World Cities Day 2021: Better City, Better Life

Never before in our history have we seen a larger number of people in our cities. Currently, 56% of the world’s population are living in urban areas, as opposed to only 30% in 1960. The steady rise in city dwellers reflect how density, proximity and connection create venues for opportunities and success. However, as this percentage is expected to increase up to 68% by 2050, urbanisation poses challenges of congestion, pollution and inequality without adequate planning and infrastructure in place. Although occupying only 1% of total global land, cities also produce the largest impacts on the environment – creating microclimates, polluting air and water, degrading soil and damaging natural habitats. Their effects extend beyond territories and felt on a global scale, as we suffer the consequences of climate change and global warming brought about by our exploitative urban activities.

Today, we reflect on our role in our cities as we commemorate World Cities Day, with the general theme “Better City, Better Life.” This worldwide observance aims to promote the international community’s interest in global sustainable urbanisation, push forward cooperation among countries and cities in meeting opportunities and addressing challenges of urbanisation, and contributing to sustainable urban development around the world. First celebrated in 2014, World Cities Day was established by the United Nations General Assembly and organised annually by the UN-Habitat together with each year’s selected host city.

In celebration, our planning, design and technical experts weigh in on the conversation of creating Better Cities. They identify some key urban issues that cities around the world are facing and how we can promote identity, inclusivity, sustainability and resilience to design and build better urban areas that enrich people’s lives.

  1. What are the current conditions of our cities that you think should be changed/fixed/improved to have Better Cities?

Doni Iskandar (Principal, Architecture + Urban Design):

When we talk about cities in developing countries particularly in Southeast Asia, there are so many levels of the city that we can discuss. In my opinion, Asian cities are unique and we cannot refer to Western cities as comparison. Our cities are a collision of formal and informal, modern and traditional, urban and rural. Some aspects considered negative in Western cities are actually a distinctive quality of Asian developing cities. I believe it is the ‘informality’ aspect that gives flavour to our cities so they are unique and vibrant.

I think the problem that we are facing nowadays is the massive generic development from capitalist developers. They disregard our character as Asian cities. Most of the new development adopt the old Western suburban model of a city – car-oriented, profit-oriented, non-contextual and exclusive, focusing on only one segment of the market. Another problem which is caused by this rapid development is uncontrolled urbanization. Developers expand the urban territory far outside the city limits, which without a good public transportation, can cause many problems such as long commutes and reduced farmland. I think the basic solution to this is a clear and firm regulation in terms of limiting private developers. The regulation should consider benefits for all income levels, not only those with high income.  Also the development should first prioritize how to increase the existing city quality, not expanding wildly far away from it.

Pablo Acebillo (Manager of Master Planning + Design):

A key issue in my opinion, both in the West and in the East, is housing affordability. A good city is one where the key necessities of residents (such as housing) are within reach of everyone. Paris can be a beautiful city from the tourist perspective, however if people have to live 20km away due to unaffordable prices, the ‘quality’ of the city becomes a mere selling point for tourism, and does not account for the real needs of its residents. Especially in the West, there have recently been many attempts to combat the surging housing prices. In that context, many city governments (Barcelona, Berlin, Stockholm, Paris) have decided to impose limitations on rent prices, with the belief that this would curb the overall housing price. On the contrary, prices have surged because the supply of renting stock was reduced dramatically; if you impose a maximum rent price, as an investor you will not have many incentives to put it in the market. You will probably wait until the government changes and with it the regulations. In Barcelona for example, after a year of this regulation, the house rent stock decreased by 40% with the consequent surge in prices.

I think the strategy should be the opposite; if we want to reduce housing prices we have to make it easier to develop and build. Governments should liberalize more land for building because increasing the supply of housing is the only way to bring down the cost. Removing regulatory burdens and admin procedures would also bring the overall investment cost down, reducing the market price as well. In short, less regulation and more incentives to build more is what brings housing prices down.

Quynh Nguyen (Associate, Urban Design + Architecture):

Each city has its own characteristics. Hanoi is an ancient city, with a long history of development consisting many ups and downs from its experiences of war and changing times. However, to become a “Better City”, the most necessary thing is to allocate more public spaces and green spaces because public space is the most important aspect to judge a city’s quality of life. This is what Hanoi is very lacking of. Moreover, Hanoi does not make full use of the functions of parks. Parks should become open and barrier-free. They should be free, everyday destinations for people.

