Steven Dale on ‘The need for aged buildings’ – Introducing New Oerlikon

Oerliker Park in Neu-Oerlikon. CC image by flickr user ' m x b c h r.

Underpinning everything Jacobs writes is a deep understanding of economics. She understands that the way a city functions (or doesn’t) is largely economic in nature. Cities that are diverse, vibrant and alive are generally those that are built in a way to maximize the economic choices and well-being of it’s residents.

Cities that are monotonous, boring and stultifying are likely to be monopolistic utopias where no one is allowed to – in Jacobs’ own words – “struggle with plans of his own.”

Jacobs’ invocation of the fourth dimension in city building is nothing more than an extension of her economic argument.

In Jacobs’ world, there is nothing inherently better about old buildings instead of new ones, except for the fact that they’re cheap. And if we accept the idea that innovators, incubators, artists and small businesses attract, grow and sustain diverse and exciting activities in a neighbourhood; then it only figures that neighbourhoods with the kinds of cheap, old buildings required by such users will attract such users.

If an alternate universe existed where new buildings were cheaper than old ones you can be certain your local start-ups would locate themselves in the former rather than the latter. It would just make economic sense.

Maybe such a universe as that exists, but we don’t live there. In our universe the guys who invent Groupon, your cousin’s grindcore garage band and that Brazilian Ju-Jitsu studio just down the street from your hairdresser tend to prefer old industrial spaces with leaky windows not because they like brick, but because they like affordability.

So while the dismal science may not be as sexy as LEED-certified buildings and fancy AutoCAD renderings of fine European architecture; designers, planners and architects who ignore the economic imperative in city building are wont to create neighbuorhoods and structures antithetical to the goals of a sound urban sphere.

There is perhaps no better contemporary example of this than Neu-Oerlikon in Switzerland.

Neu-Oerlikon (‘New Oerlikon’)  is a 55 hectare brownfield redevelopment of old industrial lands in the northern suburbs of Zurich, Switzerland. Plans were started in 1988 to create a mid-rise, mixed-use development of 5,000 residents, 12,000 jobs, shopping and several iconoclastic parks. Construction began at the turn of the millennium and is nearing completion with most of the area built out and already being used by residents and employees.

Let’s repeat that. In a period of 15 years Zurich intends to completely develop an area roughly the size of the University of Toronto’s massive downtown campus and populate it with as many residents as currently live in Zurich’s historic downtown Altstadt (‘Old City’).

55 hectares. 5,000 residents. 12,000 jobs. In 15 years.

Does anyone know how to say "nothing could go wrong with this idea" in Swiss German?

New Oerlikon is almost a master class in how to do city building wrong. Beyond the glossy exterior of magazine-ready, award-winning architecture is a neighbourhood of rot. The place is an inane, spiritless vacuum where no proper city life could ever hope to survive, let alone prosper.

The place is eerily vacant. When you see people on the street it’s somewhat surprising. It’s not to say that there aren’t people there, it’s just that they’re so thin on the ground that when you actually do see someone they seem completely out of place. It’s as though the architects and planners built a place that was specifically designed to preclude its use by humans.

And while I’m sure that wasn’t the initial intention, it was certainly the result.

Take a look at these pictures I recently took at 7pm on a warm Saturday evening:

In New Oerlikon, people have had to take a backseat to architecture.

Already people are voicing concerns about the lack of vitality in the district – which authorities dismiss as being due to the speed of development. “Once the remaining industrial sites have been developed,” they say, “this impression is very likely to change.”

Oerliker-Park in Neu-Oerlikon. CC image by flickr user the-horse-is-gone.

In other words, the proposed solution for curing a lack of vitality directly caused by too quick a development schedule is merely to develop more – more quickly.

The irony here is so thick and malodorous one could mistake it for fondue.

The New Oerlikon problem is one of speed and lack of age. No time was given for maturation. Old industrial sites were either razed or restored (which often costs more than new construction), eliminating any chance of building-reuse as a means of incubating art, business and technology. Everything in New Oerlikon comes from a top-down, paternalistic master plan that dictates to residents how one should live one’s life rather than enables them to live whatever life they want.

Building more of what they’ve already built won’t solve anything. It will exacerbate it.

Commercial Enterprises in New Oerlikon. CC image by flickr user jaeschol

The problem with New Oerlikon isn’t, however, limited merely to issues of speed and time.

In a nod to history, the street-grid of New Oerlikon is characterized by long blocks appropriate to its formerly industrial uses. This grid typology is not, however, appropriate for residential and commercial uses. Designers didn’t understand this and rather than modify the street grid, they maintained it. You can revisit our discussion of long and small blocks here and here to find out why that’s such a huge problem for an area that’s supposed to be a hub for employment and residences.

