Highlights from Meeting of the Minds

I had the honour of attending and speaking at the Meeting of the Minds Annual Summit in Cleveland two weeks ago. The event revolved around themes related to smart and sustainable cities and the digital economy, and occurred amidst global debate on controversial data-driven projects like this one.

I have to confess that I usually cringe when hearing the term “smart city” because it is often used with little substance. I was proven wrong by this conference which was full of meaningful and intelligent content. It was an engaging and refreshing learning and networking experience and one upon which I continue to reflect. I have attempted to share here some of the inspiring ideas and projects which were presented, many of which are just as relevant for the cities and citizens of the Middle East.

Civic Innovation

With strong attendance by the NGO and public sectors, many of the projects highlighted at the conference focused on community innovation.  Eric Avner from People’s Liberty shared their innovative model which granted money directly to community members in Cincinnati to fund enrichment projects from cooking classes to public realm design workshops.  With 30 civic innovation philanthropic labs to date and a number of 3-month internships, they are making a significant impact in their city.

America’s Most Liveable City

In case you were wondering, the title has been claimed by the city of Saint Paul, Minnesota.  The city’s Director of Public Works discussed how the authority are presenting  green infrastructure projects as a public amenity, encouraging developers to adopt these schemes as unique features of their development.  The authority’s Adopt a Drain campaign is an interesting example of including the community in public realm maintenance and management.  Funnily, some of the city’s residents who are happy with Saint Paul being the smaller and quieter city in the state (compared to its twin city Minneapolis) have adopted the slogan #KeepSaintPaulBoring 🙂

Resilient Networks

One of my favourite initiatives was the grassroots neighbourhood wireless (mesh) network being developed in New York City by Resilient Communities. The image below taken from the initiative’s website illustrates the physical components of the project:

Neighbourhood Wireless Network (Source: Resilient Communities)

 

The idea has already stood through the ultimate test: the installed neighbourhood network was one of the few that remained functioning during and after Hurricane Sandy.  The technology is now being exported to Puerto Rico to help people there. Not only does it provide reliable internet access to communities in need, it provides a source of learning and employment for the residents.  Perhaps even more importantly are the admirable principles the initiative is founded on, including the digital justice principles: access, participation, common ownership, and healthy communities.

Automation…where we should

The second day started with an interesting discussion on automated vehicles (AVs).  Bryan Reimer, research scientist from MIT, made it clear that it will be many decades before fully automated vehicles become a reality for the lay person.  However, various aspects of automation exist commercially today and can be utilised for improving safety, among other aspects.  The challenge Reimer posed to the audience and the wider professional community is moving from the existing paradigm of “automation because we can” to one of “automation where we should”.

Humans are underrated

A surprising statement coming from a CEO of an Artificial Intelligence (AI) company.  The session by Gabe Batstone gave me a completely different perspective on AI and its possible future impact on workers.  Coming from a family of ‘blue-collar’ workers (or ‘warm hands on cold steel’ as he puts it), Batstone is employing AI and Internet of Things (IOT) technology not to replace workers but to improve their capabilities.  Rather than machines taking over a human’s job, Batstone envisages a world of “augmented workers” who have access to technology and data that provides safe and productive work spaces.  A few days ago, Batstone’s company announced that it will be collaborating with Samsung to bring its software to industrial workers through Gear S3 wearables.  Education, training, and social policy were the three necessary ingredients identified by Batstone for facilitating a successful transition to an inclusive AI-supported economy.

Final thoughts

Perhaps what I enjoyed the most about the conference were the frank discussions around the uncertainties and challenges related to the digital age.  From the very first session, difficult questions around the role of data in alleviating inequality and the various agendas at play in today’s cities were asked.  The presence of professionals and leaders from government, private sector, and community organisations was essential for having this open discussion.

Display in MIT Museum, part of the exhibition Big Bang Data

 

In case you were wondering, my talk was about Arup’s soon-to-be-released research on Cities in Arid Environments…more on that very soon inshallah!

