Urban design magazine

Expressions

JOAN BUSQUETS: VISIONARY URBAN PLANNER IN TUNE WITH HISTORY

Image of Joan Busquets
© Barcelona Arquitectura i Urbanisme (BAU)

The Catalan urban planner and architect prints his vision of the city in some of the world’s largest metropolis.

A world famous architect and urban planner, Joan Busquets juggles numerous international projects, the role as professor at prestigious universities and the position of director at the BAU agency. Winning several urban planning prizes, he is particularly known for managing the urban development in Barcelona for the 1992 Olympic Games, as well as for his projects in public spaces where he sometimes renovates entire quartiers.

Professor Busquets, you been involved in numerous masterplan in Europe and further afield. You’ve become an authority in urban planning across the world. What makes your approach unique?

I focus on working with the history of the city – we never have completely free reign even in new cities. We need to take the people and the city’s historic dimension into account. Basically, we work with the city in its current state, as it is.

The role of the urban planner and architect is, and always will be, be to develop projects. This may involve large parts of a city – as was the case in Toulouse – or a much smaller scale such as a square, building or promenade. All projects refer to a specific place in the city and changes are implemented based on the project. I look at the city as it is and makes changes based on the projects elaborated.

Image of urban redevelopment in Toulouse

Renovated Place Saint-Pierre in Toulouse: view of steps from the Saint-Pierre Bridge © Inconito

You helped renovate Toulouse city centre in line with the city’s history. What were the most important elements of this analysis?

Today, when we develop a city we need to develop its historic centre. The centre of Toulouse has been dramatically modified since the 18th century. The cultural heritage is very rich, but many projects were also incomplete, as is often the case in city centres. We worked in different directions to express the different spaces, buildings, uses and ways of working. There are still elements to improve, but the centre has already evolved dramatically.

On the other hand, when working with landscape designer Michel Desvigne, I considered public spaces in terms of study subjects. We tried to bring together the water, buildings and trees with the aim of maintaining the activities in the centre and attracting new ones. For example, we needed to increase the amount of housing in the centre. If we improve the living conditions for inhabitants, more people want to live in the city.

Image of urban redevelopment in Toulouse

Map showing the growth of Toulouse from the Roman core (in red) to the outer districts (in light yellow). The public spaces were developed to enhance their unique features. © Barcelona Arquitectura i Urbanisme (BAU)

What are the keys to successfully converting an urban vision into a reality?

This is an important question as today people think the urban planning is great, but difficult to implement.  When redeveloping public spaces it is important to take into account the wellbeing of their users. Once the principal design has been developed it needs to be tested in real situations.

We therefore implement lots of pilot studies so that people can see what works and what needs to be improved. We test all projects like this before defining the final version. These tests might concern the vegetation, pavilions, quays or outdoor bar seating. For example, we check whether people prefer sitting on benches or chairs in parks.

On a small scale these tests allow us to ascertain whether the main idea is feasible. We collect together different opinions, but we are always very careful to listen to inhabitants and visitors to the city centre. We adapt and adjust the project accordingly. These actions also help users understand the logic behind the idea.

How important is street furniture and lighting in your thinking?

I think the question of urban design is central and raises the issue of integration. Urban design encompasses many elements including vegetation, shops, cars, buildings and parks. We need to understand that the city centre brings together parameters such as vegetation, street furniture and lighting. Projects therefore need to be treated as a whole rather than simply adding the different parts together at the end.

Image of lighting on steps in Toulouse

Lighting of the steps in Place Saint-Pierre, Toulouse © Marc Aurel Studio (Flore Siesling)

Finally, in your speech for the French Grand Prix de l’Urbanisme award ceremony in 2011, you said that “the city of the future has no form”, but that the role of the urban planner is to “contribute to its formalisation”. What do you think our future cities will be like?

It’s difficult to say, we know that it is important to work with the city as a whole, with both the old city and the new city. We have to imagine the city how it will change to create different lifestyles and new forms of mobility, travel and leisure. We have to understand the city in a new context.

It is clear that today’s cities are better than those of thirty years ago, and that cities thirty years ago were better than those 60 years ago. The process is both forward-thinking and forward-moving.

We also need to understand that it is necessary to change our methods when working in future cities because 20 years ago we considered the project as the subject and then applied it to city.  Today, we undoubtedly need innovative projects, but these ideas must take into account the different structures and buildings. We have already adapted our methods and we will continue to do so.

Each city has its own different stories and objects and it essential to consider these unique features. For me, the city constantly improves and the future will be better. Our role as urban designers is to focus on the city centre as this is the real and symbolic heart of our metropolis.

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