Urban Landscapes in the Green Decade: in Conversation with Andrea Balestrini

Urban Landscapes in the Green Decade: in Conversation with Andrea Balestrini

Andrea Balestrini is a landscape planner with experience in nature-based solutions, public space design, and landscape governance within international R&I projects and consultancies. He studied at Politecnico di Milano and the University of Stuttgart. During his studies, he focused on the topic of landscape recovery and water-sensitive urban design in European cities as well as metropolis such as Seoul, Cairo, and Lima, where he worked and developed his diploma thesis with the Municipal Office for Green Areas and Parks (SERPAR) in collaboration with the research project Future Megacities, local universities, and NGOs. His professional background gathers both academic experiences and professional engagement in strategic plans, landscape masterplans, management of cultural landscapes, and climate adaptation. Since 2014, he works at LAND where he leads the LAND Research Lab®, a think tank for applied research and innovation in landscape and territorial transformation processes.

Q: How can we design inclusive and attractive urban landscapes in the age of uncertainty?

AB: In the slow and erratic post-pandemic recovery, cities are facing social and economic uncertainty sharpened by general political instability, cultural shift, and climate emergency. Most of these challenges find a testing ground in public open spaces. Established parks, streets, and squares need to be adapted to new uses and changed climate conditions; new open spaces are required to make cities more attractive and ecologically sound. On one hand, resources are lacking and citizens’ consensus is more and more crucial to ensure social and economic sustainability. On the other hand, traditional top-down design approaches and static masterplans failed in delivering adaptable solutions for quickly changing socio-economic trends; moreover, they were not able to involve communities and include a broader plethora of stakeholders willing to activate and take care of spaces. Nowadays, urban regeneration areas provide an unprecedented opportunity to rethink public spaces and test new collaborative and climate-friendly dynamics.  Meanwhile uses are a hot topic in urban regeneration practices and research while complex masterplans are being developed, as they allow, with their co-creation approach, all the key stakeholders to be involved in the city-making process from the early stages. From tactical urbanism initiatives – such as Piazze Aperte by the City of Milan – to experimental programs – such as the EU-funded project T-Factor – the temporary uses of urban regeneration areas leverage local relational ecosystems, thus unlocking the potential of people and places by activating cultural initiatives, educational programs, leisure events, and enhancing urban spaces. Urban regeneration areas anticipate changes and provide chances for successful and innovative Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs), helping public administrators, developers, and city makers in envisioning more resilient masterplans.

Q: How can we design livable open spaces that comply with sustainability goals?

AB: We live in the ecology and energy transition, a global multi-level and inter-disciplinary effort to reduce emissions, restore nature, and boost a circular regenerative economy in compliance with the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. Landscape design plays a crucial role in making cities more environmentally friendly by implementing green areas and resilient open spaces. However, sustainability must be measurable and visible to be accountable and communicated to the broader public. Ecosystem services can be quantified and contribute to sustainability certifications and decision-making processes. Several R&I projects have been financed by the European Commission – such as UNaLab – to define and assess how ecological and climate solutions are able to impact societal challenges. Combining this knowledge with data-driven planning procedures, LAND developed a methodology called LIM landscape information modelling®, a landscape approach to Building Information Modeling (BIM) capable of steering informed decisions for greener and healthier cities by combining the application of BIM, GIS, and visualization tools on a database specially developed for this purpose. LIM allows quantifying environmental parameters, simulating green growth and impact by providing spatial inputs, and build a sustainability pre-assessment to support design decisions, approval processes, and future maintenance.

Q: How can we effectively include nature in public space planning?

AB: Through their physiological processes, plants and animals provide a variety of ecosystem services and multiple benefits that humankind and the environment receive directly or indirectly. These include provisioning with food and water, regulating services that affect climate, floods, and air quality, and supporting services such as pedogenesis and nutrient cycling (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005). Urbanized areas are expanding, increasing the climate vulnerability of our environment, and urban green areas can help mitigate this phenomenon. However, they need to be planned correctly to effectively provide the expected services. The European Commission introduced Nature-based Solutions as “Solutions that are inspired and supported by nature,  cost-effective, and that simultaneously provide environmental, social and economic benefits,  and help build resilience. Such solutions bring more diverse and natural features and processes into cities, landscapes, and seascapes through locally adapted, resource-efficient, and systemic interventions.” Therefore, we must rethink urban planning and its definition of public spaces; we need to identify challenges, target ecosystem services, select solutions, and adapt them to the context through a co-creation process and a systemic approach. Cities should no longer belong only to humans; instead, they should embrace nature as a valuable ally to make our everyday urban spaces more livable.