Unlock the value in cities by thinking about them as more than mere buildings

Introduction

In a recent conversation with a property developer, one of our editors learned a sad secret. During the chat our interviewee exposed a depressingly common practice in the building industry. “Of course, we used the cheapest bricks we could find,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone. “If people can’t tell the difference between a €1 brick and a €1.50 one, why wouldn’t we?” The logic is sound – sort of. You’re probably disappointed to hear it but not altogether surprised. When pressed on the legacy of his work, the developer answered quickly and defensively. “The legacy I leave will be in cash and to my children.”

There comes a time in the lifecycle of any business when the likely legacy of its work moves into view. How will the company survive as markets shift and the global economy tilts? Are we investing our time in something that is built to last and leaves the world a better place than it arrived in? What should I leave to my spouse, children or grandchildren? While there are plenty of businesses that are seeing the benefits of cleaning up their supply chains, paying employees fairly and funding philanthropic endeavours, do enough think about the future of our cities? Surely we all suffer when developers fob us off with cheaper bricks.

More than half the global population already call urban areas home, with this number expected to swell to about 66 per cent by 2050. Our collective future is indisputably an urban one. Whether you live in London or Lagos, our challenges will be inherent in city-living and are already easy to glean: those of space, resources and competition as well as balancing our prosperity with room to roam, green spaces and enough diversions to keep us happy – what you might call our collective quality of life.

That said, the competing interests of developers, architects, homeowners and retailers wouldn’t necessarily make for a happy, healthy city in which to live. However, cities are arguably our greatest success. They fuel prosperity, innovation and draw us in – tempted by opportunity, excitement and the lure of fortune, fame or chance encounters. They’re capricious, serendipitous and fun. They exist on a continuum: whether you’re in Oslo or Mumbai, Sydney, Singapore or Seattle the issues that our cities face are often universal. Considering which cities are doing it best (and which companies are pro ting from creating more lively and liveable spaces) will bring us one step closer to building better ones.

Cash in a bank account is just one way to bestow wealth on future generations but we’d argue that leaving a healthier, more liveable city for our successors is more important. Here’s how a little thoughtful planning and a series of benchmark-making businesses can leave our cities a more pro table place for future generations. These are the ingredients that safeguard a liveable legacy for our cities and for our children.

Embrace Difference

 

Differing architectural styles create variety and, crucially, options for a range of occupants. High-rise living may suit some budgets but spaces that make for layered living (a shop below and house above, for example) should also be encouraged. Wooden structures such as those of Omegn Building Society in Bergen and prefabricated structures such as those of Helsinki’s Kannustalo demonstrate the Nordic nations’ unwillingness to plump for glass and steel, which should be admired. A variety of vernaculars creates texture, individuality and liveability. Mark our words, identikit flats in charmless high-rises won’t hold their value like individual commissions that consider human scale, natural materials and light.

Make it in the city

Manufacturing bolsters the economy, offers jobs and spurs city- makers (who have all but disappeared due to expensive rents). A bit of noise and industry adds to the charm of proceedings. Zoning all trades out of our cities creates a vacuum of creativity and an undue reliance on imports and white-collar jobs. Too many cities have become centres for service industries and have priced out practical workers and the skills that they pass on to the next generation. Drake’s is a London-based accessory- maker that has made a go of inner-city making while schemes such as Nat Cheshire’s City Works Depot in Auckland show that ateliers can thrive in the city. Funding such projects will be profitable and safeguard manufacturing jobs for the future.

Upsell retail options

Different-sized retail spaces offer opportunities at both ends of the market: smaller businesses can get a leg up and bigger ones can take up more space if they need to. Shopping centres don’t make for a lively street-life or encourage smaller brands and entrepreneurship. Siam Discovery in Bangkok and Editor Market in Buenos Aires are examples of how shopping centres should be reimagined; they help local brands gain a foothold and offer an antidote to big-box concepts built exclusively for luxurious international brands. Meanwhile, the James Street Initiative in Brisbane is a measure of successful development that shows that local brands are the key to good placemaking.

Grow and show

Increase urban greenery and turn cities into places that people are happy to live and work in (it will increase efficiency too). This will add to people’s sense of wellbeing as well as the physical health of city-dwellers by giving them somewhere to soak up the sun or break a sweat. Repurposing projects is a potent example of adaptive re-use that can recharge overlooked and previously downtrodden neighbourhoods and open them up to footfall and new vendors – just look at the High Line in New York. Singapore is a city blessed with plentiful greenery and its experiments in high-level gardens are a welcome antidote to an otherwise space-starved city-state.

Create space

Plump for public spaces within new projects and developments. Outdoor seating on retail strips adds to a shared sense of ownership and a stake in the community. London’s infamous “Camden Bench” is designed to be as uncomfortable as possible to ward off loiterers but the public outcry against it shows that this isn’t how a city should treat its citizens. Conversely, Argent is a London-based developer based a few miles from Camden and its regeneration of the King’s Cross neighbourhood is well worth heeding. It’s a prime example of how to recharge an area with independent businesses, as well as space that’s shared between commerce and passers-by and a sparkling food-and-drink line-up.

