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Planning the City of New Proximities

By Bruno Lobo, Senior Partner S+A

“Our towns and cities are the engine of our economy, the bedrock of our culture and – for 90 percent of us – the places we live. Cities can be the most beautiful and joyful manifestations of civilization. But they can also be socially polarized, physically squalid and environmentally destructive. My commitment to urban renaissance comes from a deeply rooted love of cities, a belief that cities can be made sustainable, and the conviction that we cannot survive without sustainable cities.”

Richard Rogers

The post-pandemic city has introduced a new urban model based on hybrid proximities with long term implications for how we plan and invest in cities.

The new model can change patterns of mobility and location, and lead to the strengthening of the centralities of smaller cities and repurposing of the centers of larger cities.

Furthermore, there is an increased investor interest in alternative real estate asset classes, such as the ‘living’ sectors, and operational investment models given the resilience demonstrated by such assets during the pandemic.

As a result, planners are currently faced with the challenge of enabling the development of the new asset types, attracting investment to specific districts, and improving local infrastructure to unlock its growth potential.

Developers face the challenge of adapting their projects to the new trends, creating viable business plans that address the potential increase in construction costs and interest rates, and obtaining adequate financing.

New planning and development strategies are required to make cities more flexible with adaptable buildings and public spaces that provide the social integration and connection to nature that residents now value more.

A rethink of retail and office spaces is needed, as well as alternative forms of transportation, and new residential models that place a greater emphasis on place amenities, flexibility and wellness-oriented design.

We need to reimagine our city centers, rethink ‘community hubs’ and create an infrastructure of opportunity that makes our cities more multi-centered, interconnected, balanced and sustainable.

Planners and developers must work together to rebalance regional models towards multiple centralities to improve the access to infrastructure, services, and amenities.

A polycentric model requires strategies to contain the perimeters of larger cities while strengthening the development of smaller cities based on the principles of flexibility, proximity, and sustainability.

The underlying concept is about intensified placemaking to create mixed-use, hybrid places intertwined with urban infrastructure and transportation designed with flexible principles and long-term sustainability.

New policies are required to encourage competition among secondary locations, and balance development pressures in over-heated areas and underperforming areas that are not necessarily well-served by public infrastructure.

In such areas, the planning system must provide the certainty that developers require to invest. This needs to be underpinned by public investment and direct provision of infrastructure to reduce risk and attract private investment.

As land values increase with public investment, cities should capitalize on their public land and implement mechanisms of public value capture. By identifying and collecting a portion of the value created, such mechanisms can generate long-term revenues and finance social infrastructure.

A collaborative approach early in the planning process is required to ensure the viability of the business plan, the underlying design concept, and availability of finance to help reduce delivery risk and maximize value for all stakeholders.

This requires a clear vision and commitment by the public sector backed by delivery mechanisms that are coordinated with private sector investments to through the following principles:

▪ Reform zoning: zoning needs to be reviewed to see whether it hinders flexibility and updated to encourage active streets.

▪ Update building codes: update and adapt building codes to incorporate new technologies, uses, and asset types (e.g. built-to-rent).

▪ Simplify the planning process: introduce simpler and faster planning procedures.

▪ Improve the permitting process: increase the predictability and timing of the permitting process.

▪ New approach to urban design: focus on public spaces and urban infrastructure complemented by flexible guidelines for private developments based on design quality and sustainability.

▪ Implementation and financing instruments: use of innovative mechanisms for financing urban infrastructure and public-value capture.

▪ Align tax incentives: support private investment and end-users through local property taxes, VAT on construction and financing.

▪ Monitor real estate markets: integrate ongoing monitoring and analysis of real estate markets into the planning and permitting process.

▪ Access to capital: provide support in the access to both debt and equity capital in target areas and for specific assets.

▪ Structured intermediation: organize the markets that broker access to sites, equity, and debt for real estate developments and professionalize their intermediaries.

▪ Redefine the role of public-private partnerships: in the management of public land and buildings, and as master-developers of large-scale sites in the execution of urban infrastructure and the delivery of serviced plots

A new relationship between the public and private sectors

The multifaceted nature of the new hybrid model requires new forms of collaboration between the public and private sectors to create places where people want to live within our cities.

Integrated planning and delivery models based on a collaborative approach are best placed to meet the challenges that such policies entail.

Such an integrated approach requires the definition of a ‘vision’ and investment in the regulatory framework and in the infrastructure to create the certainty required to encourage private investment.

The link between the plan and the economic feasibility of the project is particularly important and requires coordination carefully tailored to local needs and circumstances to drive land-use changes and delivery mechanisms.

This requires shifting the role of planning to a dynamic coordinator of ongoing urban change to transform the vision of sustainable regeneration into successful communities.

As mentioned by Richard Rodgers, planning can manage the dynamism of cities to tackle social problems and achieve social inclusion and remains a vital tool for creating cities for people and a better quality of life for all its citizens.

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