Minh Hoang Nguyen (Associate, Economics + Policy):

The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly “reshaped” the socio-economic picture of Vietnam this year. Despite the great efforts of the Vietnamese government in containing the pandemic, the economy suffered great consequences from the temporary shutdown of economic activities, resulting in the largest decline in quarterly GDP, disruption in value chains, and people fleeing the industrial hubs in chaos to get back to their hometowns. At the centre of this pandemic, we can see the struggle of authorities in coping with it. The government’s responses are inconsistent, slow to adapt to the escalating level of the pandemic and sometimes cause much trouble and confusion for the citizens to abide by the rules. What needs to be improved, from this experience, is for the government to come up with better public policy and public management in times of uncertainties. Some examples include performing a self-evaluation of government capacity in advance, coming up with different scenarios based on different approaches to finalize on the best one, and involving public opinion in the policy making process, all of which would help minimize the disorders in the cities where thousands of people chose to make a living and create a more liveable city for them to dwell in.

  1. How are you applying your approach in planning + design to enable cities to become Better and more livable?

Pablo: We haven’t had the chance to apply such ‘liberal’ strategies regarding housing. In our competition entry for an innovation district masterplan, we did propose a ‘white zone’ land use, which would allow a more flexible arrangement of programs and their proportion (depending on market demand. It is not the same as the challenge stated above, but is a step towards a more open-ended planning approach, where planners don’t define everything but create a framework within which the private market can best operate based on their own priorities.

Doni: I always start with preliminary research on local urbanism to understand the local quality of the city and embrace the informal concept of new development when we design and plan. I start with the basic paradigm and intention to be oriented to humans of all levels of society.

Quynh: As planners and architects, our role is to provide quality living spaces for residents, places full of amenities for life as well as for spirituality. In design work, we always put context first because understanding the context and local culture leads to good design. Next, we focus on each project’s public space, like a central park, or a promenade, encouraging and creating space for walking. Because when you walk, you have a better connection to society and context. A good city is one that is walkable.

Minh: By collecting various data on both economic and social dimensions, I want to analyse the correlation among these variables to see if there are any patterns in data and devise my strategic planning accordingly. Having a good economic approach to increase the resilience of citizens who are living within the city and minimizing sudden impacts of economic downturns are my greatest aims in the process.

  1. Can you cite one of your most significant projects that reflect your ideals and methodologies in building a Better City?

Doni: In my previous project, I worked on a township in Xining, China. This was unique to me because the design and planning of the city is based on a rich culture of the informality of Islamic communities in the city, which is very distinct from the rest of the urban areas in Xining. In this project, we embraced the multi-cultural aspect of the region and the many levels of community and urban character which achieves the vibrant quality of the city, resulting in a community that is culturally significant.

Pablo: We only need to look back to the ancient Greeks. The plan of Miletus is very revealing in the sense that the only thing that Hippodamus defined was the road network and the main public spaces (such as the Agora, Theater, Sports Arena, etc.). The rest was left undefined for the private households to decide. We need more of that to have an automatic balancing mechanism between supply and demand.

Quynh: My most recent project is designing a new city along the Red River: Tam Xa. This is an area with a prime location because it is connected to the central area and the old town area. We proposed the idea of reviving Hanoi’s old tram line in the project, in addition to developing two walking routes: walking above and walking below to connect public places. An indispensable element when designing a new urban area is the creation of a central park, an open space with an area large enough for all community activities, recreational activities, and physical fitness activities, like sports. I hope these will be the key to creating a better city.

Minh: The Strategic Provincial Planning Project I’m working on adopts the well-balanced evaluation of economic and social benefits when considering a specific plan in our recommendation. We evaluate the available resources of the economy, considering that some resources are no longer abundant (such as land, young labor force) and design the strategic plan to better the people on both social and economic aspects. The project is still on-going and I hope that it would be fruitful in the end.

For more information on World Cities Day 2021, please visit the official website here: World Cities Day 2021 | Urban October (unhabitat.org)

Eli David (enCity Singapore)