Trends in Urbanism

4 November 2021

As an architect, Michael Eliason advocates for dense, green, bike-friendly, family-friendly cities with ample social housing and open space. He sees five influential trends in liveable and innovative cities.

1. Brownfields to eco districts

European cities have been doing brownfield redevelopment — a strategy of urban recompaction instead of sprawl — for decades.

The Dutch city of Utrecht, for example, has several brownfield redevelopments underway, like the car-free district of Merwede, built on an island of dilapidated factories. It has massive amounts of green and open space; schools, kindergartens, sports facilities, commercial space, and retail; and 6,000 homes, across diverse housing typologies including social housing, Collectief Particulier Opdrachtgeverschap (CPOs, a Dutch variation on baugruppen), and market-rate housing.

Merwede Utrecht | BURA urbanism, OKRA landscape architects

Non-market housing will account for half the homes. All buildings will be low-energy. Planners also focus on biodiversity and tightly connecting the district to the larger region by bike, foot, and transit.

Many of these developments result from urban planning initiatives that focus on liveability, open space, schools, walkability, and so forth. This usually does not happen with purely market-driven developments.

2. Diverse housing options

These liveable cities have a variety of forms and costs.

Berlin, Vienna, and Freiburg have proactive land policies for non-market housing like social housing, cooperatives, and baugruppen. In addition, they award sites to projects incorporating sustainability, affordability, or other innovations.

A quarter of housing in the Netherlands is social housing. Two-thirds of Vienna residents live in social housing. Zürich, Switzerland, is aiming for a quarter of all households to live in cooperatives. By 2030, 30 percent of all Parisian homes will be social housing.

Household formation today is diverse and varied, and we should have housing options that match that diversity. More specifically, we should have affordable housing that matches these shifting demographics, encourages community, and enhances solidarity.

Housing diversity implies choosing one’s community, choosing how to live. Almost always, sustainability, walkability, and low-carbon living are paramount. There are multiple venues and forums for discussing these issues, including symposia, building exhibitions, and competitions. In addition, many cities encourage diverse housing forms through direct subsidy or progressive land policies (using public land for non-market housing).

3. Rapid transformation

Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo recently won reelection on a platform of massive transformation of the city. Her visionary proposal — the “Ville du quart h’eure,” or 15-minute city — isn’t sitting in a binder on a shelf. Instead, the city is taking rapid, proactive steps to bring it to fruition.

The 15-Minute City concept. Image — Paris en Commun

Earlier this year, Hidalgo dropped renderings for a massive re-configuration of ChampsÉlysées, showing that even major urban arterials, which now effectively function as highways, can be reconfigured as more pleasant and walkable. Doing so reduces the urban heat island effect, an increasingly critical issue in cities.

Similarly, Rotterdam is taking steps to ensure rapid transformations in mobility, housing, industrial land, open space, and climate mitigation in coming years, revolving around five themes: a city that is compact, productive, circular, inclusive, and healthy.

Rotterdam uses its reinvention as a selling point: “De veranderstad,” the city of change. “Rotterdam is never finished.” Quality of life constantly improves.

4. Productive cities

One popular urbanist theme that’s emerged in Europe over the last few years is the productive city: a radical mixing of uses across various scales, from region to neighbourhood to buildings. It means bringing production from outside the city, or the fringes, to the city centre, along avenues and neighbourhoods.

Production can include urban agriculture, energy production, food production/processes, recycling centres, or small scale production processes that constitute industry 4.0.

Industry 4.0. Simio LLC (PRNewsfoto/Simio LLC) 

Creating walkable, liveable districts and neighbourhoods requires incorporating diverse housing options, urban amenities, open spaces, and schools. If people have those, they are willing to put up with production centres (and any possible noise or other urban nuisances) in exchange for things like free heating, energy production, or large rooftop parks.

Intensive mixing of residential and industrial uses can also be a means of regenerating neighbourhoods or districts. Importantly, productive cities also mix social classes, in contrast to the economic segregation that is increasingly becoming the norm in US cities.

Productive cities mark a return to the way cities developed centuries ago, but with significantly less pollution and safety hazard.

5. Circular economy

Just last year, the EU parliament adopted a Circular Economy Action Plan as part of the European Green Deal. It aims to reduce waste, empower consumers, change food systems, and make sustainable products the norm.

Circular Economy Action Plan Factsheet. https://www.switchtogreen.eu/

Several cities are at the forefront of this movement, including Brussels and Amsterdam, which recently adopted economist Kate Raworth’s “donut economics” into its circular economy policies to reduce waste, recycle materials, produce more food locally, and move toward circular construction.

Notably, cities that have historically invested in one or more of the urban-design trends described above seem to be broadening their focus to include the others. This is because the design principles serve the same goal: equitable, walkable, liveable, sustainable cities.

We have a narrow window in which to pivot seriously toward climate action — and an incredible opportunity as we recover from COVID. We need rapid solutions to our inequitable, unsustainable, and unliveable spatial planning policies in America. That will entail a political shift as much as economic.

We need action on greening and re-wilding cities, rebuilding our economy around green jobs and circularity, and reducing the dominance of loud, polluting, dangerous cars on our streets. We need to find ways to allow everyone who wants to live and work in cities the opportunity to do so.

The time for delay, obstruction, and incrementalism is over. Long live the inhabited milieu.

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