London, United Kingdom
Masdar City, Abu Dhabi
Auckland, New Zealand
New York, New York
“Every great city has been transformed by disasters”
“Pandemics are central to global history. They have global impact and create anchor points in time. They also interrogate the foundations of society, the sustainability of its material basis, the role of expertise, our social codes, and behavioural norms.” Journal of Global History, University of Cambridge
Over the past year and a half, the Western world has debated the future of cities as major central business districts hollowed out in New York, Los Angeles and London leaving swaths of office towers, malls, and restaurants deserted. Significant segments of the population fled gateway cities to relocate to more affordable tier 2 and 3 markets with better access to the outdoors and a higher quality of life and 84% of Americans relocated within the same metro area in what Bloomberg has described as the great urban shuffle.
In the meantime, the East has fixed its gaze on a longer-term vision for cities that focuses on enhancing people’s happiness and quality life. On March 13, 2021, HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai announced the launch of the ‘Dubai 2040 Urban Master Plan’ mapping out a comprehensive future map for sustainable urban development in the city. The master plan is in line with Sheikh Mohammed’s vision to make Dubai the city with the world’s best quality of life.
I spoke to Woods Bagot Director and Cities and Places Leader Paolo Testolini about his forecast for cities beyond the pandemic, and why the future of humanity is interlinked with the future of cities. In this two-part series we explore some of the challenges that cities face and how cities can be re-envisioned as more inclusive and adaptive environments to equitably and resiliently meet the needs of the communities that inhabit them.
Talk to Paolo Testolini about New Urban Typologies
PT: You may feel gloom and doom about cities as a concept and that they may not survive. But to answer these questions, we need to look back and see what has happened in the past. Pandemics have always shaped cities. Even when the pandemic is gone, the changes that have been put into place because of the pandemic remain. Think back on the cholera break outs in NY and London. Even the modern movement of the Bauhaus that came through after the modernization of urban planning for sewage systems, a better grid to prevent future health crisis because of the cholera pandemic in the 1800s. This is not new so let’s start with that.
Something we should consider is that the changes created by a pandemic changes the future. The remote work and WFH model that the pandemic has pushed is here to stay. It may eventually evolve to become a more hybrid model. It might adapt to 2 to 3 days in the office because people are fed up with being in their houses all the time. Some people are asking and looking forward to going back to the office. And it is that sort of flexibility that will attract future talent and that companies will need to strongly consider. That will stay and that is my very personal forecast of the future.
But what does that really mean? And how will this impact the global dynamics of cities? The reason that you’re in NY, and I am in Dubai, is the exact reason that Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo chose to move from the countryside to the city. It is what the city offers, to be with each other. Cities are machines of innovation and everything that has occurred has been in the context of the urban setting. Now with the pandemic the main assets that the city used to offer, jobs and entertainment, those are in peril. Now that you can work from anywhere, why would you pay the high rental fees in NYC when you could pay less elsewhere? In your own country, in a suburb, or a tier 2 or 3 city.
Second is the entertainment. The reason you live in NY and accept living in a tiny apartment is because of the amenities that the city offers. You come down and you have everything. And suddenly you are globally connected because of what the city offers. You walk two, four, five blocks, and you hear all sorts of languages and all sorts of cultures, and there are all sorts of offerings. But now that is also in peril because of the pandemic. And when you look at the mitigation measures that have been put into place during the pandemic, the antiseptic approaches to social distancing and lockdowns, you may think this is affecting the vibrancy of what the city has to offer.
PT: You can see with the reverse migration of Romanians and Bulgarians leaving Dubai in the millions that they don’t want to go through lockdown in such expensive circumstances and away from their birth cities so that’s having an effect on work dynamics. Putting aside the health crisis, we’ve seen this before with the previous financial crisis, and the effect on the dynamics of the city is catastrophic. Take Detroit in the 1970’s with the death of car manufacturing and the types of social issues that arose and pushed families away and created all sorts of problems. So, the perils are there.
Now with this reverse immigration and its impact not just on countries but on cities we’re seeing a huge dynamic change in the real estate where tier 2, tier 3 cities are now being populated by people with money, a lot of money, that are looking for more space and for less money. I was looking for example at the area of Lombardi and Piedmonte, and lots of people from Milan are going towards the lake region looking for open spaces and bigger houses. You see this dynamic in the real estate where downtown prices are coming down and suburbs and tier 2 and 3 cities where rental fees are going up. That’s why to understand where this is all going, we need to understand and look at the concept of mobility. Mobility comes into play and becomes an important asset for the city. And how do we see people moving in the future.
