Seven Takeaways from the Urban Future Conference

After two years of webinars and online meetings, 2022 is building up to be the year of reconnecting in 3D. In early June, I joined in on the fun and participated in the Urban Future Conference, which staged their comeback in Helsingborg, Sweden. An extra pull to attend was that the urbanist rally coincided with the citywide H22 Expo showcasing Helsingborg’s achievements in sustainable urban development.

The experience of exchanging ideas with fellow urbanites was such a treat that I decided to write a conference edition of my rarely—but occasionally—appearing “lessons from” blog series.

Here are the ideas and lessons for improving cities that caught my attention during the sessions.

The can-do innovation policy

Boosting innovation activities is written with capital letters in every city’s strategy document. Many times, however, cities don’t really manage to get much going without turning to central government funding programs—especially the smaller they are. But the people of Helsingborg are of different breed. They’re demonstrating how cities can and should actively make things happen on their own.

In 2019, for example, the city decided to accelerate its goal to become one of the most innovative cities in Europe by pouring nearly €25 million (250 mil. SEK) into innovation out of their own pockets. Half of the funds were divided among all city departments and earmarked for innovation projects. The other half was used for projects with external stakeholders. This summer’s H22 Expo was a milestone for reviewing their accomplishments.

The green in the photo is not any old patch of grass but Helsinborg’s pioneering self-watering lawn. It uses capillary force to water and dry the grass roots, curbing water usage down to only 15% of a regular lawn. There lawn also doesn’t leak any nutrients to its surroundings.

Besides Helsingborg’s proactiveness, I also like that their approach is grounded on an outspoken vision of a brighter future. They state that their innovation activities are meant to help meet the city’s bold environmental and social goals. Their innovation ecosystem also demonstrates openness in a refreshing way. There’s a website where the city describes the challenges they’re trying to overcome and invite everyone to join in solving them.

Something’s clearly working: Helsingborg has been chosen the most environmentally friendly municipality in Sweden multiple times in recent years, and they’ve managed to rank second in the 2020 European Capital of Innovation awards.

Methods for delivering better quality urban environments

Intensifying urbanization means that cities need to get serious about addressing density in a way that provides a high-quality living environment for residents. The track record from recent years clearly shows that recycling suburban development patterns in a denser format is not the recipe for accomplishing lovable neighborhoods in an urban landscape.

There’s an apparent need for a new cookbook to maximize the “softness” and attractiveness of the built environment, and the Neckarbogen district in Heilbronn, Germany, is one go-to place for inspiration. The German Sustainable Building Council’s Stephan Anders gave an overview of the solutions they’ve successfully implemented during the first phase of the planning and development of the brownfield site.

The planners, for example, worked together with politicians early on to establish a clear overarching vision for the area and set a course for its realization with measurable goals and broad design guidelines. But the really interesting part in my opinion is that they chose to subdivide the site into 22 individual plots. Developers were then asked to compete for each of them separately via a kind of mini-architecture competition, where the winners were selected based on quality criteria instead of price. Using a design framework and incorporating several developers and ideas into the creation of a district sounds like a winning formula for achieving diversity and variety in the built environment.

Helsinborg’s new waterfront district Oceanhamnen is a local interpretation for delivering quality density. One laudable feature is that they have enclosed perimeter blocks.

Leaving room for individualization

Another idea worth considering for adding “softness” in new buildings and districts is to leave room for people to plan and shape their own spaces. This “individualization” idea was brought into discussion by EinszuEins Architektur’s Markus Zilker, who shared about their co-housing project in Vienna that has been planned together with the residents from start to finish.

With such an approach, residents can get just the kind of interiors for their apartments that they want, and there’s added value for the wider community, too. When residents are able to, for example, influence what kind of balconies they have and participate in co-creating the yard’s features, the complex is bound to get a façade and exterior spaces that provide unique characteristics. The approach seeks to add liveliness in building designs and thereby mitigates the typical results that can make new districts feel sterile. Not all apartment buildings can be a co-housing project, but developers should nonetheless explore the possibility of adding similar individualization elements to their construction processes.

I’d like to extend this individualization idea to the development of older districts as well. I believe that the more freedom you give people (residents and business owners) to shape their buildings’ semi-private zones (such as the areas immediately outside their doors), the more interesting the city becomes.

Active citizenship is a force to embrace

And while on the subject of individuals, the entire conference was testimony to the idea that active citizen participation is a powerful force for driving change in cities. One great example is Nicholas Marchesi, the founder of Orange Sky, who started a free mobile laundry service together with his friends. The initiative was born to tackle the issue that many homeless people in Brisbane have limited access to the most basic services—hygiene being one of them. This inspired Nicholas to install washing machines inside an old van they owned and take it to places where those in need could easily get their clothes washed.

