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Engaged at a Distance: Larry Beasley interviewed by Marieke Hillen

May 6 2010

Since his retirement as a civil servant, Larry Beasley, who was the director of planning in Vancouver for thirty years, spends around seven to twelve days a month working as a special advisor of what appears to be his second homeland, Abu Dhabi. Last fall he spent one week in Rotterdam as a visiting urban critic. After participating in an intense program organized for him, he left the city behind with an intelligent and inspiring commentary on its development, and a promise to keep track of it as a new member of the International Advisory Board. Not only in these two cities, but all around the globe, Beasley is a gladly seen advisor on how to build viable, vibrant, livable, and sustainable cities. As the socio-economic, political, cultural, and physical framework of the cities that invite him and the intensity of his involvement differs widely, the question rises what his rolls can be in cities as diverse as Abu Dhabi, Rotterdam, Dallas, or Ottawa. An interview with Larry Beasley about his involvement in Abu Dhabi and Rotterdam from a Vancouver perspective.

Marieke Hillen: Since you have left City Hall in Vancouver, you have become part of a growing community of independent advisors that travel around the globe. How do you experience your new position in the process of urban planning. What persuaded you – apart from being invited – to work in the above mentioned cities? At first sight they seem very different, can they be rightly compared? And what does Vancouverism offer in those diverse contexts?

Larry Beasley: My role as special advisor in Abu Dhabi and other places suits me and my ambitions. It allows me to put forward the principals and approaches that I’ve gathered from my thirty year experience in Vancouver, but at the same time leaves the translation into the most appropriate solution to local people. Furthermore as a special advisor, one is able to give very direct and solid advice without all the encumbrances of being vested in the local political context. I can offer an intelligent commentary on which people can really depend, since its not shaded by any local allegiances or political associations.

For me personally, I like to work in places where there is a real interest in developing livable cities and where people are willing to put their resources to achieve this ambition. It allows me to put my energy where people really want my advice and are predisposed to carry it forward. This was very much the case in Vancouver in the period I was working there.

In the case of Abu Dhabi I decided that if within a period of six months they wouldn’t move forward in a more progressive approach to urbanism, I wouldn’t continue. Being a special but independent advisor feels very different than being part of the bureaucracy and the social context. Since I discovered that Abu Dhabi is very carefully translating my advice and ideas in special solutions, I remained and will remain as long ask me to.

In Rotterdam my involvement is much more incidental. I was invited as a visiting critic by the Van der Leeuwcircle, a group of private entrepreneurs working in the field of urban development. On their request – and as a gift to the city – I spent one week biking around the city doing everything in my power to soak up the place to understand where this city has come from and what it faces as it moves forward. At the end, I gave a lecture ‘Smart growth in Rotterdam. Consideration from a Vancouver perspective’. As a member of the International Advisory Board, over the coming years I am looking forward to see how they carry forward.

Although Vancouver, Abu Dhabi, Rotterdam, Dallas and Ottawa are completely different – physically, culturally, their political framework, their level of where they are in the stages of transformation – they do share the aspirations to transform into livable and environmentally sustainable cities, and that is why I accepted their invitations. As the world’s population is urbanizing at an enormous pace, we are building cities all over the world. Unfortunately most of them are unlivable and polluting. It is therefore an urgent task to reform our way of city building. For me it is relevant to work in places where the question of how to make liveable and sustainable cities can be explored in detail.

MH: In Abu Dhabi you are a special advisor to the crown prince. You are more intensely involved in the planning and development of the city and your influence stretches further than in Rotterdam. Can you elaborate more on your role in both cities? How do you see the differences in the level of where they are in the stages of transformation, the intensity of your involvement related to the final outcome in the physical transformation of the city?

LB: My official title is special advisor to the crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nayan, governor of Abu Dhabi and the Urban Planning Council (UPC). I firmly believe that a community should have its own indigenous leadership so I didn’t want to be the director of planning or have any administrative role or position. In Abu Dhabi I do have a wide ranging mandate. I designed and founded the UPC about two years ago. It has now a staff of around 175 man. As an in-house consultant, I guide their policy making. I chair the urban design review panel that looks at developers’ plans coming through for approval.

