03 July 2014

Living in Wonderland

Written by Published in Book Reviews

Ever lived in or visited a great city and wondered what makes it tick? David Twohig reveals the secret recipe

A diverse population is key to the success of one of South America’s most vibrant neighbourhoods. Let's explore a good case study.


LivinginWonderland-1Palermo is the name of a barrio or neighbourhood in the north-east of the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires. Historically it was a residential district popular with Spanish and Italians, and this is reflected in the diverse range of local restaurants, churches, schools and cultural offerings. Like so many of today’s progressive and popular districts around the world, it is the diversity of people that enriches the area.

In the decade since Argentina’s economic collapse, Palermo has emerged as the newly hip and fashionable area for fashion, design, restaurants and street culture. The streets and pavements are home to an eclectic mix of independent companies offering an alternative to the plethora of global brands. This and the European-style architecture of low-rise two and three-storey housing attract a young and creative crowd. The area is bohemian, but definitely upper-middle class.

LivinginWonderland-7Following the recession of 2001, a graffiti movement such as that which prevailed in New York in the 70s and 80s finally made its way to Buenos Aires. In Palermo, where graffiti is legal with the permission of the building owner; fantastic street art is undertaken in a controlled and pro-active manner. The result is that dilapidated buildings are beautified at a time when money is in short supply and the street art with its social commentary provides a rich depth to the neighbourhood’s social context.

LivinginWonderland-6The tree-lined streets are reminiscent of Saint Germain in Paris, but the area is far more liveable than Paris’s ‘museum district’ as Parisians refer to it. Saint Germain, while beautiful, has evolved into a tourist district of hotels and boutique shops that are too expensive and lack the daily services to sustain a sufficient resident base. Palermo is far more liveable and moves at a typically relaxed Latin America pace, where people sip coffee at the pavement cafés; but you can still always sense that someone is planning their next creative endeavour. This mix offers the perfect creative tonic.

LivinginWonderland-5To me, Palermo shares a lot of similarities with Shanghai’s French Concession. Both are young, vibrant districts of converted shops, studios and cafés populated by people with ambitions to do great things. That in turn attracts more conventional residents and companies who enjoy being associated with its unique characters.

Attracting the masses results in ever-increasing property values. But Palermo is cleaner than Shanghai’s French Concession, is less densely populated and the residents are more discerning.

It is, in my opinion, the perfect neighbourhood. So what are the elements that make Palermo such a successful district and how can that be captured in a contemporary development? The elements that led to its success in my opinion are a diverse population, independent retailers, an active art scene, and low-rise authentic buildings in a leafy environment.


LivinginWonderland-2How to replicate the success of neighbourhoods that mature over decades in new-build communities

So how can this be successfully replicated in new developments? It comes down to establishing a manifesto at the outset of the development and rigidly staying true to it when faced with easier alternatives. Opting for the safer default position is the primary route towards dull homogenous developments around the world.

• An ethnically diverse population requires the provision of a mix of housing and office types at different price points. This should result in faster absorption by the market but requires more complex research and marketing.

• Independent retailers tend to fail commercially more than the chains who are tried and tested and whose lease and rental payments are guaranteed by an established parent company. They will create a unique attraction but they provide financing and management issues, meaning it is easier for developers to chicken out and opt for chains or franchises.

• Globally we are improving the provision of participatory art and events. People are more into immersion and pop-up events that challenge typical perceptions of our urban environment. Long may the support for this continue in lieu of static public sculpture.

• The greatest challenge for contemporary developments is creating authentic buildings that can compete with the historic buildings that so often attract creative companies. We need to be brave and move away from the sole provision of glass boxes.

• Creating a green environment is relatively straightforward but developers need to provide a hierarchy of useable spaces from large parklands to pocket parks and roof terraces.

LivinginWonderlandThe above is an extract of my new book on urban development and placemaking. Explore these challenges more extensively in 
Living in Wonderland
(Harriman House), £30.




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