. Of course the political ‘carte blanche’ approach is unlikely to be the norm in many parts of the world, but its key success is in how the project was conceived as a major urban renewal opportunity. The Crossrail project will also be an exemplary project, but this happened almost by accident, through common sense, collaboration and goodwill.

The pressures of funding and time scales for megaprojects are such that if the urban realm aspects are not addressed as part of the project, the pressures of project delivery may well just ‘wish them away’. To lose the opportunities to improve cities, when sites are dug up is foolish; once a megaproject has gone, the site might not be revisited for generations to come. To ensure that all the opportunities are exploited to the full, the project scope must be broadened to include urban renewal. In addition to this, it should be a requirement that a funding source for urban renewal be set aside, so that if the costs have not been assessed at the time of sign-off the money will be secured for future urban renewal.


Etty Padmodipoetro, AIA, is principal of Urban Idea Lab, a Boston based multidisciplinary team of architects and urban designers working to find creative solutions to the challenges facing urban communities. She has worked on numerous transportation and transit-oriented development projects in the USA, including Boston’s Big Dig.

Camilla Ween, RIBA, MCHI, FRSA, and Harvard Loeb Fellow, is an urbanist working on city planning and transportation. She lectures regularly at universities and conferences worldwide.

This article was published in Cities Today, April 2014.