Urban Labs – from plan to implementation
In 2015, UN-Habitat and Creative Industries Fund NL initiated a collaboration that involves giving 20 designers the opportunity to work with partners in five Urban Labs on assignments in Accra (Ghana), Mexico City (Mexico), Yangon (Myanmar), Gaza (Palestine) and Tacloban (the Philippines). With the Architecture Biennale in Venice taking ‘Reporting from the Front’ as its theme, it was the ideal place to organize an expert meeting for designers, stakeholders in the various projects (except for Gaza) and key figures from UN-Habitat to share experiences and explore the subsequent steps for these projects. Halfway through the year-long Urban Labs process, the question of how to make the step from plan to implementation together with local stakeholders raises its head. It is a difficult step in areas where the geographical situation and the climate are not always favourable, or in areas that are faced with complex political, legal and economic circumstances. Despite the complexity of the assignments, the design teams have thrown themselves into the various tasks with great alacrity, so a great deal has already been achieved in six months.
Pressure on the city
One of today’s great challenges is the huge pressure on cities all around the world. More and more people want to live in cities, which often results in an unbridled, high-speed and unplanned process of urbanization. If there are already plans for these areas they are often re-active in nature. What’s more, you can’t solve everything on the drawing board, but usually there is too little consideration for implementation phase, which is where the Urban Labs are turning their focus. Besides looking at planning and design, there is plenty of consideration for legislation and financial instruments. For plans to have any chance of success they must focus on a value-generating process. The ambition is to strive for compact, integrated and joined-up cities that are able to withstand the changing climate.
The five cities that the design teams are working on can also expect huge inflows of residents over the coming decades, often people with limited means. In the majority of cities this growth is so rapid that designers, planners and the government can barely keep pace with developments. In Accra, for example, over the coming 30 years the city with a current radius of 10 kilometres will sprawl into an urban agglomeration with a radius of 60 kilometres. The population will mushroom from 2.5 million to 4.2 million in 2020. The Ningo-Prampram district must accommodate a portion of this growth, so UN-Habitat initiated a National Priority Project there. Expansion of a similar nature is underway in Myanmar. After the social and political renewal that has taken place in recent years, large-scale growth is now expected in about 200 towns and cities. The Htantabin township of the regional capital of Yangon will have to accommodate about 2.4 to 2.7 million new inhabitants.
Cities like Accra and Yangon are in many respects very different, but the problems around urbanization issues are often generic in nature. For Accra as well as for Yangon, there is a lack of capacity, resources and data to choreograph the growth in a more carefully planned and organized manner. This means that devising a detailed and definitive design for a new city or district is unrealistic. The recasting of legislation or generation of resources for development prior to the growth actually taking place is impossible because of the rate of growth. New planning legislation is being formulated in Myanmar, but in the meantime the pressure on the cities remains unprecedented. A good plan takes time, but time isn’t always available: ‘Learning by doing’ has become the motto in Myanmar. This is why the Urban Labs have focused on devising a framework that is robust, but at the same time allows leeway for a flexible use of space.
How can you ensure that urban design does not become a template when projects are very similar in their approach? The answer is to consider which problems are specific to a particular area. A framework can be designed so that it anticipates future issues in a locality. Htantabin, for example, is faced with the threat of flooding, traffic congestion, and an inadequate water supply, in addition to which there is land speculation (sometimes illegal). Instead of focusing on the individual problems, these issues can be tackled with the aid of an all-embracing masterplan. A similar approach applies for Accra, where Ningo-Prampram lies in a zone prone to flooding, and this can be accommodated in a masterplan. In Mexico City there is a densification task, which must offer a solution for a city that is constantly sprawling, increasingly inaccessible and beset by increasing pollution. Here the economic and legal renewal that is already planned can serve as a driving force to introduce more qualities in the spatial sphere. By putting your mind to it flexibly, you can intelligently coordinate several (existing) ambitions. This helps to maintain speed in the development process. For example, the Mexico team is looking into the existing legislation and is investigating which development strategy is most appropriate in that context.
The design of public space is a priority in all these cases. The team that is working in Accra is the most explicit about fulfilling this ambition. Normally speaking investors invest in homes, but in Accra the plan proceeds from shared spaces and amenities, which will prompt investors to invest in them. This will contribute to the creation of inclusive cities where improved accessibility means that residents can live close to their place of work or that good education is available to all youngsters.
