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“Sustainable mobility requires a holistic approach” - Francine Houben

24.11.2022 - Publications

Mobility is part of modern society; it is a daily pursuit, just like housing, work and recreation. Therefore, designing for mobility must be about people deriving a sensory experience from their everyday mobility. But we also know that the provision of mobility infrastructure has city-scale effects. So, we should consider mobility as a tool for connecting communities, facilitating new opportunities and creating conditions for economies to flourish.

My journey with mobility began in 1998, when I proposed that we view the motorway as a design brief. The 2005 Rotterdam International Architecture Biennale which I curated was dedicated to mobility, continued the theme — for millions of people who experience the changes of the city and countryside, the train and the car are also ‘A Room with a View’. Since the 1960s, the road in the landscape has made way for the landscape of the road - a self-contained environment. Now, the motorist seems politically incorrect and designers must see to it that everyone makes use of public transport. But it is not so simple.

Mobility is changing. The urban planners think only metro and tram. The walkable city must be one for bikes also, and now we have monowheels, e-bikes, e-scooters, electric trikes and more. I once talked to an elderly man on a mobility scooter.  He himself could not go more than fifty metres, but now he has a radius of forty kilometres. The architects' task is to produce designs that answer the steadily growing demand for mobility in all its modalities.

I have always been fascinated with mobility. Mecanoo is based in the beautiful Dutch city of Delft. When I was a student there, I lived in a pale blue house where the first-floor windows looked onto a railway viaduct which carried trains on the mainline from Amsterdam to Paris. The station was only steps away and it felt like adventure was on my doorstep. But this viaduct had divided the city in two since 1965.

Since 2018, the railway tracks have been buried underground, our city is re-united, and your experience of it begins as you rise through the new Delft Station which we designed, with the city’s municipal offices above it. The ceiling of the station hall reveals Delft in an 1877 map and the glazed skin of the building reveals a Delft panorama, little changed since Vermeer painted it. The building connects all forms of mobility: trains, buses, trams and bikes. This being the Netherlands, there is a capacity to park 5,000 bikes in the mezzanine! This station highlights themes in our current mobility-related work at Mecanoo; the personal experience of mobility, and how it can transform the city as a whole.

We have taken some of the ideas of Delft Station into the centre of the Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung, where again the main railway was recently buried underground. Our new Kaohsiung Station is also a multi-mode transport hub offering a dramatic experience as you rise from the tracks. Its multi-level plazas and canopy is designed to integrate major buildings which will follow. The domed canopy will be a public park which carries a cycle highway as part of a green corridor we have masterplanned, extending sustainable mobility across the city, even linking with Mecanoo-designed social housing. Our transformation is not just the city centre, it extends far into the neighbourhoods. 

Recently, we collaborated with Dutch Railways (NS) to explore what the future door-to-door journey could look like form the perspective of the passenger, beyond just rail, while aspiring to meet the Dutch government’s ambitious sustainability, passenger satisfaction and capacity targets for 2040. We also responded to NS’s intention of making travel time more attractive, part of travellers’ ‘me-time'. In collaboration with furniture maker Gispen, the Train of the Future project produced a train car interior concept with a flexible twelve-module recyclable furniture system. A suitable combination can be made for any type of train to create environments that vary for different activities — social, reflective, concentrating.

The future is also about how we access nature. Mecanoo has prepared a masterplan for Nieuw Land National Park, where nature reserves on reclaimed land have merged. I noticed that a railway line passed through it. There are no houses or shops or workplaces there, but why not a nature station? The land sits the middle of a dynamic metropolitan region, but there are children whose neighbourhoods never give the opportunity to experience nature.

Finally, let me take you to Rotterdam Zuid, an area with deep economic problems south of the city centre. I have been on a personal journey there, researching the history, talking to people on the street, trying to find the missing link between harbour and city. The port industry used to organise everything, even the transport of their employees. Now there’s a disconnect. Rotterdam Zuid needs a holistic approach with a focus on opportunities instead of problems. For example, the unique quality and potential of the existing dike infrastructure to act as a connecting park landscape for local communities. We focused on ways to transition urban challenges into opportunities, with mobility being central to this. But also, it's very important that you make connections that don't cost anything, so we highlighted a 6.5-kilometre cycling and walking route around the ‘Heart of Rotterdam,’ connecting north and south. Why is mobility crucial to reviving Rotterdam Zuid? Because where there is transport poverty, there is poverty.

A seamless mobility system that integrates public, shared and private transport is the only way forward, with digitalisation and new modalities changing our journey as well as our spatial environment. And when we design it, we must make the experience of everyone central to our approach.

If you would like to discuss a press enquiry reach out to us at pr@mecanoo.nl