Furthermore it is a high priority of mine to provide training and education to develop planning and building capacity within the emirate itself. Whenever these trained people come in pivotal positions, they can make their decisions in a more informed and progressive way. As a result, the skill level and the insight of local people did rise dramatically over the last three years. On the other hand, they will depend on expertise from elsewhere for some time, simply because they are searching for the very best solutions in the world. So rather than wait for 15 to 20 years to build up the experience inside the emirate, they will be pulling upon people from elsewhere for some time. But I do expect in five to seven years they will be completely in control of their city planning.

In the Netherlands there is a strong tradition of city building; your cities have great urban qualities that can be replicated and that be exploited for the future. Having said that, I do think that, as most of the modern world, you have lost some of the sensitivities to those urban solutions that you once had. That happened as well in Canada, United States, and other parts of Europe. We often look back to the cities of the 30s, but it is not that often that we look to the cities of the 90s as being good examples.

As I said, the Dutch tradition of city building is lacking in Abu Dhabi. The Emiratis were Bedouin people, that didn’t have a built culture. They lived in huts and tents and moved with the season. The transformation of Abu Dhabi from a settlement into a city with 2 million people over the last 50 years has been a process of discovering, and to some degree, also frustrating as they imported inappropriate building traditions from elsewhere. Together with some of the most progressive thinkers on very aspects of city building, I am helping them to find an indigenous built form that is suitable for their culture and for their climate. We are organizing charettes in which we put together these thinkers from all around the world with local leaders, citizens and creative professionals. It’s a very fast way to take very good ideas from around the world and put them in a local context.

MH: In Rotterdam you underlined that the last thing you wanted was that as a result of your visit any part of the spirit and flavour of Vancouver would find its way as a replication in Rotterdam, but you also pointed out that Vancouver and Rotterdam can be rightly compared and the process Rotterdam is going through is similar to that of Vancouver 25 years ago. In the case of Abu Dhabi you are talking about the translation of principles and approaches into an indigenous built form. Do you think by your approach a new critical regionalism is appearing in UAE?

It is very important to derive a regionally relevant architecture in style and approach from the environment, the climate, from the social preferences and in this may be bringing forward historic trends but then to transform them to modern needs. If we are able to carry forward the thinking of architects like for example, Oscar Niemeyer, on regional conditions, the environment, the climate, but also the social and moral conditions I do think we can discover a true regionalism. One of the aspects that I enjoy about the new emphasis on sustainability is that it is causing designers to look at the imperatives of the environment they are working in and develop different expressions.

In the modern period in Abu Dhabi, when they started building individual housing for families, they imported the North American idea of putting a house in the middle of a lot. Since the privacy of women is very important in Islamic culture, the side-effect was that it forced women to stay indoors. We are trying to re-establish the idea of the courtyard house, where women can be inside and outside while being offered total privacy. Since their lack of building tradition, it is not a very well known typology in the emirate, but it is in other Islamic cultures. Together with designers we are redesigning the courtyard house to suit the specifics of the Abu Dhabi people in the twenty-first century. That is what you have to do at all fronts, whether it is housing or shopping. You have to carefully understand what the needs are of your people in this specific place and time and then look for inspiration and reinvent that inspiration for the local circumstances.

But I do believe that there are some basic, underlying principles for smart cities and smart growth that are relevant and seem to apply everywhere. Mixed use, alternatives to the car, more sustainable management of waste and water, and use of energy: I think those are principles that are applicable whether you are working in Abu Dhabi, Rotterdam or here in Vancouver. On the other hand the way they are expressed should be totally different and they should offer indigenous solutions, that is, a solution that will have a staying power, that will have robustness over time.

MH: How did working in all these different places change your way of thinking about new urbanism?