According to the design team from Ghana the key is to strike a good balance: Establish a solid framework and carry out a check on the ground. Working with local parties and organizations provides specific knowledge which can be used in the planning and implementation phases. The team that is working on the case in the Philippines initially concentrated on planning and designing the reconstruction, which in the wake of Typhoon Yolanda in 2013 is of major importance. But during a field visit the team saw that a great many projects for housing construction and infrastructure had already been started. Instead of starting from zero it is therefore best to organize ongoing projects into a more cohesive whole. The team is primarily providing advice and is focusing on the city of Tacloban. This city is expanding thanks to the great influx of people who are leaving the countryside, despite it being situated in a high-risk area for typhoons. Some 42 of the 138 districts in this city can expect to hit by about 20 typhoons per year. An advantage of the hands-on approach of working ‘on the ground’ is that local planners can contribute while at the same time receiving training with regard to skills and methodology. Particularly in countries where experience with planning and design is lacking, this way of working creates opportunities for the augmentation of knowledge. UN-Habitat has therefore explicitly included the training objective in the design process, as in Myanmar.
Design alone does not, however, result in the implementation of projects. During the expert meeting, the Executive Director of UN-Habitat, Dr Joan Clos, underscored that securing political support is essential for implementation. Various cases demonstrate that it is often necessary to operate at a national level when undertaking the step to implementation. In Ghana, for example, discussions with local stakeholders made it clear that involving locals, all the way up to the president, is essential for the project’s chances of success. It is not immediately evident to everyone that a sound urban development plan or masterplan can bring about economic and social added value. The strength of the design plays an important role in the translation from planning to implementation. Similarly important is the way in which a designer conveys a strategy in different forums, such as the political realm, policy-making and the world of real estate and communicates the importance of adding value within the process of urbanization.
Working in a participatory process, which involves as many stakeholders as possible, is therefore an important basic principle for the Urban Labs. Even in areas where conflicts are structural, such as Gaza in Palestine, this methodology can lead to fruitful results. Here the Urban Lab focused on Khuza’a, an area that the international community usually sidelines when planning for reconstruction. It is difficult to work there, because of the Hamas leadership and because of the extreme restrictions imposed by Israel. A party like UN-Habitat is crucial as a partner when trying to organize reconstruction in such a region. In Khuza’a the local partners already have plans that are elaborated in detail. There is therefore a great need for a strategy for their execution. People often live in temporary shelters or in houses that have been left in ruins after the fighting. At the same time the community continues to grow because of the arrival of displaced persons from areas in Palestine where the fighting is intensifying. Efforts are now being made to create a masterplan under the motto ‘Build Back Better’, a blueprint that is sufficiently robust to withstand logistical problems and a lack of resources. The urgent need for greater quality in accommodation and living standards means that local parties are keen to participate.
The translation from plan to implementation still has a long way to go for all the projects run by the Urban Labs. The UN-Habitat stamp, which the Urban Labs are permitted to use, helps to open doors in high-level political circles. By deploying an open and participative process from the very start, and developing legal and financial instruments as well as sitting at the drawing board, implementation is made the name of the game from the word go. Timing is a key element in this regard. The methodology of the labs then has a greater chance of success and can thus set an example for tackling similar tasks in the countries where the teams are currently operating.
That is precisely why it was so important to share the interim results and experiences at the Biennale in Venice. The tasks and methodologies of the Urban Labs dovetail closely with the theme of the 2016 edition of the Architecture Biennale, in which director Alejandro Aravena is investigating the architect’s role in the task of improving the living conditions for people all over the world. He is specifically interested in regions where circumstances are extreme because of political, climate-related and economic circumstances – the very regions where the Urban Labs are active. ‘Reporting from the Front’ could therefore be understood literally during the expert meeting: the research into the architect’s role and position in such cases was critically questioned and defined using real-life examples. The designer’s task in all these projects extends beyond the (re)definition of a task, amassing expertise and devising a design proposal. In the labs the designers are compelled to establish a position in other realms, such as politics, law, defence and policy, which in vulnerable areas often play a crucial role alongside design itself in the translation to implementation. The new knowledge that was yielded by experiences in these realms was discussed and shared extensively in Venice. The labs also called for a great deal of opportunity, flexibility and perseverance from the designers. For example, the team in Ghana has undergone a remarkable transformation over the last half year. At the start of the process it was somewhat reserved in its approach, because of the complexity and considerable scale of the task. However, as the project progressed the knowledge of and familiarity with the way of working increased, so the designers eventually formulated a proposal for the location together with the stakeholders, based on their role as designers but with plenty of confidence in its appropriateness. The sharing of experiences with respect to the positioning and widening of the design discipline fostered an enrichment and widening of knowledge, for the designers involved as well as for UN-Habitat and the local stakeholders in the various projects. This sharing and augmentation of knowledge on a global level means that there is a greater chance of projects succeeding in other part of the world where circumstances are complex.
You can see the five teams that were selected in the context of this cooperation here.