Urban Development Forum Sofia 2019

Urban Development Forum Sofia 2019

“The role and importance of transport and mobility infrastructure for developing mixed modern zones in brownfields”

Systematica participated in Urban Development Forum (UDF 2019) in Sofia, Bulgaria. The presentation titled “The role and importance of transport and mobility infrastructure for developing mixed modern zones in brownfields” was focused on an extensive experience on mobility and transportation consultancy of mixed-use mega urban development projects especially on the regeneration of brownfield zones.

Participation in the event and an interview with Rawad Choubassi, Partner and Director at Systematica, were recorded on THE CITY Magazine, Issue 5, 2019; a publication specialized in the fields of regional and urban development, investment projects, strategic infrastructure, and energy efficiency.

Moscow River Regeneration Plan (Systematica)
Hanoi Railway Station, Public transport accessibility study (Systematica)

Globally, what are the common major challenges before the modern cities development – sprawling or compact Cities, mixed-use zones or dorm areas, existence of adequate infrastructure for development of business zones?  

Cities continuously need to re-invent themselves. The market changes that the world witnessed in the past five decades had imposed a series of changes to the productive system of cities, leaving vacant and abandoned vast areas further to the demise of industrial production in cities. The fate of these areas had remained uncertain for decades after being abandoned, as they stood still and inactive, waiting for a new vocation. These sites had left huge architectural artifacts, polluted areas due to their previous heavy industrial byproducts, railyards that went out of use, and imposed a tough challenge on developers as they required high initial costs for de-polluting soils or dismantling huge buildings. Moreover, the peripheral location of some of the abandoned areas was not considered attractive as a living location since they neither lie close to the vibrant city center nor to the green outskirts of major cities.

In recent decades, two major changes occurred: (1) Cities started acquiring a new definition as a vibrant place for living, learning and working. Habits started to change, as a new generation of young millennials accessed the labor market. (2) The city itself grew, partially through uncontrolled sprawl in the outskirt and partially through an urban continuum that extends from the center to periphery, connecting a previously disconnected fabric of suburbs. This consequently transformed the big industrial sites attractive again […]. The much-desired living model of gated residence in a city periphery that is accessible only by car started to lose its appeal, replaced by a desire to live again in vibrant areas, with a variety of commercial functions, cultural venues, and services at walking distance: accessible by foot!

All this led to a new model of living, working and playing that put variety in urban functional offering at the basis of everyone’s needs, promoting mixed-use developments that are respectful of nature […]. Beyond the desire to live in an environment with multiple functions and multiple offerings, citizens became aware of the different benefits that can be cropped from reducing commuting times.

Alongside these changes, city planners were posing the question of the new and emerging models of urbanism that required different planning tools to transform areas rather than dictate their fate by rigid planning models and obsolete land use and zoning laws and regulations. Areas of transformation turned into development programs with a specific set of requirements and elements that were given back from the private developer to the general public in terms of services, green areas, and infrastructure. The exchange between the public and the private took a new shape and put urban planning and development at the heart of any transformation, mainly after the first success stories that were showing the good effects of urban regeneration not only on the areas affected by the development, but on the entire areas surrounding the affected area in a positive ripple effect that started to transform areas into secure ones and more attractive investments for small and medium businesses, young couples and families and several others.

An integral component of the entire infrastructure system is the transport system. The transport system acquired another level of complexity as its task was not anymore limited to matching travel supply to demand but to propose alternative ways of urban mobility that made transformed areas attractive places to live in […], in contrast to traditional car-centric peripheral developments. This monetized investments in public transport infrastructure transforming them into assets as they added value to developers, and resulted in a series of positive benefits to the general public, with the aim to reduce vehicle traffic, road maintenance, travel times, pollutant emissions, etc.