Keep things moving

Invest in infrastructure. Expensive though they are, roads, cycle lanes, trains and buses will keep a city moving. Meanwhile, bike parking at stations, well-maintained roads and timely trains all do their bit. Copenhagen sets the global standard for integrating bicycle culture and roads and insulates two-wheelers from traffic with parked cars. Long-term investments in public transport such as London’s Crossrail are also commendably far-sighted projects. Getting people on their bikes sounds simple but bumpy, busy and unprotected roads, as well as high pollution, keep cities such as New Dehli and Beijing from being safe for cyclists, despite it being the most convenient form of transport for most people.

Stay local

Rely on local designers; flying in starchitects is shortsighted and a little crass. Let the people who know the city best make the lasting impressions and keep the cash you spend within the city. Offering out extravagant commissions to people who will never visit again doesn’t signify progress. It might not be a sure fire money-spinner but it shows that governments and developers support their own and are willing to take a risk. Once again it’s the Nordic capitals that best illustrate that investing in home-grown talent can be a business card for international expansion; you need look no further than Snøhetta’s iconic marble opera house on Oslo’s waterfront.

Land a decent airport

Inner-city airports have proved more successful than out-of-town super-hubs. Visitors to Malpensa in Milan know the peculiar suffering saved for hour-plus flight transfers, while super-projects such as Brandenburg have struggled to get off the ground. Offering a number of options and acknowledging that air travel is part of a city’s long-term plan to compete globally have proved that sites such as London City Airport (a short skip for those working in Canary Wharf or The City proper) and Billy Bishop in Toronto are worthwhile investments for sustained growth. Governments should be decisive and positive in spite of the inevitable planning headache.

Invite all–comers

Offer affordable housing. Zoning by income creates ghettos and sterile spaces where chance interaction and vibrancy are lost and people are sidelined (Paris springs to mind as an example of where this has fallen at and the city’s neglected suburbs need supplementing). Cities are at their finest when they are meeting places for different cultures. The reason we’re drawn to them in the first place is their capacity to excite us with opportunity – economic, yes, but not solely. No state capital can stay competitive if it doesn’t offer anything for the elderly or attract younger visitors. Vienna is Europe’s largest landlord, offering preferential rent to inner-city residents and vetting the occupants of 25 per cent of the city’s homes.

Celebrate nightlife

Consider the night-time economy. It’s fun and makes good business sense for round-the-clock revenue; it’s also good for nocturnal security. Amsterdam was among the first to appoint a full-time night mayor in Mirik Milan. As a representative for his city’s after-hours affairs he is a voice for the nightclub owners, bar businesses, restaurants and music venues that keep our cities moving after dark. It’s a useful counterbalance in a debate dominated by sensitive homeowners who have overlooked the importance of fun in a city’s repertoire. Residents will be the ones who suffer in the longrun if overbearing legislation, such as the fiercely opposed lockout laws in Sydney, make our cities too sterile.

Q&A

Tobias Baur, Managing director, Ramboll Studio Dreiseitl, Singapore

German-born Tobias Baur is managing director of urban- planning consultancy firm Ramboll Studio Dreiseitl’s Singapore outpost. The architect and his team are catalysts and consultants for building better cities.

Q What is your vision for what a better city should be built upon?

A We work a lot on public open space and cycling, and I think a liveable city is a city where people have space for themselves; where movement through the city and the public realm is possible by foot and bicycle. It gives more priority to the people.

Q What is a liveable city?

A There are the social component and the economic component but also the infrastructural component, which we are looking into on the planning side. The key is getting all these things right and having a place for an easy commuting infrastructure, as well as a place where outdoor spaces are used and the air is clean.

Q Which city does it best?

A Copenhagen has improved; it was a very poor city 30 years back. The water quality in the harbour was horribly polluted; Copenhagen has made a big effort to clean it up. People now interact, swim, have paddleboats and so on. It’s a very good example of how to turn a bad city into a very liveable city. Parallel with that comes a very good cycling network, reducing the number of carparks in the city centre.

Q Any other standouts?

A Zürich and Vancouver, but there are also smaller cities such as Freiburg. It’s in between Germany and France, on the border. The bicycle infrastructure is very, very strong and it’s going in a very green direction in terms of food production and community farming. The city is also surrounded by nature, which provides fresh air.

Q What about bigger cities?

A Singapore is a good example of a large, liveable Asian city, which has made a lot of effort over the past 10 to 20 years to address this. It’s accomplished this through creating open, public space and improving outdoor comfort through the introduction of greenery and so on. Plus, it’s done a great job addressing the air quality and methods such as biodiversity.

Q Are you worried about the free market being left to shape our cities?

A There is a difference of opinion when we talk about pro t. Government agencies are not driven by it; they are driven by addressing challenges and creating liveable space for the people in their cities. On the other hand there are private developers – and they are driven by pro t. They’re developing in order to earn money.

Q What are the greatest challenges facing cities?

A Urbanisation and the fact that people are moving towards them. Resource scarcity is another problem. Water is becoming a precious element so we need to think of alternative ways of using it.

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