Humans of enCity: Pablo Acebillo – From Spain to Switzerland, Los Angeles and Singapore

Pablo is a Senior Associate in enCity’s Singapore office, specialising in planning and transport. When he is not coordinating several projects at once, or exploring how to integrate land use with transport systems, he can be found running along the Singapore River or at Maxwell Food Centre’s famous chicken rice stall…and always in shorts!

enCity: What is your favourite thing about enCity?
Pablo Acebillo: Well, even being an established company the reporting lines are very flat which gives you a lot of exposure and direct contact to the management. We are close enough to our bosses to run together along Singapore Park Connectors during weekends. And in a hot climate like Singapore, I get to wear shorts to the office everyday, because my boss does the same! Jokes aside, it shows how our work approach is different, and more inclined to creativity.

enCity: What attracted you to enCity?
Pablo: I think firstly this notion of being an agile organisation is very exciting, because you have a lot of flexibility and freedom to build up the systems from scratch. It’s also a multitasking environment. That can be a disadvantage, but it can also be very enriching, because you get to do many different things and learn a lot. Then of course the geographic scope of enCity is also very exciting because it touches the region of Southeast Asia, which is rich from a cultural as well as economic point of view. For me it is fascinating to learn how to treat development in these countries and contribute to the growth of societies.

enCity: How did you become specialised in infrastructure and planning?
Pablo: I did a Bachelors of Architecture in the south of Switzerland, and then I spent one year in Los Angeles doing an internship in a very architecture-heavy office. In Los Angeles they have huge traffic jams, there is no public transport, people just drive. I started realising that infrastructure and public transport really condition the life of people, and I started being interested in those questions. That’s when I decided I should switch the focus of my education and go into more city planning level disciplines, and I’m quite happy to have done that.

enCity: How did you end up in Singapore, from Switzerland?
Pablo: After my Bachelors I went for my Masters to ETH Zurich in Switzerland. This university has a research centre located in Singapore called the Future Cities Laboratory. After my Masters, while working at the ETH, I was considering doing another Masters in urban analytics at the UCL in London, and I had a meeting with one of my professors at ETH to ask him his opinion on it. He is involved in the FCL here, and during the meeting he mentioned they were starting a research project in Singapore, and one of the case studies was in Barcelona. Since I was raised in Barcelona and had contacts there, he asked if I wanted to join. So it was really by chance and quite unexpected, and I just took it.

enCity: From Spain to Switzerland, Los Angeles and now Singapore, these are all very diverse urban contexts. How does this diversity influence your work?
Pablo: What I learned from Barcelona, and especially from my uncle, who was the city planner for Barcelona for many years, was to discern the three levels of the built environment. At the beginning you have the system level where you decide the foundations of what needs to be done – for example a new airport to keep up with population growth; then you have the infrastructure level which is the backbone and makes it possible to implement – the runways and road connections to the airport; and ultimately you have the architecture, which is the last level, where then architects come and build the airport terminal for example.

You can see this approach in Barcelona. For the Olympic games, for example, cities get a lot of funding from the International Olympic Committee, and usually they will build new stadiums and new facilities, but Barcelona did the opposite – they invested in the city. They reused the stadium they had and invested in the drainage system, new retention tanks, the waterfront, so the impact was not in the two-month window of the Olympic Games but in the future of the city. That approach was really intriguing for me and marked my understanding of putting infrastructure first.

Zurich is a very compact city. It’s the same size as Barcelona, 100 km2, but you can get from one side to the other in 20 minutes. I think 35% of people in Zurich commute on public transport. You have a very efficient public transport network and trams and buses have dedicated lanes and priority at intersections, so the walkability of the city and the quality of public space is very high.

In Los Angeles it was totally the opposite. It really shocked me, because I’m from a European country where pedestrian activities are very much the norm. In Los Angeles you have very small sidewalks, you have huge roads, private vehicles are the norm and you don’t have any public transport infrastructure. That really influenced how I perceive urban quality, and what components you need for that urban quality to emerge.

Then I came to Singapore, and Singapore is a mix because you have a very good public transport, which I enjoy a lot, but the plots are very opaque. You have setbacks, or fences along the public road network, and then usually a private network on the plot level for parking and internal circulation. You don’t usually get to touch the façade, which creates a very different urban quality and as a consequence of that, and the heat, there is less local retail on the street, and you have malls as the main public spaces.

So these experiences helped to build a mental library of ingredients you need, like considering the infrastructure networks first, prioritising public transports systems to improve urban quality and curating the interface between private and public realm to encourage street activity.

enCity: You’ve spoken a little about infrastructure and urban quality, and what makes a city work well. If you had to summarise, what do you prioritise in your approach to urban planning?
Pablo: Ultimately a city is about people, so you need to strike a balance between the liveability of a place, and what you can bring in to support economic development. Back in Switzerland, I worked on a project in Krasnodar, Russian. The client just wanted a residential development, but we had the idea to bring in a convention centre to consolidate an economic hub, because it was very close to the airport. So I learned that questioning the brief given by the client is of the utmost importance, because you as a consultant can often come up with an idea that the client did not consider.

enCity: What projects at enCity stand out for you?
Pablo: I learned many lessons on an industrial development project in the south of Vietnam. The project was for an integrated industrial town, and one of the most striking things we realised is that they prefer to have a higher interface between the industry and the township. The obvious solution would be to segregate them, to reduce industrial traffic through the township, but to our surprise, the developer values this interface as residential land values increase in proximity to industrial activities – the workers want to live next to where they work. These are things you learn only when you get to talk and discuss with clients.

Thanks Pablo!