Traffic crossing or square? | PAM project, alternative proposal for the renewal of Valencia’s downtown

[Article originally written by Pilar Ferreres and José Luis Gisbert for More Than Green]

__Architects: Pilar Ferreres + José Luis Gisbert

__Collaborators: Xavier Pepiol, architect + Álvaro Hueso, architecture student

__Location: Valencia, España

__Date project: 2015

Traffic crossing or square? We have asked this question to neighbors, merchants, professionals and pedestrians in the quarter of Pla del Remei in Valencia. It is a question that arises from the Alternative Proposal or Improvement (PAM), submitted to City Hall to review the municipal project involving the change of two streets in the city center. Moreover this plan suggests an even more important question: Is this a city for cars or a city for people?

The streets Hernán Cortés and Pizarro, part of the commercial city center that attracts many visitors throughout the year, have not changed in over 30 years. These streets pose numerous obstacles to pedestrian: narrow and uneven sidewalks, clutter from dining tables to parked motorbikes, and non-stop traffic. Cars are even seen driving on the curb to avoid hinder the lane. This chaotic traffic affects the pedestrians walking in a group who frequently have no other choice but to walk in a single file line, sometimes even on the street to dodge the vehicles that park on the sidewalk. Furthermore a pedestrian’s pace is broken up by having to patiently wait to pass through the number of traffic lights.

When the Valencia town hall announced upcoming renovations in April 2014, from the perspective of residents and architects, we were thrilled to take on an active role in the project design for a highly anticipated upgrade.

We have found, however, that the project that does not respond to nor reflect the real needs of this community because they have not been analyzed beyond the traffic logistics, and the essential information that can only be given by the community has been ignored. A project that does not account for a lack of space in the neighborhood and ignores the existing architectural heritage, makes it difficult for residents and tourists alike to admire the area to its true potential. Likewise the municipal action seems to disregard and even contradict all current urban mobility policies to accommodate for the additional space needed cyclists and pedestrians. In so doing the council is also ignoring the benefits of trees in an urban environment that contributes to better air quality and appropriate hygrothermal control. This planned redevelopment, an expenditure of 800,000 euro per street, would influence the way of life for the next 25 years and does not meet social and cultural needs of our community.

It appears as though the town hall of Valencia is taking on the renovation street by street without proper coordination. It is not possible to address road and spatial arrangement of a neighborhood without studying the full scope because there are problems that can only be resolved from a global approach.

Upon receiving the town hall’s initial plan in January of 2015, we offered an alternative proposition, known as Propuesta Alternativa de Mejora (PAM), to open up the dialogue and improve upon the solution. This alternative plan was submitted free of charge as we are fully invested in living and working in the area.

The PAM is a response to the plan that was originally approved by the town hall. Written by architects, we offer a solution that promotes a healthier environment and the development of relationships. The town hall’s plan of widening sidewalks does not take into account the number of needed trees that line the streets- one for every thirty meters. A tree is not merely an ornament. It provides shade to the pedestrian, filters the air and offers protection from the wind. Trees serve a purpose and should be enough in number.

For example, a square in Pizarro street (20 meters in width), would slow down traffic and would convert a crossway to an agreeable square.

Multipurpose zones, called beaches in our proposal, would eliminate parking and decrease the number of vehicles going through. It would also reduce all types of pollution and danger. These beaches are the structure of an urban landscape that changes according to the time of day and season. Flexible zones would accommodate how different people use the area, from unloading cargo from a truck, to parking a bike, to taking a rest on a bench. This multipurpose zone would accommodate everyone without further construction needed. The implication results in less money to be spent. Our alternative proposal permits people to meet their needs with the opportunity of enjoying the space in their free time. Why not use a space to encourage to building relationships within a community?

The vision of PAM provides the town hall and the citizens with an economic solution that does not increase expenditure. PAM aims to increase the quality of urban life which would serve as a model to other parts of the city and can be extrapolated to other cities’ grid.

Between the 50s and 70s centers of cities turned in favour of the parked car or in circulation. The progressive increase in the number of vehicles in this limited space led to the deterioration of the urban landscape and quality of life of its inhabitants.

During the last decades, most cities have reversed this process in the inner city. They have realized that rescuing space for people was the only way to claim the status of this area of the city. However, economic and social changes not always match physical site transformations, inhabitants and users are the first ones in perceiving and detecting the existing problems.

The urban update has been carried out traditionally through its redevelopment, its considerable cost and lack of will taking unpopular decisions for cars, has led in some cases this process didn’t arrive.

But there are other ways, temporary changes that allow a more guarantees in final redevelopment: Zero Investment actions, as Rome from 20 years ago cut traffic on one of their most commercial streets (via del Corso) from Friday afternoon until Sunday allowing people to walk without restrictions and nowdays has been extended fulltime. Public space for people rescue actions through painting and moving parts, re-imagining as it may be the common space in the city and try it temporarily together with its inhabitants with limited spending before making works is the lesson that we can learn from the New York experience.

Valencia has embraced in recent years various European projects of sustainable development such as SMILE (intelligent solutions and energy efficiency in urban logistics in Mediterranean cities) or CAT-MED, was named European city of the tree in 2007, and that just a week ago was home to the main European platform aimed at reducing emissions of GHG in the cities.

Participate in these projects should lead to the city Council of Valencia, in each step or decision no matter how small it is on the city, to follow the criteria of sustainability, good governance and allocate their economic and human resources to improve the lives of all people. It is not worth to join a swimming club and don’t accept be equipped with bathing suit and jump into the water keeping dry out the pool.

Something doesn’t work properly when the Council refers in its reply to the PAM, in March 2015, to technical problems for planting trees or designing streets 30, without justifying them technically and chooses to arrange, on the other hand, in a parallel street absorbent paving of the contamination with European funds. Is it this proper answer of a smart city? Wouldn’t it be wiser to limit cars and planting trees? Can there be smart cities without smart designed streets? In Valencia with our strong sun, is it a smart street one that lacks of tree shade in summer? What is the suitable, sustainable mobility, in 12 meters wide streets of the city center? Car parking?

The authors invite the Council to ask himself these questions and return to pause the process action for reviewing and incorporating the improvements identified in the PAM, adding signatures of people who have joined this this request and also delivering the results of the open meeting with neighbors, merchants, workers and walkers held last March 5.
People who have joined this initiative rely on City Hall to consider the requested enhancements that we enjoy all and especially future generations.