Blocks in New Oerlikon are enormous and almost always dominated by a single building. Granted, there is some permeability throughout the site due to a large number of pedestrian-only walkways between the buildings. But as so many of these buildings are single-use with only a smattering of restaurants (always closed on weekends) and convenience retail uses, why would anyone bother to use them?

The PwC building in New Oerlikon. CC image by

And lastly, it’s parks are oversized, poorly designed and far too-numerous (there are five parks all within a few minutes’ walking distance of each other). True, they’re not poorly-designed in the aesthetic sense. Aesthetically, they’re beautiful:

Oerliker Park. CC image by ubiquity_zh.
The multi-storey, 3 dimensional MFO Park. CC image by Woenchen.


Louis Häfliger Park. CC image via wikipedia.
Wahlenpark. CC image by flickr user Hayal Oezkan.

But as we discussed a couple of weeks ago (here and here) successful parks aren’t about aesthetics. Successful parks are about a whole host of geometric, economic and social factors that have very little to do with a park’s cosmetic attributes. It shouldn’t surprise anyone just how vacant a lot of these parks are a lot of the time.

Chapter 10 has one of my favourite quotes in all of D&L:

Neighbourhoods built up all at once change little physically over the years as a rule . . . The neighbourhood shows a strange inability to update itself, enliven itself, repair itself, or to be sought after, out of choice, by a new generation. It is dead. Actually it was dead from birth, but nobody noticed this much until the corpse began to smell.

Had I not know better, I could’ve thought Jacobs wrote that specifically about New Oerlikon. This district is a corpse. It will be interesting to see how long it takes people to notice the rot.

Random Thoughts

  • If there’s one thing in D&L that needs further exploration is the need for aged buildings. In our infrastructure-industrial age, old buildings are nothing more than an impediment to profit from the perspective of developers, engineers, architects and project managers. That’s a massive challenge: How to figure out ways to redevelop areas such as New Oerlikon while providing all the economic incentives to diversity and incubation old buildings offer – while still satisfying the profit motives of the development industry. Not easy.
  •  You know what are great? Artist renderings of developments that show absolute scores of people using the development in question. Renderings like these . . .

  • And for those wondering, yes, those are all renderings of New Oerlikon.


5 Comments Add yours

  1. Matthew says:

    This reminds me of the upcoming Assembly Square in the suburb of Somerville, MA redevelopment project. Brownfield, failed mall, now being turned into a multiblock, multiuse transit village. I am worried that it might meet this same fate. But what can be done?

    1. Steven Dale says:

      That’s the big question, isn’t it?

      As I see it, we need to reinforce in new developments the ability for people at the low-end of the value chain to penetrate the area and live their own lives – whatever that means.

      Don’t take “low-end of the value chain” to be any commentary on the quality of people. It’s simply a comment on how innovation, start-ups, artists, entrepreneurs, bars and restaurants tend to locate themselves in places that exist in the “low-end of the value chain.” That’s just the way innovation works.

      Perhaps the way to approach the problem is this: Rather than making developers dedicate 1% of the total project cost (or whatever the rate is in your neck of the woods) to inane and basically useless things like public art installations; maybe that money should be spent on low-rent, no-frills, bare bones spaces for the aforementioned clients to take possession of.

      It would be a complex arrangement, no doubt, but we’re talking here about intensifying urbanism by speeding up the slumming-deslumming-gentrifying process by allowing a development to begin with a “slum” component.

      Now good luck trying to sell that to developers and government who have a vested interest in sexy artist renderings, profits and all the front-page-glossy headlines those bring them. 😉

      Not easy.

      1. Matthew says:

        I’m not sure if that would be enough to cover the difference in costs. And even if you did add subsidies, wouldn’t that be subject to the same objections Jacobs brought up about paternalism, or the example of corner groceries?

      2. It certainly has the risk of paternalism, but I think there are ways to do it. For example, Artscape manages to transform under-utilized buildings in Toronto into low-rent flexible spaces for artists and non-profits.

        There’s also an opportunity to work with developers to build cheap units into new developments. It takes a lot of capital to build a new building, but not much more capital to build an extra unit in that building, so there is an opportunity there. Here’s an example:

        Gooderham and Worts is an excellent example of a public private partnership between the City of Toronto, the property owner and Toronto Artscape. Using Section 37 of the Planning Act, the City of Toronto secured the commitment from the owner for cultural amenities in return for additional residential density. As a result, Toronto Artscape has entered into a 20 year lease to develop a number of Incubator facilities on the site. The agreement also commits the developer to maintaining the historical integrity of the site.

        A Map of Toronto’s Cultural Facilities (PDF)

  2. Julia says:

    Did New Oerlikon reach its 5,000 resident goal? If so, it seems weird that there is no one outside. I mean, assuming it is a safe neighbourhood and all, on a nice day (or evening) you’d expect people to go for a stroll, even if there is no where in particular to stroll to.

    Can there really be 5,000 people inside watching tv?

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