PT: We are beginning to see investors that are looking into investing in global airports as travel bubbles. You create a bubble that is Covid free. And once you enter there you can travel around the world as long as you continue to travel through Covid free travel bubbles. This reminds me of walled medieval cities where inside of the wall everything is working but outside everything is anarchy and this promotes a lot of social and economic inequality.
And the imminent impact from my point of view is that we will see a lot more focus on micro-mobility. And that is real estate localism where people and developers will invest in amenities within walking distance. The concept of the 15-minute city that we’ve heard so much about. This will bring all sorts of opportunities for new urban typologies where the end user will demand that their apartment feature a bigger balcony along with a dedicated coworking space. I think we will see that kind of co-living and coworking typology thrive.
When it comes to the office Google have paused their deals to increase square footage because of WFH initiative. If you look at past satellite offices where you needed to drive to a suburban HQ office which was separate from the city and then you see the innovation hub model where global companies want to co-locate with local companies in hyper caffeinated environments located more closely to the city center. These spaces are designed to put you in a crash environment with people and now that obviously will have all sorts of issues when it comes to the pandemic. Many of these factors are putting into perspective the wellbeing of citizens.
PT: What I am seeing post-pandemic is the increasing importance of the experience, that’s why placemaking and branding is on the rise. Many of us have spent the last year doing everything from our home, so why do we need to go anywhere? If you do make the decision to make a trip it will all be about the experience. Even going to the office. If you make the decision to go to the office rather than work from home, it will be because of the quality of the commute experience and the work environment. I can see a push towards hologram technology, augmented technology, half virtual, half real placemaking tailored specifically for you.
The move to bring people back to the city and not the car is real. In Milan they have already announced 35 kilometers of streets that are going to be switched to walkable environments. This is where we need to be quite clever. Some of these reactive initiatives could take a different toll and effect on urban environments. We have come a long way from the last century of cities. I am concerned that there are some things we may lose because of short-term circumstantial decision making taken during extreme pandemic circumstances.
We need to be careful with the concept of density. We must become protectors of the dense environments that cities have created. Dense urban environments are what make an urban setting sustainable. If you start spreading that density because of fears of having too many people in one place at the same time, this could reverse the compact methodology of urban settings that we have developed over the past decades and we could revert to a suburban typology that is not sustainable or aligned with the issues of climate change.
New urban typologies are what we should be concentrating on. I encourage young graduates to focus on new urban typologies that will introduce a new paradigm of density. Humans are not 2D creatures. We are 3D and 4 dimensional creatures, and that’s how we need to start approaching density. A 3D-4D analysis of mobility and a mixed-use land use strategy. We have a real opportunity with the underutilized parking lots across the globe that will become obsolete with the gradual adoption of autonomous mobility systems. Millions of square feet of real estate in central and highly valued downtown locations that are just sitting there. How do we retrofit those spaces; how do we develop flexible urban planning that is fit for purpose as we move into the future? Because climate change and global warming are not going away, and there will be more pandemics.
PT: We are living through the carpe diem of urbanization. We are living in such an exciting point in history because it represents several opportunities and perils at the same time. Again, if you look back on the past democracy was born in an urban environment. The debate and exchange of ideas happens within cities. If you take that away and control that for the sake of antiseptic regulations and based on fear you put the entire structure of democracy in peril.
PT: When you are commuting you join that social wave of humans whose sole purpose is to arrive at work. And within our urban contexts the connection between high IQs and hyper walkable cities is real. The more walkable the city, the higher the IQ of the citizens. If you take that away, we are in deep trouble. That sort of empathy between us and the leveling of differences happens more frequently in cities. Global cities are less judgmental, less prejudiced than suburbia. If you start regulating that through planning, we are looking at a very different future, and one that really concerns me.
Equally we are in these historical crossroads where everything has been disrupted. The disruptors are being disrupted, and if we start seeing cities more holistically in terms of wellbeing, consumerism, democracy, inclusivity, immigration, climate change, we can see a new paradigm of density emerge that creates future cities that we want to live in, and more importantly that we want our kids and future generations to live in.
When you start to learn how to live with this pandemic, it represents an interesting opportunity for shared mixed use, hyper caffeinated, dense environments where the street is the agora, where the street is an open public space, and where the street is designed for the end user and not the car. If you add to that the benefits of a 15-minute city where you have your amenities near you, you can start to imagine the healthy and localized mitigation that governments can deliver. Let’s lock down this community cluster and the disruption will be lessened by being contained.
