Rethinking Mobility To Design Cities for Humans

Max Schwitalla talked to us about how we can transform our cities through small-scale solutions, mobility hubs and citizen participation, putting sustainability and quality of life at the center.

Max Schwitalla is an architect who fell in love with architecture and urban design through skateboarding. He says mobility was always present in his life. For the past six years he has been envisioning the future of urban environments with his small passionate team of five at Studio Schwitalla, a Berlin based Research and Design Studio working at the intersection of architecture, urban mobility and urban design. He is passionate about new forms of urban mobility that enable the design of future cities as places with high quality of life.

At Shared Mobility Rocks, one of our partner events that will take place on October 8th in Brussels (watch out for our sessions on mobility as a service, feedback loops and shared mobility dreams for 2030), he will talk about the relation of mobility and the immobile urban space on a systematic scale.

The invention of the elevator in 1845 radically changed the way buildings were constructed and with the appearance of the car, the streets were designed after its needs in the 20th century. You are currently working on projects with both car and elevator companies, which you mentioned are part of the problem we currently face. What’s your approach to these collaborations?

Today we see cities like LA that are designed for the car or New York that is designed around the elevator. We now understand that these cities have economic, ecological and social limits in terms of sustainability. So we talk to those who are co-responsible for these problems, as you could say. The elevator company Schindler for example is very interested in learning how they can take the next step and contribute to a new urban utopia. These companies used to work after a b2b model as elevators are sold to builders, not the end-customers. In developing b2c relationships they are very open, interested in research and establishing new collaborations as well as the possibility to propose new architectural solutions that are more geared to the human scale and urban sustainability.

Its a bit more complex with established car producers, because they seem to be protecting and defending their traditional values. Companies like e.GO Mobile however, who are new on the market are more open to rethink old concepts. In any case, these collaborations are a win-win situation. Global companies engage with planners and designers to produce interesting ideas and to participate in a wider design community.

Is there an equivalent to the elevator and car in 2019 that is as influential to the future of habitat and mobility?

The most exciting development lies in applying different scales to mobility, especially in an urban environment. Small scale and electric micro mobility are a real revolution. We can think beyond the traditional combination of underground parking for cars below and an elevator within the building – like e-bikes to move up floors on ramps for example.

We need to get over the idea of car ownership but offer multiple mobility choices based on daily changing needs. Our entire mobility system needs to be innovated through the sharing economy and tech innovations on a human scale.

Micro Mobility Neighborhood II by Studio Schwitalla
Recently the first sets of shared bikes appeared in cities like Paris and Berlin, I think they are an important step in the right direction. The first phase of innovation typically comes with turmoil and problems, but I am sure they can be overcome in the next 5 years. We have to figure out how we can deploy these new offers in a responsible way. City authorities and local governments have to provide guidance.

Currently, we are going through a learning phase – the younger generation will hopefully grow up to have more respect for shared offers. Lime for example offers a model to distribute responsibility in the urban society. You can earn money by charging their bikes’ batteries in your home.

We have to establish an urban responsibility.

Sometimes when I see a fallen bike for example, I pick it up and put it back and hopefully people see that and act in similar ways.

You stressed the importance of getting over the concept of car ownership. What are the most important design choices to make when designing a project for zero car ownership?

First, we need to design small scale mixed-used neighborhoods, because a land use scenario that offers a mix of functions, like commercial, offices and residential reduces the need to drive far in order to go shopping for example. We need to focus on quality of life and design spaces accordingly. Getting over car ownership can have further financial benefits for the citizens: We can offer more affordable living space if we can reduce costly construction of underground parking. So as architects and planners, we have to include alternatives like shared cars or other mobility solutions when we design projects.

In a recent interview Bryce Willem and Antonin Yuji Maeno say that the laptop is one of the technologies that are changing how we reinvent cities – people can work from home, bedrooms rooms adopt multiple purposes and become part-time offices and companies save office space. They predict that we will need to design spaces that are more flexible and adaptable and cater to new types of communities as they observe the decline of the mononuclear family. How should future cities be designed to meet our needs and ensure an adequate response to the climate crisis?