 

 

Planning the ‘Islamic city’

Provocation

In his recent book, The Well-Tempered CityJonathan Rose describes the development of cities from 3100 BC to the present day.  I was struck by his description of the “Islamic City”:

“Islam offered the cities it captured a coherent, integrating vision, accompanied by economic and religious freedom that encouraged diversity and contributed to prosperity.” (p.80)

Rose goes on to remark that, in their golden age, Islamic cities exemplified the key qualities of coherence – the ability to integrate systems, programs, departments, and aspirations of a city.

“Islamic culture provided coherence by applying a flexible planning structure that balanced opportunity and pleasure with modesty, spirituality, and altruism.  These are also the key qualities of thriving cities today.” (p. 83)

Rose concludes this section by lamenting that the design of today’s Islamic cities “stands in almost complete opposition to the principles of traditional Islamic cities”.

He cites the example of Dubai, with it’s commercial buildings, automobile-based streets, and sprawling gated communities.  Rose describes 21st century Islamic cities as lacking “a culture that aspires to the humility, wisdom, and compassion that al-Farabi [the tenth century Muslim philosopher] defined as essential to the virtuous city”.

Cairo (Source: Flickr, SDASM Archives)

 

Two criticisms

I will begin by highlighting two critiques of Rose’s views on ‘Islamic cities’, before addressing his wider point in more detail.

  1. Rose falls into the orientalist trap of oversimplifying and stereotyping cities across the Muslim-majority world and bundling them under the label of “Islamic cities”.  This is neither a new nor a recent debate.  The best source on it is the great scholar of urban sociology Janet Abu-Lughod.  In a number of her works she refutes the Orientialist notions that Islam is essentially and urban religion and that their is a unified physical typology for an Islamic city centered around the mosque, souq and hammam (both of which Rose makes in the book).
  2. Even if we were to accept the label of “Islamic cities”, a city like Dubai which has never claimed to be modeled around the values of Islam, would not be called an Islamic city by any stretch of the mind.  Kuala Lumpur or Sharjah may have provided more meaningful 21st century comparisons to 10th century Baghdad or Damascus.

Values-based planning

Let’s take a step back.  Rose begins his book with an interesting point:

“The world’s first cities were founded on sacred sites, built around temples, and often designed in a plan that, like Bach’s music, was organized to reflect the architecture of the universe. They were filled with art and sanctuaries, animated with ceremonies that gave meaning to the lives of their inhabitants.

Today’s cities are technical marvels, reflecting civilization’s enormous scientific strides….Yet most of our cities have lost their original higher purpose.” (pp. xii – xiii)

Rose points to the fact that, in the distant past, many cities, ‘Islamic’ or otherwise, were purposely planned to achieve goals that transcended worldly power and physical wealth.  His discussion on “Islamic cities” falls into this context, as he highlights some of the values which shaped Islamic cities and how they were reflected in physical form (e.g. shaded pedestrian streets and private homes).

The main values which Rose highlights related to the Islamic city are economic and religious freedom, collaboration, the pursuit of knowledge, humility, and external modesty coupled with internal spiritual splendor.  I expect that these values, at least the first four, would be a surprise to many of Rose’s readers, given that Islam is associated with the exact opposite values in today’s media.  It is also praiseworthy that Rose bases his analysis on values rather than on specific laws or regulations, as is often the case with more superficial analysis.

Questions

Reading the above sections of Rose’ work raised (or maybe crystallized) a number of questions for me.  What is the full range of Islamic values that relate to city planning?  How have these materialized in Muslim-majority cities and regions across time, in physical form and, equally, in sociological and governance aspects?  What can the cities of today, in the Muslim world and worldwide, learn from cities of the Islamic golden age in terms of fostering coherence and collaboration in diverse communities?

