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RICS Smart and Liveable Cities Conference 2019

The liveable city: Rethinking cities as social and sustainable spaces

Urban regeneration must put people first. Fabrizio Varriale, RICS Place and Space Analyst, examines the services and amenities of the liveable city.

Fabrizio Varriale, RICS Place and Space Analyst
23 June 2022

Why urban regeneration must put people first

The World Built Environment Forum Dubai 2022 provided great opportunities to discuss different facets of the liveable city as the model for 21st-century urban development and regeneration.

One theme that clearly emerged was that of access. This can be defined in a strictly physical sense, looking at services and amenities that are available to the inhabitants of an area.

Promoting access with the 15-minute city

Violeta Bulc, curator of the Ecocivilisation movement and former EU Commissioner for Transport, presents the concept of the 15-minute city. This proposes that all essential and everyday services should be no more than 15 minutes from any household without reliance on driving. It offers the personal benefit of people walking or biking where they are able, while reducing traffic and pressure on public transport.

Urban densification is key to realising this model – but not where it leads to the centralised services and conventional zoning of functions. Instead, planning should aim to create a network of clusters to optimise the amenities that people can access within a short distance or travel time from home, rather than using car traffic or abstract urban models.

Dr Hila Oren, CEO, the Tel Aviv Foundation, explains that this requires a conceptual shift from urban planning to social planning, to develop an ergonomic city that accommodates the needs of all its residents.

Rethinking streets as social spaces rather than travel corridors, and creating a network of green spaces and fast connections to peri-urban green spaces are also ways to improve liveability by enabling access, says Maria Vassilakou, CEO of Vienna Solutions and former Vice-Mayor of Vienna. Notably, the District 2020 area developed as part of Expo 2020 in Dubai will be converted into a residential area inspired by the 15-minute city concept.

Access can also be defined in a less physical sense, looking at people’s capacity to use and feel welcomed by urban spaces and services. Equality, diversity and inclusion are quickly becoming primary concerns for all built environment disciplines, and urban planning is no exception. And although these are intangible issues, they ultimately depend on very tangible conditions.

As Jonathan Woetzel, Director and Senior Partner, McKinsey Global Institute, argues, to be diverse in terms of population, income levels and skills, urban spaces and services must be accessible to all. Without meeting people’s basic rights through adequate spaces – be they rights to housing, education or healthcare – it’s very hard for them to feel part of the city.

"We need to continue to dialogue and learn from each other, because there are a lot of wonderful practices in different cities that we can learn and adapt from."

Yu-Ning Hwang
Chief Planner & Deputy CEO, Urban Redevelopment Authority of Singapore, speaking on ‘The liveable city: Agile, healthy, resilient’

Singapore leads the way

Dr Cheong Koon Hean, Chair, the Centre for Liveable Cities, offers the example of Singapore as a multi-ethnic country where urban planning aims explicitly to achieve social cohesion. To avoid the creation of ethnic and economic enclaves, new developments there are populated with households of different income levels and a mix that reflects the demographic shares of the population: about 75% Chinese, 15% Malay and 7.5% Indian.

Access to housing is particularly important to a diverse city. To enable this, Woetzel believes that more land should be unlocked for residential use, and the costs of land purchase and development should be lowered. Moreover, both public and private funding should be channelled into developing housing as a response to the human need for shelter, rather than purely as an investment opportunity.

While he recognises that it can be difficult to reconcile the market-led economy with accessible housing for all, he also argues that, in the long term, it will be less expensive to house people appropriately rather than deal with the consequences and costs of homelessness.

Indeed, an essential aspect of developing more accessible and diverse urban areas is the capacity to plan, design and build in response to actual societal needs, rather than top-down political or economic objectives. This involves a degree of long-term thinking that can be at odds with the relative short-term attitude of politicians who need to achieve results within the time frame of electoral mandates.

But this does not always have to be the case. In Singapore, a long-term approach to urban planning has been adopted because of limitations in space and resources. Land use is not left to be decided entirely by market forces, and its management includes safeguards for economic and social development.

Prioritising the needs of people

Dr Amy Hochadel, Global Business Growth Director, the Connected Places Catapult, agrees that to increase the social value of infrastructure development must be led by people’s needs rather than planning rules or economic interest.

Although initial exercises of public engagement are essential, she believes the established models of public–private partnership are not capable of responding to people’s demands. Overall, we need a mix of different approaches to local problems. Places that enable such approaches to be tested are going to be critical.

Finally, speakers also concentrated on the need for cities to become places of regeneration. As explained by Catriona Brady, Director of Strategy and Development, the World Green Building Council, cities have always been net consumers of resources produced elsewhere, from nearby rural areas to distant lands.

Given the ongoing trend of urbanisation across the globe and the high associated resource consumption, it is becoming clear that cities must find ways to give back more than they take if they are to be liveable in the long term.

Regenerative cities can create a net-positive balance of environmental impact by repairing and restoring natural resources; but the concept can also be applied to society. Good examples of regenerative design, albeit at small scale, are the Acciona Ombu office designed by Fosters and Partners in Madrid, and the Peace Slum project in São Paulo.

Putting placemaking at the heart of planning

Overall, what has emerged from the sessions at WBEF Dubai 2022 is a renewed focus on people’s needs as the main concern of planning activities. Far from being just a nice-to-have for rich neighbourhoods, placemaking – the creation of spaces that people can use, and to which they can develop a sense of belonging – is a core component of creating liveable cities and thriving communities. Its absence from the planning and design process can often lead to significant consequences.

Lord Udny-Lister, Co-Chair, the UAE–UK Business Council, gave the example of the UK's housing drive after the Second World War. He said this paid little consideration to placemaking and community creation, resulting in hardship and poor job prospects for some who grew up on such estates.

He contrasted this with work today by organisations such as Homes England and the Greater London Authority. These are leading exemplary large developments, designed at the human scale and well served by facilities, shops, meeting places, green and play areas, and schools.

Woetzel rightly describes cities as places of high-density and high-frequency interactions between people, so the focus should be on the human aspect. Like any living organism, humans grow and change, and so do cities.

As Ann Gray, President-Elect, RICS, put it, to achieve liveability the old idea of the static city must be challenged. Our cities must be able to age and renew, be resilient, attract talent, and – most importantly – provide affordable housing for everyone.

Jonathan Woetzel, Director, McKinsey Global Institute, speaking at the session ‘The liveable city - Agile, healthy, resilient’

Maria Vassilakou, Vienna Solutions and former Deputy Mayor of Vienna, speaking at the session ‘Towards the 15-minute city’.