Drawing The Shard’s parking

A very short little note about a diagram we made yesterday. The fuller story is over at Helsinki Design Lab, which notes how my interest in The Shard tower in London was piqued by Bryan tweeting about the incredibly low parking rates they’ve achieved on that project. There are 87 floors, 72 of which are habitable, and only 47 car parking spaces (apparently mainly for disabled people, according to the project’s lead architect Renzo Piano.)

Shard render by AVR Studio (via Dezeen)

Working on very different developments here in Helsinki, on one of the city’s primary strategic sustainable urban development sites, we know the city’s parking directives can easily lead to a situation where you have a building with seven floors (we say “storey” in English, Americans (others?) say “stories”, so I’m settling on “floors”) generating a requirement for 120 parking places. Here, this usually has to go in a basement, which is good in terms of hiding the problem but very expensive to build (one of the more capital-intensive aspects, actually, which means you have less capital to spend on other, potentially more innovative or productive, aspects.)

Sketch of Shard, possibly illustrating no parking, by Renzo Piano (Dezeen)

The Shard’s is an amazing result, and one apparently directed by then-Mayor Ken Livingstone. This also great to see — strong public governance shaping a strong outcome. Also rare to see, particularly in this game, where public officials are often more conservative and risk averse than their constituencies — based partly on misreading their constituents, due to lack of meaningful engagement, and based partly on cautiousness driven by the need to get re-elected — and through property developers who usually (with some exceptions) are never happier than when they can do what they did previously, and never unhappier than when they are being asked to do something differently. As I noted in a conversation that ensued on Twitter, I recall a major “sustainable development” in Sydney where the property developer’s project manager for mobility had never actually been on public transport. This gives a sense of the industry we’re dealing with here.

In the light of this absurdity, a little diagram immediately came to mind, comparing the size of the buildings and the volume of parking.

Here’s the first scribble on the whiteboard. Simple comparison of scale versus volume. (The top of the Shard wriggles because that’s about 8 feet up the whiteboard and I couldn’t reach!) It’s obviously a little simplistic: the programme for the Shard is actually quite complex (offices, restaurant, spa, hotel, observatory, residential, and not that so much of the latter — only around 12 floors of residential.) But still, the average Jätkäsaari block also, ideally, has residential and commercial (office and retail) and unhabitable space too, within its seven floors.

And while the first sketch in Illustrator (below) has an accurate scaling of the two buildings, the floor area is not calculated, which is what you’d really want to do. But with a diagram like this, it has to be accurate enough to be taken seriously at first glance — here using floors as a proxy for scale — yet doesn’t have to be so accurate that you actually cloud the point of the diagram, which in this case is to generate debate.

One key point is that both are extremely well-served by public transport (Helsinki’s is probably better, certainly in terms of quality of service.) And as a more compact city, you can walk from Jätkäsaari to most places in the centre in 15 minutes, which is usually the threshold of how long you can expect the average punter to walk, when planning. Then, as a fairly flat city, cycling is another strong possibility.

One could draw all this, indicating transit connections, but again, that’s probably better handled in a discussion. This kind of diagram is supposed to be a poke, a constructive irritant — but does not need to be a richly detailed exposition or a multi-faceted thesis. (In a culture like Finland’s, where public debate is often missing in inaction, and there is still often a strong deference in the face of authority, we’re trying to ramp up the levels of discussion a bit.)

The first sketch had a solid block representing the volume of parking. But it wasn’t really doing it for me. After quick over the table discussion with Bryan, I realised that drawing the individual cars themselves would probably make this clearer, which it did.

But it still wasn’t really cutting it. After another rapid interchange with Marco S, he pointed out that the ratio rather than the total number would be interesting. The comparison in terms of total number of cars is accurate, but the key point in these discussions is really the ratio of parking (on Australian projects, for instance, it’s one car per apartment, two cars per apartment, some point in between, and so on.)

Marco pointed out it would be interesting to apply the Shard’s ratio (roughly 0.5 spaces per floor) to Jätkäsaari, and vice versa; apply the Jätkäsaari ratio (roughly 17 places per floor) to the Shard. You’d end up with roughly 3.5 spaces in Jätkäsaari, and roughly 1491 spaces at the Shard (Apple-D in Illustrator to the rescue.)

So I sketched that out again, and this is when the diagram began to speak to the core problem, arguably.

Only with that vast imaginary underground cavern of cars under London we can see how ludicrous the proposed situation is in Helsinki. And only with 3.5 cars for the Jätkäsaari block could we see the possibility, and perhaps even the bravery, of that particular decision about The Shard. So, thanks to my colleagues — when you have a lot of things, draw them all out for full effect, and focus on the ratio when you are interested in the performative relationship.

I don’t mean to overplay the end result by writing about it here — it is an incredibly simple, almost dumb, diagram. But this is blog as sketchbook, to reflect on the way we do the work, rather than the end result; a learning process for me, essentially.

The point here is not necessarily accuracy — the numbers for The Shard are from one article, and not checked; those for Jätkäsaari are typical/averaged — but this is not diagram as science but conversation starter; there is just enough veracity there to make you stop and think. Don’t use it to prove the point, but to start a conversation that isn’t happening, to jolt a response. The allusion is more to, say, a wartime poster (hence perhaps my vaguely subconscious drift towards the Metric typeface and Gerd Arntz-style pictograms.)

One could go on to draw the implications of dropping that traffic-generating mass into downtown Helsinki — 150 cars x no. of blocks (20?) in Jätkäsaari. As the city is essentially an archipelago, with sea on three sides, and with Jätkäsaari near the tip, there aren’t so many places for all that traffic to go. (I’ll post another time about the interesting planning history regarding Helsinki and cars.) Jan Gehl has made a career of helping cities understand that building any car-based infrastructure simply generates more cars; it never, ever alleviates the problem (if you’ve ever heard his story of the squirrel, the basement, and the trail of nuts, you’ll never forget it.)

You won’t see that impact in the official Jätkäsaari flythrough — we need a new way of drawing these performative relationships. My diagram isn’t it, but it at least exposes the underside, or the impact, of these design choices — actually cultural choices — in a way that the flythrough generally doesn’t.

Of course, having started the debate around ratio, one can come back and say, well, what should the ratio be, then? If we’re in a sustainable development conversation, the discussion might at least start at Vauban, Freiburg, which is a guaranteed stop on most study tours by those conducting sustainable developments (incl. from Australian projects, actually, but certainly Europe.) This is essentially car-free, or at least has a very low car-ownership, and dropping, as people can take effective, enjoyable public transit, or cycle or walk — just as they might in this bit of Helsinki (with all the numerous benefits, including financial, that flow from that.)

Or indeed study the conditions of any oldish European city, which Helsinki essentially is, much of the time (and certainly around Jätkäsaari.) In doing that study, it doesn’t mean we are being retrograde any more than plonking a monorail or a flyover in a city is by definition progressive or “futuristic” — we should be beyond that debate by now, a half-century on.

Ultimately, we might nudge up the number of spaces from Vauban’s baseline; but the core idea that a compact city, very well-served by public transit, should start with zero and then be argued up is far more interesting. You might end up with 20 spaces, say, rather than 120. I hope that’s the conversation that diagrams like this might trigger.


Originally published at www.cityofsound.com on May 24, 2012.

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