Answering these questions will require an in-depth understanding of the development of cities like Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad, away from stereotypes of ideal or uniform ‘Islamic cities’.  It is unfortunate that all three of these cities are facing significant political, social, and economic turmoil (to put it lightly).  One could argue, as people like al-Sabouni have, that this is at least partly caused by the absence of Islamic values in their recent urban planning and governance practices.

Given the scarcity of academic literature on planning practice in the Arab world, the above endeavor is by no means a simple one.  Nevertheless, it may prove invaluable, for the planning of existing cities and new cities, and for the reconstruction of ancient cities.

The Battle for Home: exploring questions of identity and architecture

My latest article on The Nature of Cities highlights and explores some of the questions raised by Marwa al-Sabouni’s thought-provoking book, The Battle for Home: The Vision of a Young Architect in Syria.

The article does not do justice to Marwa’s book, which is packed with brave questions, observations and challenges to current thinking and practices around architecture, city-planning, and placemaking in Syria.  These apply almost equally to many other countries and cities in the region and around the world, which is what I tried to show.

Excerpts from the article below, I am sure I will be frequently going back to Marwa’s book for inspiration:

Al-Sabouni laments the lack of appreciation for the treasures of the old city and its way of life. Even as a fourth-year architectural student undertaking an urban planning assignment, she writes, she had no appreciation for the old city’s built environment; rather, she saw it as “unimpressive and disorganized” (p.38). Only later did she realize that she simply did not understand it at the time, and that was because no one had taught her any differently. Al-Sabouni and her classmates were asked to develop ideas to “impose a measure of order on the chaos” (p.38); their proposals focused on the use of stereotypical architectural elements (arches, mashrabiya, etc.) that reflected a shallow understanding of the relationships, identities, and intricacies of planning in the old city. What hope do we have of truly preserving the old in our cities, in form and spirit, if the best of our locally trained students are not taught to have a real appreciation of it?

What would have happened if the residential expansion within Homs had been planned differently, with the promotion of social harmony as a main objective? The influx of newcomers was at a previously unprecedented scale, and thus the “large village” could not organically adapt to them How many of our major cities around the world are in fact large villages, entirely unprepared for the scale and type of migration we face today? In such instances, what interventions can be put in place to strengthen both the social and moral fabric of the city, while providing the necessary infrastructure for the newcomers? Providing housing and job opportunities within the city for newcomers is the lesson learnt from Homs. Moreover, public spaces and civic facilities which encourage community interaction and foster a collective sense of identity can play a role in opening up “large villages”.

Full article here

 

Urban Revitalization in Middle East Cities

I was recently asked to write a piece for Meeting of the Minds on the above topic…full article here, excerpts below.

What should a revitalization plan for a Middle East city look like? It should address the challenge of introducing walkability and effective public transport into existing urban cores, especially since most cities have been developed in the era of cheap oil and fascination with the motor car. This will require addressing both the land use mix and the transport network (e.g. road width, availability of shaded pedestrian walkways, integration of bus lanes and potentially rail). Providing accessible and functional public open spaces is another related challenge which could be a primary goal for revitalization projects. Of course, the spatial dimension will require a strong policy framework to assist in changing norms and behaviours, and generating finance for projects.

Large revitalization projects would also be an opportunity to address broad challenges such as city resilience. Whether it is adapting to climate change (e.g. sea level rise) or promoting a collective social identity, there are many fundamental topics to the long-term prosperity of a city which have been side-stepped by the focus on building new. This cannot go on forever. Creating communities where both citizens and expats of various income levels can live and work is possible, as was the case fifty years ago, in many Gulf cities.

What is stopping this revitalization from happening? For the larger projects, there are the political difficulties of re-appropriating land from private owners and negotiating land-use changes. The logistical challenges of construction in an existing area, particularly an existing busy downtown area, are also a barrier and can lead to theoretically feasible projects becoming “too difficult”. The biggest drawback is probably the availability of cheap, accessible land for new development.

