STHLMNYC is an organization founded and directed by the architects Linda Schuur and Sander Schuur, Int’l. Assoc. AIA, that collaborates closely with the Swedish Association of Architects and the American Institute of Architects’ New York Chapter. Former New York City residents who now live in Stockholm, the Schuurs observed many key differences in how architects in those cities worked and wanted to bring them together and close the gap. They recently began a series of semiannual seminars as a platform for collaboration toward architecture that is adaptive for uncertainties of the future. They argue that adaptivity is a higher and more useful standard than resiliency in urban design. The duo’s second seminar was held April 8–10 in Stockholm—a two-and-a-half day event centered on the theme of “Movement” that brought together architects, urban planners, and project developers from across the globe. Sander took time from his schedule to talk to gb&d about STHLMNYC’s mission and the Movement seminar.
gb&d: The STHMLNYC seminars are intended to tackle issues surrounding how architects can design urban environments to deal with unforeseeable future events. Without getting too Stephen Colbert-like, if we can’t foresee an event, how can we plan for it?
Sander Schuur: Unforeseeable events can mean social, economic, and natural disasters. We think of a city like Detroit that loses 25% of its population in 10 years due to the downsizing of the auto industry. How can we design a city that can deal with that? Detroit is based on a single economy model, not easily adaptive. If that scenario happens again, we have the opportunity to react faster. Stockholm is currently one of the fastest growing cities in Europe. How do we ensure we build a city, rather than merely housing? In New York after Hurricane Sandy, the city began preparing for 100- or 500-year storms. You can argue that a 500-year storm could be here in 20 years. A levy will not work. We argue for the principle of adaptation: controlled flooding rather than flood control. Creating an environment that can deal with more extreme situations.
gb&d: Can you explain the context of the Movement seminar? Are we talking about architectural movement, pedestrian movement, vehicular movement, social movement—all of the above?
Schuur: First off, movement is about people. How do you make areas attractive? It’s not, for example, just about helping people in East Harlem get to Soho, but also about helping people in Soho get to East Harlem. This raises socio-economic questions. People of limited means shouldn’t have an excessively high cost of transportation. It’s movement of people in economic and social terms. Movement also applies to water, particularly as it relates to storm water surges. A study we did with KWR Watercycle Research Institute in the Netherlands looked at cities’ effectiveness in regulating the water cycle, including managing storm water and providing clean drinking water. Cities are growing in density. With more hard surfaces and shrinking vegetative spaces, we need to find effective ways to deal with rainwater.
Finally, movement applies to food and the natural world. The distance between inhabitants and their food sources is growing. How do we move food and fresh water to people? Nearly all food hubs in New York, for example, are located in Brooklyn. During Hurricane Sandy, Brooklyn was not hit, but if it had been it would have wiped out New Yorkers’ food supply for two weeks. There’s also a biodiversity tie in: birds and bees need to go from A to B, in order to survive. If we make cities too big and too long, we limit biodiversity. In a nutshell, we’re looking at how can we make cities more sustainable, biodiverse, and green.
gb&d: The World Health Organization predicts that 70% of the world’s population will live in urban environments by 2050. How do we design for the movement of people in the increasingly dense urban environments?
Schuur: There’s this brilliant quote, “The future is not what it used to be,” which first appeared in an article titled “From a Private Correspondence on Reality” by Laura Riding and Robert Graves. We had an idea of what the future looked like in the ‘50s, which has almost never changed. The easy way out is to go vertical. Can we connect people and structures on different levels that facilitate multiple layers of movement within in the city? Multi-layered cities that give people several options for travel is a part of the adaptation principle. Even more interesting is the Central Artery/Tunnel Project in Boston, where they decided to get rid of highway overpasses and go underground. This is good for providing space, but if Boston gets hit with hurricane, there is no escape route. It is good on one hand, but trouble on the other hand. We have to weigh multiple benefits and risks.
gb&d: Multi-layered cities are a fascinating concept. Who is doing interesting work on this front?
Schuur: An interesting one is someone I know in New York, Guy Nordenson, a structural engineer and professor at Princeton, who does studies before people start thinking of things. He has the idea of providing more transportation through vertical approaches like the Roosevelt Island Tramway, an aerial tram that spans the East River from the Upper East Side of Manhattan to Roosevelt Island. It’s effective and the footprint is minimal.
gb&d: If transportation and infrastructure are important to the adaptive urban design, so are people’s living arrangements, right? Where will people live in the future?
Schuur: We had an interesting discussion in Stockholm the other day. We discussed the possibility for more flexibility in people’s living arrangements. Take someone whose job is partly in New York and partly in Stockholm. Can he rent an apartment every week or every month? Does everybody have to have an apartment? Or, can we think out of the box? People and economies are moving faster. This demands new modes of living. Flexibility to be adaptive is the key. We’re looking at different models that allow for more density per square meter. The most obvious way is to go up in the air, but there are other approaches. Airbnb, for example, is increasing density by making use of unused living space for short-term lodging. Are there other models? Can two people working the night and day shift, for example, share the same apartment? That is the question: how do we live? It’s not that our platform aims to provide solutions; we aim to start a discussion and create a broader forum for thinking about these issues.
gb&d: How would you like to see cities adapt to predicted socioeconomic challenges of the future, such as a lack of access to affordable healthy food?
Schuur: This is somewhat basic in a sense: offering seasonal produce that coincides with the time of year and climate. But, ideally, enhancing the local food supply can provide auxiliary benefits. One interesting example is from Kate Orff, whose office, SCAPE, participated in the first STHLMNYC event. The project is called Oyster-Tecture and would bring back oyster reefs to help shield New York from future storm surges. Oyster farms provide multiple benefits at once: protecting the hinterlands by limiting wave energy from sea surges, while also providing people with a food source. Day to day, they also limit erosion on the beaches. The project has great educational value. In an adaptive urban environment, a single design solution fulfills multiple functions.
gb&d: Your website says that it is “time to rethink the architectural practice.” How is STHLMNYC’s work helping to do that?
Schuur: I would like architecture to take a leading role, again, in thinking about how to create a truly sustainable urban environment. An architect is not a sole specialist in anything. But, they have the perspective to get the right people at the table to create visions and strategies to create a better environment.