If we are to make cities work for people in the future, to enable economic growth without depleting resources, they must be agile – embracing small-scale infrastructure and remaining flexible.
In part, this requires thinking small. One great example of ‘small is beautiful’ is the growing shift to small-scale distributed infrastructure like tri-generation and grey water recycling. Both are significant ways to reduce losses of energy and water – they’re smarter and more sustainable ways to build a city.
As well as thinking small, we need to look at the bigger picture and ask ourselves where we want to be. Without an agreed map of the territory ahead, and in the absence of clear signposts, it is difficult for those steering our way into the future – and even harder for those following – to have faith that we’ll end up where we want to be.
For this reason urban agility should be a core tenet of our design approach for cities. For most of us, the infrastructure we are creating will easily outlast us. We can never see into the future, so what we create today must be adaptable tomorrow. Good design can help us meet the needs of our communities today and create different paths for infrastructure to evolve in the future.
It means thinking more Legoland® than Disneyland® – exploring smaller, modular components of infrastructure that can be easily re-configured for different uses. I think the ability to re-configure and recycle suburbs and precincts to meet changing social, demographic, economic, environmental, and climactic needs is critical to delivering the resilient, flexible, affordable infrastructure we require.
We need three things to improve our chances of making this happen. We need better data. We need better models. And we need to build relationships.
There’s no substitute for good, hard data when it comes to making decisions. We need to know more about what people want, what they value, and how our cities and infrastructure are performing.
But we’ll be waiting a while before we see a model that offers us a complete picture of why our cities work the way they do, and shows us how they can work differently in future. So, what do we do in the meantime? That’s where better relationships come in.
Building better relationships will support data sharing across agencies and businesses. And building stronger trust among design, engineering and other specialist disciplines is critical to developing truly integrated city-scale models, of which there is no single owner.
Trust and relationships are also critical to any process of change, counteracting the ‘not in my backyard’ response to proposals for new developments or infrastructure. Strong trust can help us develop urban agility, by enabling people to embrace change, rather than instinctively oppose it.
So let’s stop meekly accepting the outputs of our democratic processes, and start demanding a meritocracy of ideas.
This article originally appeared in Arup.