It’s a welcomed change to be discussing regeneration/revitalization instead of focusing purely on new build.  It’s also a sign of the development of our cities and our thinking around them.  Looking forward to more discussions on this topic; there have already been some thought-provoking comments on the article. Please do share your thoughts.

Lots going on!

‘Tis the season of events and conferences…and exciting announcements.

While this usually spreads over a few months (coinciding with better weather in the UAE), the last month has been particularly interesting for sustainability professionals.  Two of the high profile events I’ve had the privilege of attending are the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week (ADSW 2017), including the World Future Energy Summit and the International Water Summit, and the C40 Dubai Adaptation Conference.

ADSW 2017 Opening Ceremony

Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week 2017

While I’ve attended the ADSW exhibitions before, this was my first year attending as a speaker.  The awards ceremony for the Zayed Future Energy Prize was very well organized and it was heart-warming to see high school students from all over the world competing and attending the ceremony.

The exhibition showcased the latest sustainability-related policies and projects in the region, including the UAE Energy Strategy , Abu Dhabi ground water law, Saudi Vision 2030, and Dubai Expo 2020.

UAE Energy Strategy development timeline – UAE Ministry of Energy

 

The World Future Energy Summit was well-attended with multiple country-focus sessions including KSA and India.  The strong push towards renewable energy (solar and wind) in KSA from both the private and public sectors was evident.

Abu Dhabi Water Projects – EAD

 

I spoke on the second day of the International Water Summit, as part of a panel on the topic of planning liveable cities from a water perspective.  Panelists shared their experience of best practice from around the world, including Vienna and Rotterdam.  The next panel discussed the topic of storm water management and it was great to hear panelists emphasising the need to plan for exceedance events (i.e. not limit planning to minimum statutory requirements).

C40 Climate Change Adaptation Conference

Less than a week later, Dubai hosted the C40 Climate Change Adaptation Conference.  It is the first C40 network event hosted in Dubai and, in true Dubai style, the event hosted not one but three networks related to adaptation.

C40 Cities Climate Change Adaptation Conference in Dubai

The first plenary session included a panel with His Excellency Abdulla Al Shaibani, Secretary-General of the Executive Council of Dubai, His Excellency Dr. Thani Al-Zeyoudi, UAE Minister of Climate Change and Environment, and Mayor Aqel Beltaji mayor of Amman, Jordan (another C40 city in the region) – all discussing ongoing and future initiatives related to climate change.  During his welcoming speech earlier in the morning, Al Shaibani announced the development of a Dubai Climate Adaptation Plan.  This would be a first for the region and follows on from the recent announcement of a UAE-wide Council for Climate Change and Environment.

There is a lot of ground to be covered as the region has done very little to date on adaptation.  However, the cooperation at a city and national level, at least in the UAE, to tackle this challenge is a promising start.

Emirates Green Building Student Forum

I cannot end without mentioning the well-organised Student Forum event by the Emirates Green Building Council and Heriot-Watt university earlier this week.  It was a pleasure and privilege to be invited as a panelist, along with a number of sustainability professionals from the industry.  I always learn a lot from people’s career journeys and this was no exception.  Interestingly, I wasn’t the only one with a ‘non-traditional’ path, as many had work experience prior to completing their degrees or had multiple degrees some of which were unrelated to the built environment.  What was common was the effort these industry leaders put in to continuously developing their knowledge and skills and progressing their careers to the next level.

The students were interested to find out what companies look for when hiring graduates.  There were also questions around the best time for undertaking a graduate degree (pre or post work experience) and the support provided by companies towards this.  Overall, I was impressed by the enthusiasm and industry awareness level of the students.  One architectural engineering student was interested in undertaking a graduate degree to help her ‘sell’ sustainable design in the face of arguments that it is not the right economic answer.  Get a job was my advice…nothing like real-life experience to win such discussions.

