Urban Visions

Urban Visions

By the end of the 21st century, 85% of the world’s population will be living in cities, according to ACLA’s latest book, Architects of Cities. The Hong Kong-based firm also states that, in the same timeframe, megacities will have replaced nations and super urban conglomerates will house 40 million people or more.

However, with the increasing burden on natural resources, the environment is being overloaded, especially with the trend of over-consumption. ACLA’s book asserts that it is now time to reverse the effects of the urban sprawl and ‘reset the global environmental imbalances’.

Robbert van Nouhuys, director, ACLA, says the main challenge is to change how people perceive cities. He comments: “A lot of cities have been conceived on the basis of how they were planned 20-30 years ago but they are not equipped to cater to the demands of the 21st century.”

ACLA has worked on urban planning projects in China and Vietnam, and has been hired by Rakeen Development for the RAK Gateway City in Ras Al Khaimah. Authorities and developers need to be on the same page when creating cities and van Nouhuys says ACLA explains the importance of urban planning to both parties. The needs of end users are also different.

“Nowadays people are much more in tune about low carbon buildings, and living in green buildings is a lifestyle check. Sometimes there is a knowledge gap between what is possible in terms of what the authorities, developers and end users want.

We try to mediate between the wants and needs of the three groups, which is great because it shows planners are moving in the right direction and making cities more efficient,” adds van Nouhuys.

Aedas is another firm that is working on large scale urban planning projects. With the Aino Mina development in Kandahar, Afghanistan, the firm is looking to challenge urban boundaries.

A wide central park runs through the Aino Mina masterplan, dividing it in two and linking the retail area at the southern end with the Friday mosque at the northern end.

The park is the centre of the masterplan and is conceptualised as a trunk of a tree that structures the entire development. All important masterplan zones and functions either take place within it or branch off from this central green parkway.

Fariborz Hatam, director, Aedas, says the location of the project is key when designing a city from scratch. In addition, firms need to consider the needs of the inhabitants, including social, economical, health, education and leisure requirements.

Speaking about the Aino Mina development, Hatam says: “Afghanistan is a country that is marked by war and corruption and resources are limited. When designing in a country like Afghanistan, one has to consider the culture, climatic conditions, transport, water irrigation and infrastructure to provide flexibility for future growth.”

Mistakes are often made when carrying out a development project on a gargantuan scale. Factors such as growing populations and technological advancement will affect urban planning as well.

Hatam explains that the global urban population has doubled since the 1980s, and the developing world is rapidly urbanising. He points to Kabul, which has grown from under 500,000 people in 2001 to around three million at the end of 2004.

Constant rapid growth of the city creates urban challenges, including a strain on the city’s physical infrastructure, a sharp increase in land prices and rents, a shortage of low-income housing and a high rate of unemployment.

“The mistakes that are undertaken by planners are due to a lack of understanding of the local communities and the short term versus long term planning. Without long term city planning, a city will be built regardless of its municipality planning. In Afghanistan, most of the developments are built without government consent,” adds Hatam.

ACLA has been reworking plans that other companies have undertaken, says van Nouhuys, adding that most companies still use traditional and conventional principles of planning that no longer apply to the modern context.

“Companies don’t spend time rethinking urban design. They use a preset template without going through the process of rethinking, and making it suitable for the current day and for the community,” he says.

He adds that it is important to understand the cultural context and that the speed of change should enhance creative ideas rather than pushing thinking back to old ways. “Speed should not be a restriction on creativity and innovation – it should drive it,” says van Nouhuys.

Dividing cities into sectors is another preset template urban planners should avoid, say both Hatam and van Nouhuys. Hatam comments that, while sector planning is a tool to guide and manage the growth of cities, the soul of a master plan lies in its implementation framework.

Any strategy for development should have the flexibility to respond and adjust to changing circumstances.

“The sector planning practice in Afghanistan has only partially achieved the objectives of planned development. Key impediments include excessive delays in plan preparation and approval process, weak institutional set up, lack of coordination among government departments, inadequate financial resources, lack of dissemination of plans and, above all, a lack of political will.

In Aino Mina, we have divided the sectors so the residential population can feed the commercial district to become more active to reduce the need for long distance travel,” says Hatam.

Cities are now much more complex, according to van Nouhuys, and dividing cities into sectors is an old way of thinking. There are several advantages to integrating sectors within cities. For instance, transportation and infrastructure needs will be reduced, with the city being more compact.

In terms of sustainable measures, district cooling systems can be shared and one of the biggest pollutants – transportation – can be reduced if the population requires less movement.

According to Hatam, sustainability can be realistically expected from brand new cities and is a concept that needs to be understood beyond materials and energy consumption. Buildings and cities can be sustainable when they are built responsibly, by addressing the local climate and anticipating the needs of the future inhabitants so they are able to stand the test of time.

Van Nouhuys states that low or zero carbon cities are possible, but only if humans change their way of living and mindset. With the improvements in technology, he believes it’s possible to model the performance of aspects such as water usage and transport requirements, and fine tune them accordingly.

He points to the Gateway project in Ras Al Khaimah, where ACLA carried out an extensive energy study, and came up with a solution that is around 50% more efficient than a conventional strategy.

“It translates to major savings for the developer, and everybody will benefit. It is best to conduct energy tests and make them an essential part of a submission to the authorities. Many draw layout plans without understanding the consequences,” says van Nouhuys.

He also stresses that context and content are crucial, and adds: “Cities are just nodes and how you can link them into a bigger network is what matters. Cities should be supporting and enhancing the national, social and cultural environment.”

Interestingly, van Nouhuys identifies Hong Kong, his current city of residence, as a model for urban planners. He comments: “At the moment I’m looking out of the window and it feels like a country park. Hong Kong is a great example of how to combine residential and commercial components, and also have an area for recreation. The city has an excellent concept and is a great example of good urban design.”

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