In the latest Bayfield Training Webinar, Sonia Martin-Gutierrez and Juan Cortes present: The essential city, resilience through innovation. The global pandemic has exposed the fragility of our economic and socio-ecological systems, putting some key issues in the spotlight, such as the “urban backbone” of life-supporting infrastructure. It is time for a new approach to city-making, privileging resilience building, improving living standards, and reducing inequalities. To ensure cities are prepared for new global shocks, more flexible and imaginative policies must be implemented, including reviewing urban planning frameworks. For example, innovative tools such as virtual citizen participation or scenario generation, informed by big data sources, can be embedded in master plans for developing adaptable and feasible design alternatives. This integrated approach also includes sustainable mobility and green space provision as the main enablers of environmental sustainability.

Crisis: a turning point in the system

Google mobility data extracted from coronavirus inflicted lockdowns has shown how radically lifestyle patterns had changed. For example, daily activities were restricted to a geographical radius of approximately one kilometre from urban dwellings. Juan argues that the global pandemic exposed our economic and social-ecological systems’ fragility, putting specific issues in the spotlight. Central here is the “urban backbone, or life supporting critical urban city infrastructure.” Specifically, Juan argues that it is essential to increase the preparedness of our cities and public spaces to mitigate future events, including pandemics and natural disasters.

Emerging Urban Issues

Next, Juan details the emerging urban issues that are being tackled by public governments and municipalities. Firstly, employment and essential public services should be distributed evenly and equitably throughout cities. According to Juan, this will positively affect mobility, allowing all city districts and neighbourhoods to have their essential services and thus not needing people to commute every day to work. Several advantages will be borne, including less air pollution, reduced emissions, and an increase in the population’s health condition due to greater walker and bike-friendly cities. Secondly, cities should introduce seamless supply chains. Juan rightly points out that the supply chain’s efficiency during lockdown was pivotal to providing individuals with goods and services. Therefore, developing a resolute e-commerce and logistics network is of critical importance. Thirdly, the repurposing of the urban corridor. Specifically, this relates to the repurposing of streets, alleys, plazas, and all public spaces. For example, turning parking lots into pedestrian playgrounds. In essence, cities should move towards greener infrastructure.

Furthermore, Juan explains the three primary goals for the success of the ‘essential city’. Firstly, the city needs to be safe and resilient. Included here are ecological resilience and cybersecurity. Ultimately, there needs to be greater coordination of the emergency services and protection forces within a city’s mobility networks. The second goal would be to support basic living standards— all citizens should have quick, easy, and accessible access to green open space. Thirdly, the city should allow the baseline economic activity to continue in the face of any critical events, such as a pandemic or natural catastrophe.

The Integrated Approach

Next, Juan detailed an integrated approach to city development. The approach created by Juan’s firm places data and innovation at the centre. As Juan argues, “innovative digital tools should be applied to the urban design process.” For example, Juan considers how cities can integrate Geographical Information Systems with building information models and other predictive modelling types to create a more informed design and outcome-oriented city. Thus, Juan’s approach takes a holistic view that believes there are many synergies between urban infrastructures and services. For example, mobility can improve and increase energy efficiency; i.e., we consume less energy if we implement sustainable mobility modes and transportation forms. Moreover, it can improve the built environment as fewer emissions will make the public space more usable and enjoyable for citizens.

Case Study: Innovation district in Italy

Next, Juan provides a case study of an innovation district proposal in Italy. The district was formerly an industrial suburb, characterized by very little economic activity. This presented a challenge to Juan teams to “refurbish it and transform it in a regenerated way and create a new setting to attract.” An interesting point Juan makes is that his firm is inspired to build a multi-generation core city with much diversity. As Juan explains, “diversity enables innovation to take place,” by allowing people to meet up to exchange ideas.

Moreover, the public realm must be the centre of urban design. The schematic diagram provided shows that the district integrated green infrastructure within the streetscape. For example, Juan’s firm created an infrastructure to manage and collect rainwater and recycle it for different purposes, including irrigation of rooftops. Above all, the main goal is to create a vibrant and sustainable environment.