I was particularly impressed by a group of female UAE University students who came all the way from Al Ain to find out more about the industry and what opportunities await them.  One of them was interested in a government job, not because of the shorter working hours or higher starting salaries, but because of the influence the role would provide on shaping a more sustainable world.  Another had very valid critiques of development projects in the region being branded as sustainable, such as insufficient focus on walkability.  All five of the students were interested in pursuing careers in urban planning but were not sure if there were any relevant opportunities in the market.  They left feeling that their trip was worthwhile and that sustainable urban planning was a real career choice, not a fantasy.  It is moments like these that make my day.

What I learnt this summer

This was probably one of my favourite summers.  Not only was I spared the heat of the desert, I had the opportunity to spend a few months researching active transport in London.  I learnt a great deal from talking to people to find out why on earth anyone would be against improving cycling and walking infrastructure in their neighbourhood.

Some of what I learnt was obvious.  People like to know what’s going on in their area, and they also like to have a say in any major changes that occur.  I didn’t need three months to come to that conclusion.

What I also learnt was that even projects that have obvious environmental, health, and social benefits can go very wrong.  This happens when we fail to ask the question: how does this project affect everyone in society?  Or, more directly, how does it affect the disadvantaged in the society?  How does this impact the existing inequalities in a society?

In the case of the active transport programme I was researching, the impact of the new infrastructure on bus users was not even properly considered, let alone addressed.  In the context of London, this is related to the inequality question because buses are the cheapest and most accessible form of public transport, and cycling is a mode which has recently become associated with the more affluent in society.  By not considering the impact on bus users, the project proponents were not only ignoring the best-practice principle of addressing transport in an integrated way, they were also indirectly neglecting to consider the negative impacts of the scheme on already disadvantaged residents (e.g. the mobility-impaired and the economically disadvantaged, for example).

What really bothered was that I, or any other built environment professional, would have likely made the same mistake.  There is very little in our training and procedures, as an industry, that prompts us to stop and consider socioeconomic equity questions, even when this is one of the biggest challenges facing our cities and nations today.

Over the past decade, with the growing emphasis on environmental sustainability and climate change, the industry has developed such that for many professionals it has become second nature to at least consider the potential environmental impacts of a project.  We have developed a whole range of tools and appraisal techniques to help us with this early thinking, even before we get to meeting standards, client requirements, or voluntary certifications.  It is now hard to imagine a project with significant negative environmental impacts winning any kind of design or construction award.

This is all good news.  What I learnt this summer was that it is very far from enough.  I learnt that we need to develop a similar awareness, sensitivity, understanding and rigour to considerations around social equity.  Are the  plans and projects we are shaping increasing or decreasing the gaps in a particular society? Who are the winners and losers?  Are the losers the same every time?

There are two key challenges that immediately pose themselves when we begin to tackle these questions.  First, sociology is a field which is foreign to all but a few built environment professionals.  The ‘green’ movement introduced the need to calculate energy demand and carbon footprint, as well as energy loads, for example.  But these are all numerical calculations which can be undertaken by the same engineer, with a few weeks of additional training.  Assessing and articulating the social equity impacts of a project, even at a conceptual level, introduces a whole new language and skill set, which currently would most likely not  be available to project teams.

Second, answering these questions requires an intimate knowledge of the society or community in question – what are the critical issues? who are the disadvantaged? how would a plan or project affect their lifestyles?  We cannot afford to spend months researching these questions before we begin any project.  Equally, we cannot continue ignoring them, pretending that we know the answer, or assuming that it is someone else’s problem.  As the private sector continues to take a bigger role in shaping and developing cities, that role needs to include responsibility for the social, as well as the physical, consequences of a plan or project.

I am fully aware that this is a big ask, especially when we are still getting to grips with what we need to do to keep our planet habitable in the face of climate change.  What I learnt this summer was that we have an equally important moral obligation as built environment professionals to understand and address the impact of our work on the growing inequality in our societies.

