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The Essence of Cities

By Bruno Lobo, Managing Partner S+A Capital

The sudden transformation of our daily routines because of the pandemic, and measures subsequently introduced, challenged the very essence of cities while at the same time, reaffirming the need for their existence.

While it has put questions to some of the traditional aspirations of city planners and urban designers, it has also created the need for innovative urban solutions which can act as a catalyst for improving how we build, regenerate, and protect our cities.

Social distancing measures have undermined interactions facilitated by public spaces, weakening the vibrancy of streets, challenging urban density and the fabric of urban life. But at the same time, the confinement has put a premium on public spaces that enable social interactions and highlighted the social infrastructure that makes dense places liveable.

Working from home has made firms and employers question the need for large office buildings and central business districts. However, it has also highlighted the special qualities of information exchanged face to face which video calls have not been able to replicate.

As such, demand for centrally located office spaces will not decrease, but its use will be altered. Office layouts will provide more area per worker, increased separation between working areas and collaborative spaces, with a greater focus on spaces that facilitate exchange of information.

The decentralization and fragmentation of working spaces, will increase the value of the ‘centre’ of the new working networks, and the value of the physical spaces where ‘face to face’ interaction is possible and where there is proximity to competitors, which central business districts provide.

Similarly, a potential decrease in daily commutes will not weaken public transportation. A decrease of the frequency of previous longer commuting patterns will be compensated by the addition of new smaller ones, to address the altered spatial relationships between living and workplaces.

Therefore, rather than diminish in importance, public transport will be more prevalent and need additional investment to re-purpose existing networks and vehicles to address the new requirements of social distancing and create alternative forms of mobility based on new bicycle and pedestrian routes.

The lockdown highlighted the structural fragility of town centres and street retail, increasingly undermined by suburban shopping centres and online retail, which have progressively privatized and enclosed public spaces. At the same time, new value was placed on local services who were able to continue to serve local communities; and on open-air public spaces that can facilitate social interactions.

Therefore, it can act as a catalyst for the revitalisation of local town centres, supported by new forms of local co-working spaces, encouragement of mixed uses and move of public infrastructure back into central areas to build cohesive communities.

Spatial inequalities were also highlighted during this period between those with and without access to exterior private areas, and distance to public green areas, placing a higher premium on proximity to nature. However, given the structural inelasticity of urban real estate markets, the change of preferences in location and housing features, cannot lead to an automatic readjustment of the location and features of housing,

The alternative then, will be to invest in underutilized spaces in urban areas, and reclaim spaces given over to cars into new green spaces linked into continuous networks for daily commutes and recreation combining both on street and off-street components.

While we were already amid a paradigm shift in urban planning towards a strategic approach, there is now an opportunity to accelerate innovation and adopt new practices and strategies to create the future places that we need.

We need to steer the decentralising effects of the pandemic to rebalance regional models towards alternatives centred around interconnected well planned neighbourhoods where many of life’s daily needs can be met within a 15-minute walking distance.

We need to reimagine our city centres, rethink ‘community hubs’ and expand the public realm linked to park space, moving away from the privatization and enclosure of public space through granular investments in small scale interventions at the street level in the requalification of underutilized urban spaces.

We need to create cities that are more flexible with adaptive buildings and public spaces able mix places for living and working with multipurpose services and many applications throughout the day and are interconnected through pedestrian webs paths that provide the urban experiences that residents now value more.

To support sustainable growth, the planning system needs to balance development pressures in over-heated areas and under-performing areas which are not necessarily well-served by public infrastructure. In such areas, the planning system needs to create the certainty that developers require to invest. This needs to be underpinned by public investment and direct delivery of infrastructure to de-risk and attract private investment.

As land values rise with public investment, cities should capitalize 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 the social infrastructure required.

Few if any of these ideas are new. To implement them, the planning system needs to be strategic and proactive rather than continuing to rely on a piecemeal approach. This requires shifting the role of the strategic plan from a static blueprint of target spatial goals that indicate future zoning changes to a dynamic coordinator of ongoing urban changes and planning efforts.

Architects, planners, and developers now have an opportunity to reimagine the fabric of urban life and create the future places that we need. We must continue to adapt and innovate, but the essence of cities will endure.

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Carrera 13 nº94A-44,
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Switzerland, Lausanne | Office
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Ho Chi Minh City
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Los Angeles
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