Nicholas and his friends quickly realized that hygiene wasn’t the only need they were addressing. The chairs they brought along for people to sit on while waiting for their laundry provided a space for the community to connect, even to the extent that not everyone was really showing up to wash their clothes. Nicholas’s organization has now spread their idea for bringing a community together to wash their clothes to several other cities in Australia.

Nicholas Marchesi on stage at the UF22.

In the long run, these types of social innovations help instigate change in cities and identify solutions to complex problems. In my opinion, a lot of good can be achieved if local governments would make it a habit to begin supporting smart citizen-driven initiatives in some shape or form the minute they learn about them.

The wide scope of public participation

Public participation has become an essential component of successful urban planning. How planners reach out to neighbors, use engagement tools, and allow for people’s involvement in the process can determine if something ultimately gets built or not.

In his talk, Australian architect Dean Landy from ClarkeHopkinsClarke added a noteworthy new perspective to the discussion. He told us that their project to transform a university campus into a mixed-use neighborhood in the Hobart area got held up because the university’s master plan to relocate themselves closer to the city center hit a brick wall. It turned out that people from all over Hobart felt that the future of the campus area was important to them and that they were being left out of the discussion. An opposing movement emerged calling for a new round of public consultation.

The experience I want to emphasize with this case is that some urban development projects deal with sites and topics that people feel emotionally attached to even if they don’t play any role in their day-to-day lives. One good practice for these delicate projects is to start public consultations at a very early stage and extend the scope of the work way beyond the neighboring community to the scale of the city or even region.

An old dry dock repurposed into a park and jungle-themed playground in Helsingborg’s Oceanhamnen.

Re-imagining underground parking garages

A big question for the future is the fate of the vast car infrastructure we’ve built over the years. As cities become less car oriented, roads can be retrofitted as smaller streets and surface parking lots transformed into green spaces or building plots. Multistory parking garages can have a future as office buildings. What will be done with underground parking garages, however, remains an unanswered question—but not a trivial one. Thanks to minimum parking mandates and publicly subsidized parking facilities, many cities are dotted with underground caves that need to be maintained even after the cars are gone.

Despite the scale of the issue, I haven’t come across any serious efforts to re-imagine alternative uses for underground parking garages—until now. I joined a conference session where Ingka Centres and IKEA presented their “C40 Reinventing Cities” call for gathering ideas to redevelop a six-floor building on San Francisco’s Market Street—half of its underground parking garage included.

Submitters are asked to come up with solutions to repurpose the obsolete parking spaces with new uses or services that support sustainable living. The scope of ideas can range from the typical provisions for sustainable transport (e.g., bike sharing) to more unexplored territory, such as hydroponics and indoor farming.

The urban relax station.

Improving the city with cars

Cars and driving received a lot of attention at the conference not only because most participants root for car-light cities; Mercedes Benz was prominently present to promote the work of their new data team and the “rising era of public–private data partnerships,” as they put it. I’m glad I joined some of their sessions because the Mercedes crew actually introduced a very interesting idea: today’s tech-filled cars can also be harnessed for improving cities.

The Mercedes team revealed that their new cars are as much tools for collecting data as they are vehicles to get around the city; and it’s possible to extract and apply this data to help solve planning problems. They’ve already launched a pilot with Transport for London to analyze the information their cars capture about near misses (near accidents) with pedestrians to identify where the events cluster. This helps transportation planners prioritize the intersections and crosswalks they need to make safer before any fatal accidents occur.

It’s of course up to the planners whether such interventions are an actual improvement for pedestrians, but, in principle, I think data produced by cars is a promising opportunity for making streets more pedestrian and bicycle friendly. Cars could also provide us with other useful information, such as where and for how long drivers park and how many people use them and for what purposes.

But before any of this becomes a reality, there’s a major hurdle to clear: determining what a public–private data partnership with car companies that has a positive impact on society actually looks like. I anticipate tough conversations around the terms and extent to which vehicle data can be made publicly available as well as the issue of integrating data from different car manufacturers together in one place.

Southern Sweden and Eastern Denmark share a passion for sustainable mobility.

I hope to bump into you at some future event, and I’ll leave you with one additional thought from the Urban Future Conference. During one of the panel discussions on neighborhood (re)development, Traude Rauken from Oslo reminded everyone about something that can’t be said often enough in city planning: “We need to understand that what we are doing is not the end station.”

Neighborhoods and cities are never finished.

Title image by Urban Future


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