The first 10 years of my career

I have to start by apologising for the silence on this blog during the past couple of months…”dissertation” is all I can say.  If you’re wondering about my research topic, this article I wrote recently might give you a clue, although the story unfolding is turning out to be a lot ‘juicier’ than I expected.  More on that in a few weeks hopefully (once the dissertation has been completed!).

Last week, I was invited to give a talk at the Arup office in Manchester reflecting on my career to date.  I have never been asked to speak on such a personal topic before; it turned out to be a valuable opportunity to reflect and share.

 

Having fun in the lab

Huda in the lab

 

This is a photo of me as a graduate student and research assistant at the University of California, Irvine.  It’s been almost ten years since I graduated with a Masters degree in Chemistry from there.  Returning to Dubai in January of 2007, I was looking for a job as a lecturer or researcher in the field of environmental science.  However, what Dubai was looking for, I soon found out, were people to design, build, manage and market the largest construction boom it had ever seen.  I was fortunate to find a niche in that world as an environmental specialist for one of the large developers.

I didn’t necessarily know it at the time, but I could not have asked for a better learning experience or introduction to the construction industry.  Having oversight of some of the most exciting and challenging projects in the region, and direct access to many of the top directors and team leaders on both the client and consultancy side, gave me first hand insights into how the industry worked locally.

It was about the same time that Dubai started becoming interested in the ‘green agenda‘.  I found the area of sustainability fascinating as it moved away from a mostly reactive and legally-driven world of minimising negative impact towards a more proactive, integrated, and ambitious paradigm of promoting positive change and capitalising on opportunities.  I became an accredited green building professional within less than a year of starting my role, and was excited about bringing this new approach to the region.

Moving to Arup in the summer of 2008, I gained instant access to a global network of technically excellent, similarly-minded, passionate individuals who were eager to explore the many sustainability challenges and opportunities, and share their learning with anyone who would listen.  It was the environment I needed to continue learning and growing, both personally and professionally.  And I am still doing so today.  As my experience grew, so did my responsibilities and ambitions, and I was encouraged from an early stage to forge my own path, if that was what I wanted.

Reflecting back, there are some key points which stand out in my mind – words of wisdom or hard-earned experience – which have been central in shaping my career over the past ten years.

I remember when, as a relatively new and junior member of Arup, I was assured by our regional managing director that I could go far in Arup, and that doing so would not require me to do anything I did not feel comfortable with nor to pretend to be someone I was not.  That may be obvious to me now, but at the time it was hugely reassuring and motivating.  I would encourage you to pass on the same message to your colleagues, and to work to create an environment at your workplace where this is true, if it is not already the case.

I also remember a number of occasions along the way when I was not enjoying my work, for various reasons.  My personal rule of thumb is 50% – i.e. if I’m not enjoying at least 50% of the work I do then it’s time to do something about it.  And by that I mean seeking advice from mentors and colleagues, exploring new opportunities to learn and develop, and identifying potential new roles and professional challenges for myself.  Every time I accepted the fact that I was not satisfied and took on the task of changing that, I was rewarded.  I have God to thank for that and then all the wonderful people who have opened, sometimes created, doors for me and encouraged me to keep exploring.

By far, the most satisfying part of the past ten years has been the opportunity to influence mindsets and realities (people and projects) towards my vision of a better world.  It is what led me back to Dubai in January 2007, because I felt my best chance of long-term, meaningful influence was at home. It is also why I’m looking forward to returning to Dubai in September 2016.

No one will adapt our cities for us

If April was the month of resilience, then May was definitely the month of adaptation – climate change adaptation.  Globally, over 1600 delegates came together for the Adaptation Futures 2016 conference in Rotterdam, the fourth and so far largest international conference on the topic.  Closer to home, media reports have highlighted recent scientific research drawing attention to the serious impacts of climate change on the Middle East.