I assume the sharing economy will have an impact on social structures. The way we live, as couples, in families, in shared apartments, within communities, in polyamorous relationships and so on has an impact on how much space we need, how many private rooms we need, which functions we want to share. The architectural solutions are far behind to meet these different needs. We explored this trend in collaboration with a car company and designed a mini apartment with just 27m² to minimize the private footprint. The idea was that the more public functions of the apartment could open up to generate additional shared space between the units.

The problem with many of the emerging alternative co-living models like WeLive is that they promote a highly commercialized way of living. Tenants buy themselves into a community and living turns into a service or product.

We need to think about how we can give more responsibility back to citizens, in established but also in growth markets. For example residents could help to build their apartments through a private/public partnership. Local housing authorities could provide the basic infrastructure, flooring and roofing and the people could finish their own built environment themselves: Our “Urban Shelf” concept for example was inspired by workshops with students in Brasil. Such a model would need to be adjusted for the European market but I am sure there will be more participatory design in the future.

Another case we are observing is WeWork in Berlin. Their tenants are often big companies who want to offer a little holiday from the traditional office life to their staff and send them to quite expensive co-working spaces. Another crucial question next to affordable living is affordable working spaces in cities. How can we support micro businesses? And how can these small business units of maybe 5 to 10 employees form networks for multidisciplinary collaboration and offer more flexible services?

How can we take the social aspects of a transition to zero-car owned cities into account? What design choices could make the transition both sustainable and socially acceptable for those who live in urban sprawl?

Zero car ownership would be much easier to achieve in dense urban environments, but some solutions also work very well in rural areas. Alternative models of private car sharing that allow you to rent a car from a neighbor for example, work well. Another solution is public transport on-demand or ride-sharing. When I was about 15 years old we had shared night taxis that we had to book 30min in advance. “BerlKönig” a digitally advanced version of this model is now applied by BVG in Berlin for example and this also works in rural areas as an on-demand mass transportation concept. Such on-demand transport allows for smaller vessel sizes and meets the dynamic demand. In urban and rural areas we have to think, smaller again in terms of micro mobility.

Mobility Hubs will be an important contribution to car-free environments as well: Places that allow us to leave our car and change transportation easily and encourage us to use different transportation modes more frequently.

My vision are mobility hubs designed like we used to design train stations – the cathedrals of the 20th century: places of high spatial quality paired with other services.

Do you have ideas on how to “repair” urban landscapes devastated by car ownership and urban sprawl?

I think the more crucial part is to have a decisive influence on all the infrastructure that will be built in the next decades.

With global warming, energy supply issues and the growing urbanization our biggest duty is not to repeat our mistakes from the past.

As cities need to be attractive to compete for talent, we have to design them for people not for cars.

What is a project that you are particularly proud of when it comes to how it answers to the challenges you named earlier?

If we want to change the way how we build our cities, it’s not just on the building scale or the large-scale urban planning – but we also have to change the scale of planning and think in neighborhoods. On this level most of our work is still conceptual but we implement these ideas little by little in competitions now. Architecture and urban planning obviously takes a very long time and reacts relatively slow to new challenges.

Along this path – from vision to reality – we believe in the power of images. Animations, movies and even gaming become more important to us as communication tools to stimulate the discussion about the future of our cities.

The “Tübinger Regal” is a refugee housing project where we were able to implement some ideas we developed for the concept of the “urban shelf” on a building scale. We turned the building inside-out with an exterior circulation through stairs and balcony access offer a more pleasant experience as dark hallways. This open circulation space enables social interaction between the different inhabitants, refugees and students. We used a little as concrete as possible and used ecological materials in the exterior façade like wood and recycled bricks. We also presented a mobility concept for this building, including a station based shared car on site as well as convenient bike parking. Therefore we could reduce the amount of car parks that we had to construct by regulations and dedicate more space to people – and that’s what matters: More space for people and less space for cars!

What are you going to talk about at Shared Mobility Rocks? What are the “edges” you see in your work?‍

I will be introducing our work, looking back on our experience and share proposals that will hopefully inspire some people. For us, the most important boundaries to push in the coming years is our imagination. The urban space is three dimensional, yet mobility is always organized in plan view, in 2d. I would like to challenge our imagination to think in the 3rd dimension. I am not advocating individual transportation above our heads, I think drone buses could work well, but let’s loose ground, let’s loose gravity in our minds and lets build better cities! ‍

This post was previously published on and is republished here under a Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 France


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Photo credit: istockphoto

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