7 smart approaches to city planning and design

Alice Charles MIPI

Our cities are faced with the mammoth task of accommodating an additional 2.5 billion new urban dwellers by 2050. This is the equivalent of creating a city the size of Singapore each month for the next 30 years.

If cities are to house and employ these people, they will have to do more with less; become smarter, greener and more efficient. Central to this is employing smart and innovative approaches to city planning and design. Here are seven ways to achieve this, and practical examples of implementation.

1. Engage the private sector early.

The delivery of urban infrastructure and services will be more innovative, effective and improve outcomes if public authorities include the private sector perspective early in the planning and design process, and continue that engagement throughout. The private sector’s experience and critical knowledge of the potential economic scenarios and risks involved will help the public sector to understand key concerns and elicit suggestions for improvement.  

Hope SF, in the U.S. city of San Francisco, for example, is a partnership between the city and private developers to redevelop 2,500 distressed public housing units on five sites into mixed-income communities, with more than 50,000 housing units. The project not only seeks to build superior housing — by investing in high-quality, sustainable housing and broad scale community development — but also to enhance the lives of existing residents, serve as a catalyst for improving surrounding neighborhoods, and advance knowledge in the field nationally.

2. Adopt a lifecycle approach.  

With governments’ increasing reliance on the private sector to deliver urban infrastructure and services, it is critical that they consider the longer term economic, social and environmental impacts of urban projects and their entire lifecycle costs. Adopting a lifecycle approach, taking into consideration the reinvestments, total costs and expected returns throughout the life of an asset — from acquisition to disposal — makes visible the required capital investments and operational expenses. It also gives a better understanding of when and how to engage the private sector during the lifecycle.

Mexico has achieved substantial savings in building social infrastructure projects using a lifecycle approach. Private-sector expertise was leveraged in designing, building and minimizing the total lifecycle costs during the development of two hospitals in Toluca and Tlalnepantla.

3. Leverage the circular and sharing economy.

Resource constraints driven by rising global consumption and the underutilization of assets are threatening economic and environmental stability. The concepts of the circular and sharing economy offer new models for growth by decoupling consumption from resource constraints and optimizing the use of assets. While the circular economy focuses on the end life and the restorative value of an asset, the sharing economy focuses on doing more with less, while using the idle value of the asset.

The city of Hamburg, Germany, for example, implemented the world’s first bio-reactive facade SolarLeaf house pilot project. The integrated bio-reactive facades generate renewable energy from algal biomass and solar thermal heat. This biomass and heat generated are transported to the building’s energy management center, where the biomass is harvested through flotation, and the heat by a heat exchanger. The heat that SolarLeaf provides is equal to the total heat demand of the 15 residential units.

4. Adopt a proactive approach.

Cities bring people and markets together in a single dense space, leading to economies of scale and an increase in economic activity that benefits the public and private sectors equally. The private sector and civil society must come forth and complement the efforts of the public sector in developing innovative solutions that can enhance the opportunity cities present, while simultaneously addressing its immediate and long-term priorities.

The city of Fukuoka, Japan, revised its city transformation master plan while ensuring a balance between its people, the environment and urban vitality. In 2014, Fukuoka launched the Hydrogen Leader City Project, a low-carbon program to promote hydrogen energy wherein human sewage is used to produce hydrogen for fuel in fuel cell vehicles. In this collaboration between industry, academia and the government, the city government provides the biogas generated from sewage, and the university and private sector provide the thought leadership, strategic direction, design advice, construction and operation facilities, and supply chain.

5. Engage with local communities and civil society.

Engaging the local community and civil society early in the planning process increases mutual confidence among communities, civil society, business and local government and improves the urban services planned, designed and built, creating more sustainable, human centric solutions.

Transparent and truthful communication about the project’s impact, interdependencies, payoffs — whether positive or negative — and outcomes build community trust and buy-in, and provides necessary endurance to the project.

Civil society actors demonstrate their value as facilitators, educators, conveners and innovators, as well as service providers and advocates. By involving civil society as an implementation partner, interventions are more likely to be effective while ensuring that outcomes are socially and environmentally responsible.

In Helsinki, Finland, for example, the city’s vision for World Design Capital Helsinki 2012 was developed with contributions from civil society. Civil society representatives and citizens were given the opportunity to propose and organize the city’s initiatives under this design project. And among the main proposals accepted were those to improve housing conditions and daily life through design and city information.

6. Leverage technology.

Disruptive technologies present a significant opportunity to better shape urban development by building actionable intelligence on data originating within the city. Technology enables inclusion, collaboration and digital integration of the various city sectors to deliver seamless services to citizens, while giving the private sector opportunities to design and deliver services that enhance economies of scale and achieve sustainable outcomes, based on innovative business models.

WinSun, China, for example, has been building houses by using 3D-printed building components. It can achieve affordability by saving 60 percent of the construction material and reducing the construction time to 30 percent compared to traditional construction. Another example is gathering funds facilitated by digital technology and platforms for urban causes. A variety of types of crowdfunding sites are available today — Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Crowdrise and RocketHub are some of the larger platforms. Rotterdam built a crowdfunded wooden bridge in the Luchtsingel Complex, which connects areas within the city while allowing citizens to avoid the hectic traffic below.

7. Empower city leadership.

Urban development has changed substantially in recent years. New and complex societal challenges have emerged in many cities, including issues related to climate change, accelerated digitalization, ageing societies, migration, diversity and exclusion, and rising citizen expectations. To address these issues, city officials’ method of leading their cities needs to change from linear policy implementation to a more systematic, proactive and collaborative approach. The city leadership must be equipped with sufficient authority, decision-making power, and human and financial resources to lead a sustainable urban development agenda and planning process.

Singapore’s transformation is a textbook example of leadership and vision. The state’s leadership developed policies that were simple and predictable, with the right fundamentals, and emphasis being laid on core physical infrastructure and public transport.

People continue to be drawn to cities in search of economic, social and creative opportunities. If cities are to provide a better standard of living, increase community cohesion, wellness and happiness while progressing towards sustainable development, cities need to transform their strategies to include smart and innovative approaches to planning and design.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the contributor and not necessarily those of the IPI nor are they intended to reflect IPI policy. 

This blog first appeared on Devex and is reproduced courtesy of the author.

Alice Charles MIPI is the lead for all urban development work at the World Economic Forum. She has fifteen years of experience working in the areas of urban development, town planning, real estate, infrastructure, environment, climate change and public policy globally. She tweets @alicecharles.

Alice Charles MIPI
Community Lead, WEF