Adequate accessibility infrastructure, multiple transit modes offering, shaded walkable networks supported with safe and protected cycling paths, and recently smart and shared mobility alternatives, intelligent parking infrastructure, represent the basic components for leading any development to success and to boosting businesses […]

Tashkent, Proposed Cycling Network (Systematica)
Paris, Maine – Montparnasse Urban Regeneration Masterplan (Systematica)

The Bulgarian capital Sofia faces some brownfield zones development – what are the good practices and the challenges and what are the best ways to develop their potential?

[…] Developing brownfield zones had proven to be a way not to regenerate the area of intervention only but to renew an overall district and, collectively, change the identity and “spirit” of the city. I take the example of Milan, where Systematica had been operating for decades, where the transformation of a few, but large areas had revitalized entire neighborhoods and re-stitched portions of the city fabric creating new places for living and working. In order to achieve this, a number of good planning and design practices had been consolidated that today can be referential for future examples in other cities […]:

1. Good transit. Major urban transformations must represent an occasion to either capitalize on existing transport infrastructure by upgrading its capacity and improving services or build new ones with a focus on active and green modes. Developments with a good level of accessibility by Public Transportation, the so-called Transit-Oriented Developments (TODs), have proven to be successful attractors of different types of businesses and users, with different purposes, profiles and age groups. Investments in Public Transport provided city users with a democratic transit offering […]. One of the projects that we worked on and which is worth being cited as an example in Citylife development in Milan. Thanks to its underground metro stop at its very center and a train station, a tram line and a number of bus lines along its fringes, the development demarcated a leap into a new development model as it achieved a fully pedestrian area that is twice the size of Canary Warf in London […].

2. Mixed-use. Achieving a well-balanced mix of functions that put together different users, whether they are residents, office users, dwellers, business visitors, tourists, families, etc. had proven to be another success factor. Beyond defying the monoculture that some developments of the past had imposed, there are some objective reasons for which the “mixité” had resulted in concrete improvements, such as (1). A convenient environment for a circular economy; (2). Optimization of resources – think of the common use of parking places which reduces the need for parking places in the first place; (3). More trips by foot and less dependency on the car for some daily travel; (4). A vibrant environment with 24-hr activities; and (5). Safer places.

3. Cost-sharing. An adequate economic setup that allows the developer to pay for urban improvements through infrastructure developments had proven to be an essential component for cities to sustain the generated effects of major developments in a concerted manner. This tradeoff between public and private is essential for curbing or making up for the external effects that any development can generate whether during the construction phase or after completion. Several tests in other countries (see UK and France) had led the public governing body to establish programs that pooled resources from different developments to finance huge transport infrastructures – such as metro or train lines – that a single development cannot on its own – due to the high cost of infrastructure.

4. Pricing policies. Pricing is not to be conceived as a means to collect revenue but also as a highly efficient mechanism to control behavior and use of infrastructure and facilities. Pricing policies are vital to the success of development. Think of on-street parking: a correct pricing policy can match demand and supply and ensure appropriate usage of parking stalls by a higher number of users in a single day. This is an ideal example of how we can avoid misuse of transport offerings and the public domain. There is a high cost to any decision, whether it is planning or operational, of which the planner and decision-maker should be aware of. Sound strategic planning, assisted through correct pricing mechanisms, is aimed principally to correct such flaws.

5. Preserving the existing. The Young City Development in the city of Freedom, Gdansk, is an excellent example of how a developer that venture in developing an entire historical shipyard, despite the objective difficulties that can be faced. Developing amidst a series of restrictions, such as historically listed buildings, as in this case is a challenge that however contains a virtuous aim of developing while preserving the identity of an area, its history, bringing back a vocation that might threaten or totally lost. We had a similar experience working on a competition for the regeneration of the ex-industrial area in the heart of Moscow, called “Serp i Molot” (Sickle and hammer) where the challenge of working between the thin and delicate lines of history and of a past ideology was the main challenge that underpinned any technical solution. The richness that preservation brings to developments is immense and is the very first step to avoid the tabula rasa approach and to reconstruct the qualities of a district through digging in its past.

