Urban development has suddenly become a whole lot more complex due to the revolution in use patterns and the ecological transition. Integrating new features, competencies and aspirations is key to the future of cities.

New use patterns, the explosion in digital technology, the green transition and the health crisis are all unprecedented and uncertain factors that the urban planning sector is having to take into account.

Faced with this complex landscape, how should planners reinvent their business and promote new skills? And, going forward, who will deliver integrated urban development solutions? Cities themselves, public or private planners, or indeed tech giants?

These were some of the questions raised on 28 September 2020 at a conference entitled “Urban planning 3.0: who will be the integrator for the usage-driven city?”, held as part of the Building Beyond Festival by the VINCI group’s foresight platform Léonard in partnership with another VINCI think tank, La Fabrique de la Cité.

All the experts who attended reached a common assessment, summed up by the CEO of urban development agency Euroméditerranée, Hugues Parant: “Use patterns are of paramount importance in urban planning, and the breadth and scope of them is a driver of creativity.” However, the whole challenge of urban planning is to strike increasingly tricky balances: between the growing autonomy of civil society and the legitimacy of political decision-making, between growth stimulation and sustainable consumption, and so on.

Introducing new equations

“Clients are everywhere, whether they are elected officials, employees, investors or developers, and the financial model for planners is becoming more and more complex,” stressed Christophe Lasnier, senior manager at EY Consulting, which oversees the “Panorama de la ville et de l’immobilier” study (Real Estate & Urban Employment Monitor). The need to master new business models becomes ever more critical as environmental issues increase, asserted Virginie Leroy, deputy managing director for urban planning and major urban projects, and director of the office department at VINCI Immobilier: “The concept of ‘no net land take’ [when land taken is compensated for elsewhere] and the increasing scarcity of land mean that we are having to build cities on top of cities. Land consolidation, new partnerships, decontamination and thermal rehabilitation of old buildings: it’s not clear which business models should be actioned.” Urban planning professions will therefore need to focus on understanding the later stages of the property value chain and how they are financed. Cécile Maisonneuve, chief executive of La Fabrique de la Cité, stressed the impact of these new requirements: “We’ve gone from ‘what do we want to do?’ to ‘what do we need to do?’”

Overall, the conference participants agreed that the diversity of use patterns and increased complexity of operations require greater cooperation between all industry stakeholders at the earliest possible stage of the urbanisation process.

Building a narrative around consultation

In ensuring that these stages are fully anticipated, where does that leave public consultation? The issue raised some concerns among participants during the conference. Not so much about the principle itself of consultation – indeed, the various round-table speakers agreed that in an increasingly usage-driven system, it’s vital that users are linked to urban choices.

But the terms implemented for public consultations so far have clearly produced mixed results. Cécile Maisonneuve drew attention to the failure of Google’s Quayside project in Toronto, which promised to be citizen-led.

Planners-integrators must ensure the long-term viability of applications”

“Consultation is always directed at regulars of the consultation procedure and public debate circuit,” confirmed Hugues Parant, and holding a public meeting at 7pm on a weeknight or 9am at the weekend doesn’t make any difference. “Consultation needs to be redesigned as a narrative so that projects are of interest to people,” maintained the Euroméditerranée CEO.

And town planners must be warned against the temptation of withdrawing from the process once decisions have been signed off: “You can’t involve citizens in a consultation about what their use patterns will look like in the future, then disappear from the scene after two years. Planners-integrators must also ensure the long-term viability of applications.” 

Delivering that extra-special something

Planners must start finding ways to meet the major challenges of the city of tomorrow, whether by developing hybrid private/public spaces, creating communal private spaces, producing reversible buildings, constructing zero-carbon housing, incorporating greenery into main roads and areas in cities, taking leisure activities into account or offsetting land scarcity with densification. This means that as well as having expertise in legal affairs and urban development, planners will also need to show a powerful ability to understand, anticipate and integrate. In short, they’ll need that extra-special something, insisted the experts at the conference.