A strategy for cities: Pedro Ortiz on the age of the metropolis
Cycling water vendors Nairobi, Kenya. Photo by Victoria Hickman/Engineering at Cambridge.

Nairobi, Kenya (pictured above), is one of the cities in the developing world where Pedro B. Ortiz is working with The World Bank to implement his Metro-Matrix Method to urban planning. Photo by Victoria Hickman/Engineering at Cambridge.

“We are made of hopes and we are made of dreams. That’s why people go to cities.”

There are 600 cities worldwide with over one million inhabitants. Many are growing at a very fast rate, by anywhere between four to 11 percent each year. A five percent growth rate means a city will double in population every 14 years – can you imagine building a new London, New York, or Paris every 14 years? It’s an impossible task, but one we must address and overcome within the next 30 to 40 years. Our planet is experiencing a new phenomenon of metropolitan explosion.

Pedro B. Ortiz, a Senior Urban Consultant at The World Bank, has offered an urban planning solution to the explosive growth of metropolises in his new book, The Art of Shaping the Metropolis. TheCityFix had the opportunity to interview Ortiz to better understand the challenges and opportunities of what he calls the “age of the metropolis.” Read on to see how we can strategically shift our urban planning techniques to sustainably accommodate rapid urbanization.

A rapidly urbanizing world

Help us pick apart the phrase the “age of the metropolis.”

Pedro Ortiz (PO): Most developed countries today are about 75-80 percent urban, but the world’s population is only about 50 percent urbanized. So the tendency in developing countries is for that gap in the population to migrate from rural to urban areas. We have been denying this trend for about 30 years. We’ve argued that development should be pursued in rural areas in terms of providing social, economic, and educational opportunities to rural populations, which is well and good but very expensive, because you’re playing against economies of scale.

The truth is we can’t keep rural populations from flowing to urban areas – that trend is going to continue. You cannot stop people from either running away from difficult situations like war or conflict in rural areas, or from being attracted to greater opportunities for jobs, education, wealth, health facilities, and more in cities. These individuals may have the opportunity to improve their lives; the question now is how do we manage this incredible amount of people migrating from rural to urban areas?

The figures are staggering: in the next 30 years, an additional two billion people are going to move into cities. That’s a rate of 300,000 people every day and more than two million people each week. That’s why we’re living in the “age of the metropolis.”

Out with the circular, in with the reticular

In your book you propose a Metro-Matrix Method for urban planning. Tell us about that.

PO: We’ve been largely following a circular approach to planning cities. New ring roads are built around an urban center as needed – that is, when one ring road gets congested the next one gets built. The problem is that the circular approach is congested by definition because it creates and reinforces a single centrality. Since that single center is where the most economic opportunities are located, that’s where everyone wants to be; the plan breeds congestion that spreads throughout the entire urban network. We can also think of the circular approach to urban planning as a game of darts – everyone is trying to get their arrows into the center of the board.

We need to change the framework of how we develop metropolises. Let’s move away from the circular approach towards a reticular, matrix approach that provides the benefits of a poly-centric city with a system of roads that isn’t congested. In a circle there is only one way to get to the center, but in a grid – which has several centers of economic activity – there are many alternative ways to get a desired destination, so congestion resolves itself naturally. Changing to a reticular pattern makes sense for cities as they evolve. The reticular Metro-Matrix is more like a chess board than a darts board – it provides many locations for strategies, and every piece has different tactics that add up to an overarching winning strategy.

Nairobi moves towards reticular planning

Can you share an example with us where the Metro-Matrix Method has been successful?

PO: Nairobi, Kenya, a city that boasts slums with some of the harshest living conditions in the world, is a good example of a city in the beginning stages of implementing a Metro-Matrix. Like other metropolises, Nairobi is located in a strategic position on the border of two ecosystems – hills that provide water and other natural resources to the city, and a flat plain. Nairobi was previously perceived to have a circular shape, so authorities were trying to build circular roads and bike paths. And the traffic jams they produce are terrible – you can spend more time sitting in traffic than at work. The problem is that Nairobi is not round, it has a linear shape.

The work I’ve been doing in Nairobi with The World Bank has focused on implementing transit-oriented development (TOD) with a commuter train that runs along the border of the city’s two ecosystems. Since the city has expanded naturally onto the flat plain, the linear development of a mass transport system is helping transform the central structure of Nairobi into a linear one. From there, it will be easier to replicate those lines into parallel ones and build a reticular. But it’s important to note that we’re easing into the development of a reticular through a very strategic TOD project, rather than proposing to build a Metro-Matrix from scratch. You can’t change everything at once, and often the most difficult part of the process is overcoming the entrenched mindset of both politicians and professionals that metropolises must be circular. Implementing strategic moves can help ensure success and change things over time – just like in a game of chess.

To learn more about Pedro Ortiz and the Metro-Matrix Method visit www.pedrobortiz.com.

Photo courtesy of Pedro B. Ortiz.Pedro Ortiz is currently a Senior Urban Consultant at The World Bank, Washington DC. Previously, he was Deputy Director of the Council of Architects of Madrid and Director of the Institute for Urban Renewal, a joint venture between the public and private sectors in Madrid. He was also the founder and Director of the Masters program of Town Planning of the University King Juan Carlos of Madrid. Pedro Ortiz was a Partner of the Planning Consultancy firm of Arop&As where he served as an advisor to the Regional Governments of Navarra and Murcia in Spain as well as many others around the world, in addition to several engineering and development companies including Intevia, SA, Institute of Transport Engineering and Roads, the Centro Superior de Arquitectura, Camuñas Foundation.

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