So what?

Mitigation (that is, actions to reduce greenhouse gases – from energy efficiency to renewable energy) is only half the story.  In parallel, we need to be planning for the expected changes in climate (i.e. adaptation).  To date, most of the focus globally and in the Middle East has been on mitigation.  We have not completely cracked that nut yet, but we cannot afford to ignore adaptation any longer.

Given that this is a relatively new area, let’s go through some basic myth busting

Adaptation is for tree-huggers

In fact, adaptation has little to do with environmental protection – it is primarily about managing risk to humans and infrastructure.  As highlighted by the UNFCCC Executive Secretary, climate change adaptation is about making people’s lives better.

We don’t know enough to plan for adaptation

Scientists have been predicting future climate scenarios for decades.  While this is still an ongoing area of study, we know enough to be able to identify likely scenarios.  There are also ways to interpret the global models to local areas, so that regions, countries, and cities can plan for scenarios relevant to them.

 

CRAFT

Possible climate risks (Source: CRAFT)

 

Adaptation is complicated

Just like any risk exercise, there are two main steps to adaptation planning.  First, a vulnerability assessment is undertaken to determine how vulnerable a city/country is to a particular climate change scenario.  This can be done at various levels of detail, depending on the information, budget and time available.  Once the key risks are identified, goals and plans can be prepared to address them.  Basic future planning / asset management really.

There is still time

It’s crazy to think that we are spending billions planning and delivering large-scale physical and social infrastructure projects in the region (rail, power, health, ports, housing, leisure…), without making sure that these projects will survive and be appropriate for the changing climate.  Climate change adaptation will inevitably mean changing the parameters to which we design our buildings and infrastructure and manage our resources – that is something we need to do now.

Solar power and electric cars will save us

Once again, mitigation is not adaptation.  Solar power and electric cars may reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and allow us to reach the 1.5 or 2 degrees target.  However, even if we reach that target tomorrow, we are still effectively guaranteed a change in climate – albeit, one that we have a chance of adapting to if we start now.

Interestingly, the adaptation mind set is almost the reverse of the mitigation one.  Mitigation is about each country/city doing its share so that we can reach a global target.  Adaptation is much more self-centred, in a sense.  It is about identifying the impacts of global climate change at a local level and planning to address them.  In other words, no one will adapt our homes, cities, countries for us – we will have to do that ourselves.

Resilience: what can cities learn from Byblos and Pittsburgh

April has been an exciting month for Resilience. The first resilience strategies for the Middle East (Byblos, Lebanon) and Europe (Vejle, Denmark) were released – well done Byblos, Vejle, and Arup! There were also very interesting updates from other cities on the journey: New York published its first resilience progress report, and Pittsburgh’s Chief Resilience Officer (CRO), Grant Ervin, gave an excellent webinar on his city’s approach and achievements. What’s great is that all these resources are accessible for free online.

Byblos strategy

Byblos Resilience Strategy – http://www.100resilientcities.org/

As I mentioned in this post, Resilience is here to stay and it will be up to cities to figure out what it means to them.  For the cities that are still contemplating this topic or just about to begin their journey, there is a lot that can be learnt from others.  While I’m still catching up with everything going on, here are some reflections on aspects that struck me about the Byblos and Pittsburgh experiences.

It’s OK to be vulnerable: one of my favourite things about Byblos’s strategy is that it clearly sets out the city’s challenges upfront.  In the context of the Middle East were the prevalent attitude is pretending everything is perfect, this was particularly brave.  Resilience is about identifying and managing physical, social, and economic risks – the first step to that is acknowledging a city’s vulnerability.