We are not used to this huge mass of people moving from one place to another at specific times of the day, and it doesn’t make sense. It’s not efficient. Remember the movies from the eighties like Working Girl where you see people cramped in a subway heading into the office. We are going to look back at that in the next few years and wonder, what were we thinking? I don’t think we will see that again, but that’s a good thing. But let’s not veer to the other extreme where everything is dead, antiseptic, and bland, and is not what we look for in the cities we love.
You see when you think about it, cities are living organisms. They even have their own character. I like to put personalities to cities. New York is the younger brother of London. London is an old grumpy gentleman that is wise. Shanghai is the mistress. Beijing is the wife. Each one has its own smells and its own unique offering. And if we lose that and suddenly everything becomes the same, we have allowed globalism to kill the identity of each of these cities, then we are in trouble. And that’s why this pandemic has reinforced localism, reinforced identity, reinforced amenities within walking distance. We have all sorts of opportunities when it comes to the human-centric approach. The 15-minute city has a human-scale approach to density. It makes more amenities accessible and within 15 minutes of our reach.
PT: The future of humankind lies with the future of cities. And to my point it will influence how we design the streets of the future. Start with the scale of the street which functions at the human scale, and then expand and scale up, and go to the next level. One of the interesting things about cities is that they evolve, and they take their own destiny. There are certain ingredients that make that city evolve in particular ways, and then it takes its own destiny. And those include geography, location, and that affects the way that people move around that city. In the past cities were formed because there was a river, a coastline, a lifeline of geography that made that city happen. Nowadays this geographic dependency has diminished because of the advances in technology.
And if you think about it the city of New York has far more in common with London than London does with Cardiff or Bristol even though they are in the same country. The relationship and similarities between global cities like New York and London is much stronger in terms of urban typology, type of density, urban environments, and real estate. Global cities will continue to talk to each other and far more than countries. Cities are already more powerful than countries. We will see cities become even more vocal when it comes to the fight for human and ecological survival.
FB: Is what we are experiencing a meaningful pause which will allow cities to catapult and allow citizens to vocalize their concerns over outmoded forms of governance? For example, one common question In New York has been whether it makes sense for the mayor in Albany to control the MTA in NY city?
PT: Absolutely. And to your point we come back to transportation. I don’t know if you’re realized, but in the last few years politicians have moved away from transportation, and they are talking about mobility. They talk about mobility rather than transportation. Because transportation is an access you give to your citizens and mobility and the ability to move from one place to another is a human right.
I think that quite soon public transportation will be free because that will unlock issues of governance and as the city becomes more powerful and as the organism grows, it gets more powerful day by day, and it swallows all kinds of levels of government. Mobility will have a strong impact on the success of this future. The moment you remove the cost to citizens it changes things completely.
What we are talking about is that dirty word socialism. You see it with the NHS for example. It’s one of the most incredible institutes created in Europe. I think there’s a fundamental change in paradigm when it comes to the structure of our societies that’s happening in cities. Capitalism is strongly connected with consumer behavior. The concept of eternal growth that capitalism promotes has a direct impact on the physical urban environment. It translates into constant growth, resource consumption, and high GHG emissions in the built environment.
PT: I don’t know if you’ve heard the theory of the 10%. It is a social arithmetic theory that if you can convince 10% of the group then it becomes the normal thought and the zeitgeist of that space or place. It makes sense when you consider some of the radical attitudinal changes we’ve experienced as homo sapiens. At some point homo sapiens went from following the alpha male to a structure of society based on stories and ideas that you cannot touch. Even the capital byproduct of a corporation isn’t something real that you can touch. And ephemeral things like brands and companies put into danger real things like rivers, forests, and seas.
So, coming back to the grow, grow, grow mental model when that state of mind changes, I am a complete and true believer that the built environment is impacted. Shifting from the need to control everything and having a land use strategy where you are really constraining and controlling how a city moves. When that grow, grow, grow mindset changes, and you decide, well actually let’s regenerate this area. It’s almost like a surgical intervention within the body to change the dynamic, like an acupuncture. When you start thinking that way, I can see a more organic growth of the city. Let’s not forget that the 15-minute city approach is not new. If you go to any medieval city like Sienna or Montepulciano. If you go to any of these tiny cities, they were conceived as 15- minute cities, and they were organic, and they had the right density because of that. And the design of the street was right because of that.
I can see a huge change in how cities may evolve. If you look at all those former manufacturing and industrial areas that are now dead, I can see an incredible future where it’s translated into what the foodies are always looking for. The foodies go to a restaurant, and they want to see where the food comes from, how they make it, the experience of seeing how they make a particular tomato grow. The experience of the process behind that makes the foodie be a foodie. I see it similarly when it comes to the city. You will have lightweight industry within the retail high street where you can see how a 3D product has been made with your own eyes and that becomes a gallery. You can see all the DNA of industrial paths within cities becoming new typologies that will enhance the identity of the industrial past of the city–and will create an enhancement of what was there and where we are going.