LB: Every time you have another experience in another place, it has brought out your thinking. For example when I started working in Abu Dhabi, Ottawa, Dallas, and in Asia, what I noticed is that there is a lot more diversity in solutions than I assumed when I was in Vancouver. I think this true for a lot of people; they find a solution for some problem and then they think ‘Oh, I will use that somewhere else’ and yet you find that there are different solutions. For example in Vancouver we had the philosophy that we would not like any underground pedestrian linkage between places because we wanted to keep people on the street. In Abu Dhabi we are finding that some separation grade of pedestrian connection would make sense. Partly because you can offer cooler places and cooler respites for people and partly because they have a tradition of separating pedestrians into retail spaces. For example the souks were often just pedestrian grids and so it is important for me to learn that those are good solutions; they work and they help you to achieve the underlying principle which is to put less emphasis on the car and more on alternatives modes of mobility that impact less on the environment.

I felt that the potentialities regarded to housing, how they do retailing, their cultural institutions, are different and it broads out your thinking quite dramatically. But what it has also done to me and what is the opposite is that it strengthens my belief that the underlying principles for human settlements are in fact similar. No matter how diverse the circumstances seem to be, there are similar propositions or principles that can make for better cities. Also it confirmed my believe that coherent planning under the leadership of government can be very positive, because individual, independent action creates a lot of negative externalities that other people are impacted with. Whereas when you can have a strong vision for how a place is developing, everyone can do their own independent, creative and innovative thing, but it will all come together into a workable solution. So working in these various cities have convinced me that cities are in fact organisms that need some coherence.

MH: In Vancouver, as part of the transformation, you started a large public consultation with 50,000 citizens. It helped you in spite of political changes to continue working on the plan. At the end of your lecture you urged the City Rotterdam of Rotterdam ‘to start a very loud and engaging public process for a newly revitalized residential city in the future’. As you underline, a democratic planning process is your most valuable marketing tool. In Abu Dhabi there is no democracy as you say citizens prefer this because their royal family respects them and satisfies their needs. How do you think about the democratic process there?

LB: Even though the decision-making process is different in Vancouver, Rotterdam and Abu Dhabi, the fact is that the market works the same way. People desire things and consume things, or they wish they could consume things that they cannot because they are not available. I’ve urged the Abu Dhabi government to reach out and speak to its citizens, to try to understand what its citizens want and what they need much more than they have done in the past. They started having public consultations even though it is not a strong tradition of theirs. It is done differently. Emiratis who are working with us are going out into the community – male employees of the UPC will meet with men and females with women – and they will bring their reactions back. The leadership is now discovering that they have the benefit of the comments on their plans and that it is helping them to make better choices that are attractive to their citizens. Now maybe their choices are not made by a democratic government, but it is still important to know what citizens as consumers prefer, enjoy want and need, rather than just try to assume what they want and need.

Before we have charettes we are trying to get people’s ideas about different subjects and then bring in the thinkers from elsewhere and feed the outcome of the charettes back to the communities. The charettes itself also incorporate the leadership of Abu Dhabi, but we also invite other influential Emirati people. So the ideas of the international guests are shaped by the local people.

Unfortunately governments all over the world have often been looking to the system of cities, how to make them efficient and effective, and by this, have been creating horrible places. I think that can be solved just by asking people and then try to build what those people tell you they aspire to, what they prefer and where they long for. That is why I keep putting the emphasis on consumers.

The second aspect of these questions comes to sustainability and this is more true in our societies than in Abu Dhabi. In democratic societies, if you don’t build places that people really want that are sustainable then they will continue to consume unsustainable things. Right now, for example, the life of suburbs is what a lot of people really want. When it comes to cities, we build places that they would rather not be in. They don’t want to raise there children in them; they want to try to escape from them. So we do need to build sustainable cities that are dense, diverse, urban, that are also really appealing to people. Then they would like to live there, but you’ve got to listen to people to be able to do that. That is true for Abu Dhabi, Rotterdam and Vancouver and Dallas.

October 2009

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“Engaged at a Distance: Larry Beasley interviewed by Marieke Hillen”

[...] Dubai, with its record-breaking skyscrapers, indoor ski slope and man-made islands, the UPC, guided by international experts, has quietly been working on a different development model to guide development, which they call [...]




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