Resilience and Sustainability together: an interesting question was put to Pittsburgh’s CRO – how is the city managing the messages of sustainability and resilience? Does having both these messages create conflict or confusion?  The answer was insightful.  Ervin stressed that both sustainability and resilience are part of the city’s strategy.  These are seen as two distinct concepts which must be achieved in tandem.  To do this, the city created a “department of innovation and performance” which includes a sustainability and a resilience team.  This department functions as a service arm to all other departments (e.g. planning, water management…etc.), enabling it to influence the whole city.

 Remember the basics: while concepts like ‘smart city’ and ‘creative city’ have their place, resilience is just as much about securing the basics – clean air and water, for example.  As a classic ‘post-industrial’ city, Pittsburgh is aware of the air quality and water challenges it faces and has devoted two of its four strategy pillars to these topics.  Similarly, the Byblos strategy addresses waste water treatment and surface water quality in the city.

Involve the wider community: resilience is not something one or two departments or authorities can achieve on their own.  Given its broad scope and ambitious goals, it requires input and action from the entire community including the private sector, students and academics, and NGOs.  The Byblos strategy outlines very specific actions to achieve its identified goals, and assigns those to a wide range of stakeholders. In response to one of the questions during the Pittsburgh webinar, Ervin rattled off a dozen or so initiatives developed specifically to engage university students with the city’s resilience journey.

Neither Byblos nor Pittsburgh are the first names that come to mind when discussing sustainable or innovative cities, but they have both recently demonstrated their commitment to resilience and will be interesting examples to watch and learn from in the coming years.

By the way, April also saw thegreenurbanista.com turn one…thank you for your readership, support, and engagement <3

Best of Barcelona Public Realm

I had the pleasure of visiting Barcelona a few weeks ago as part of an urban planning field trip organised by UCL.  That translated into many many hours of walking around the less-touristy areas of the city, and the opportunity to hear first hand from local planning experts from academia, government, and civil society.

There is so much to say about Barcelona in terms of the city’s model of development over the past few decades, and how that has influenced other cities around the world.  However, what I’d like to do instead is share some thoughts on what struck me most in the city: its public spaces.

Check out this park (Parc del Clot), for example:

20160218_115027-PANO

20160218_114751

20160218_115736

 

Picture2

Believe it or not, this space in the middle of a residential neighbourhood was an unused facility for train maintenance until the late 1980’s.  The city’s residents campaigned for the space to be turned into a park (see last image above), and they won.  While simple in many ways, the park’s design works very well as it links the surrounding neighbourhoods, accommodates a variety of users, provides a safe space for various leisure and sport activities, and acknowledges the climate and water scarcity of the city.  The residents are delighted with the space and it is very well used, as the local community organiser confirmed.

There are many other smaller parks dotted around the city which follow similar design principles.  The two below provide a couple of examples.

20160218_165347

20160217_152710

20160216_164753

Public squares are a defining aspect of Barcelona, and the city provides many examples of well-designed and well-used squares.  This one, between a school and a library, particularly caught my attention:

20160218_171341

We happened to walk by on a week-day afternoon and it was amazing to see how well-used the space was, by both the children and their parents.

There are of course the fancier squares in the city centre, usually full with tourists (and pigeons).

20160219_164852

20160219_160326

And of course, there are the famous ramblas, a street typology whose name originates from the Arabic word for sandy area (ramlah, رملة).  The most famous of them is the Las Ramblas in the city centre which is a stretch of a number of connected pedestrian streets.

20160219_164301

The most interesting ramblas though are the ones outside the city centre, as they provide a snap shot into the every day life of Barcelona residents.

Out of a very exciting trip, the most delightful part was the time I spent walking down this rambla on a sunny Saturday morning:

20160220_123213

20160220_123037

20160220_123103

With 50% of Barcelona residents not owning a car, the latest Barcelona Urban Mobility Plan prioritises walking and aims to increase its modal share by 10%.

A lot can be learnt from the planning, design, and management of public space in Barcelona, particularly by cities across the Mediterranean (Amman, Beirut, and Ramallah to name a few) which share a similar climate and life style.

1 2 3