6. Walkable districts. Planning walkable cities is another key to success. The density of any development together with its mixed-use nature is complemented and completed by a walkable network that connects the different parts of the public realm. Walkable neighborhoods are safe neighborhoods, healthy ones and certainly eco-friendly. The value generated from walking people in a city or a neighborhood has proven the success of on-street retail units, in activating ground floor, providing vibrant places and mostly reduce the usage of motorized modes of transportation for short trips. One of the best and most recent practices is to rethink urban streets and seek an equilibrium among different modes of movements: by foot, by bike, by car, by bus, by taxi, etc. The recent term of “Road diet” had been recurrent as it represents a historical moment in time where streets were rethought as planners needed to give them back to people.

Gdansk, Agent analysis of pedestrian movements throughout the Young City site (Systematica)

How the necessary infrastructure and public space can be provided for achieving balanced development of new zones and preservation of their specific character?

A delicate equilibrium among the different components of a development master plan is crucial to its success. The systems and networks that underpin the principles of any development need to co-exist in an integrated and holistic manner where all components work for ensuring a place that is economically feasible, functional and that, above all, put the comfort, safety and well-being of people who use the area, whether they are residents, employees or occasional users, at the heart of any other objective.

Planning transportation systems is a good example of how the planned network is called to maintain a balance between different modes, to match travel demand and accommodate the needs of different user types of different ages democratically. In this regard, travel demand needs to be matched through multiple transport offerings in order to provide the development’s users alternative transport modes that range from private to public, from collective to individual and from shared to unshared. This multidimensional mobility offering enriches the urban development allowing people to shift from the rather traditional private individualistic transit mode, the car, which had proven to be an unsustainable and obsolete model […].

This utopic aspiration of moving away from traditional modes of transport often clashes against a few barriers that hinder these ideas from becoming reality and that planners challenge daily.

(1). The regulatory framework in many contexts still did not adapt timely to world changes and aspirations of newer generations. I refer in particular to codes and manuals that are imposed, for instance, trip generation manuals for estimating the traffic that is generated by any development, parking minimums, and parking generation manual used for calculating car parking demand, etc.;

(2). Conservative mindset of governing bodies that carry out technical screening of development projects for issuing permits. We have often challenged this through constructive dialogue with governmental agencies in very tough contexts that are heavily regulated through norms and standards, in Paris, Dubai, Mumbai, Kuala Lumpur, and many others;

(3). Objective evaluation methods of the effects of planning decisions through the development of appropriate measurement instruments that often fall short from providing the necessary scientific evidence of the appropriateness (or non-appropriateness) of the proposed development models and solutions. A good reference in this regard is the complex planning instrument developed by Transport for London (TfL), called the PTAL (Public Transportation Accessibility Level). This instrument is used to rank every 10,000 sqm of a city on a scale from 1 to 6, whereas 1 is the lowest and 6 is the highest level. PTAL ranges based on the availability of Public Transport Infrastructure and the intensity of its service. TfL requires that every developer justifies every parking stall if the development lies in an area with a PTAL value that is 5 or above. This tool had been revolutionary and a solid tool for curbing parking space, and consequently vehicle traffic, in areas that are well served by Public Transportation, that are often central. The sole aim has always been to ensure a balance in development investments and to reducing traffic through prevention instead of correction and retrofitting. An example of this is the Shard Tower in London city center, one of the tallest towers of nearly 400,000 sqm of Built-up Area that is served only by 50 parking places – this is unprecedented.

(4). Finally, our own habits. Changing habits is a cultural evolutive process that often requires time and exposure to successful examples. Changing the mindset of consumers, apartment owners, business managers renting a space for their own company, is a challenge that needs to be continuously developed through spreading awareness and gradually daring to try new models.

Athens Waterfront Regeneration Master Plan, Public Transport Accessibility Levels (Systematica)

The complete interview in the original language can be found online:

“The City Magazine” Online publication.