Setting KSA aside for the moment and looking at the Western world I don’t see cities growing horizontally. I see them re-densifying themselves within the space that is there. Look at all the opportunities in Australia across the West and the East coasts. Sydney is sprouting into 2 tier cities accessible within one to two-hours via high-speed rail. And rather than being two or three stories of suburbia, they will become five or six stories which is still human scale, and it will be quite desirable to live there it will be a lot cheaper and have that 15-minute approach, and suddenly we’re beginning to see a more sustainable structure of urban contexts.
PT: Absolutely. I see trends of developers who want to move away from their core business and mix up things. Developers on the education side want to join forces with the healthcare sector to put together a development that creates a synergy between startup labs where education and healthcare go hand in hand. I can also see the trend or willingness to put a lot more emphasis on the public realm as more of us begin to understand the relationship between public health and the built environments. The importance of our public space became even clearer during the pandemic when we discovered it was one of the few safe social spaces for us to be in.
It has given our clients some pause. I see master plans that have been approved with phase 1 coming back and asking us, what do we do now? This strategy doesn’t make sense now. It was put into place for a different world where you have segregation of land uses and an open space for major events where you might not have that anymore. What do you do with all those things? How do you make the typologies of apartments that will come within the next few months still relevant for the market? It becomes a bit of a retrofit, reg
eneration, replanning, and more integrated approach to development.
That’s why when we put together submissions with the positioning of urban systems, placemaking, and branding they are quite interested. They are requesting scopes for placemaking. It has begun to shift, and it is no longer the likes of Savill’s, JLL, and McKinsey being asked to develop mixed-use plans with percentage allocations. Everything has been disrupted. The future of retail is not all e-commerce, or all concentrated in malls or in high streets. It’s a bit of a mix. It’s about the experience. It’s about connecting a diversity of uses. It’s about mobility and density. It’s very exciting. And not many companies can do it. It’s an interesting period for us now that we are working more collaboratively with our sister company ERA-co. ERA-co understands that technology has disrupted the real estate sector and that we need to design real estate products that resonate with end users.
PT: Absolutely, and the key is to design for current conditions because we’re still living in the past in many ways. But with that twist of flexible integration and adaptation for future conditions and backed by evidenced-based data. I think it’s useful not only in terms of convincing our clients but also in convincing ourselves. Someone like me who has been doing this for twenty years, a project comes along, and I am automatically jumping to conclusions related to how I have been doing things my entire life. But suddenly I can look at the data and see the trends, and I go, now wait a minute, that approach is no longer suitable. But then you don’t want to risk too much on the unknown so that’s where you find that sweet spot between old ways and new ways. A cross between our established professional experience and bringing in the benefits of data analysis. Flexibility and listening are key rather than forcing pre-conceived ideas.
There is a typical process you explore when you’re studying architecture. You design one place and then you allow that place to evolve and grow so that you can see how people use the space to continue designing the rest. It’s the same with master plans and interventionist cities. You put something that changes the dynamics based on evidence and trends, but then you step back and allow the change to happen. And that’s where the organic urban form begins to take shape.
PT: The way I see it regionally and globally is that there are 3 types of clients. The one that has been disrupted so severely that they must take risks to ensure their survival. There are others (like for example EMAR) that are on hold. They’ve just stopped. They’re looking, and they’re realizing what’s happening. And eventually they will come back stronger. But for the time being they have stopped everything. And that’s quite incredible because before the pandemic they were a machine. And then you have the other clients. They have been successful so far, and they don’t want to change. They have a hard-core business model, and it will take a lot of hiccups for them to change. I can see that being a problem for the change we’re looking for. Because there are a lot of them and there is so much money involved that they don’t want to lose. And they will make anything even if it goes against the zeitgeist. They will do anything within their power to carry on with the same model.
PT: And it will be like what happened with Kodak or Blockbuster. If you don’t change with the times, you’ll die. It’s companies like EMAR that are the future. They’re stopping, they’re learning from the past. They’re pausing, and they can see the ground shifting, and they want to collect enough evidence before making any business decisions. It makes me think of someone drowning. The moves that you make when you’re drowning are quite dangerous. You will pull everyone down with you so on a global scale I can see that things will get worse before they get better. But things will get better. In many ways the pandemic is just a step back which will propel cities even further.