Who is the city for?

October 14, 2019

Under the spirited moderation of Prof. Greg Clark, London, Ashok Sridharan, Lord Mayor of Bonn, his colleague Anni Sinnemäki from Helsinki, Sylvie Gallier Howard, First Deputy Commerce Director of the City of Philadelphia, Astrid Panosyan from Unibal-Rodamco-Westfield, and Prof. Gesa Ziemer from HafenCity University addressed the questions about citizens’ participation in “their” cities. The panelists were in complete agreement that cities should be there for all citizens and offer them equal opportunities to participate regardless of origin, status or income.

However, this ambitious goal is in danger of failing if the respective municipalities do not succeed in solving the challenges through strong growth while being environmentally and socially responsible, as exemplified by Bonn and Helsinki. The Mayor of Bonn openly addressed the problem: “Can we afford growth while addressing climate compatibility and the participation of all stakeholders?” Only through integrated solutions can complex networks, like the cities of today, reconcile environmental compatibility, the provision of education and housing and the fulfilment of transport needs.

Greg Clark, Gesa Ziemer, Astrid Panosyan, Sylvie Gallier Howard, Anni Sinnemäki and Ashok Sridharan at the opening panel of EXPO REAL 2019.

Inclusivity as the key to climate-friendly growth

Anni Sinnemäki elaborated on these contrary requirements. Helsinki has been growing rapidly since 1900 and has to function as a city for both residents and newcomers, i.e. create living space, be family-friendly and offer healthy economic conditions. The city is meeting this challenge by investing in early childhood education, for example in the form of childcare and teaching staff, without losing sight of ensuring environmental sustainability. It has set itself the target of reducing its emissions by 80% by 2035 compared with 1990, while maintaining necessary growth. This requires enormous efforts to improve transport options and energy generation.

Sylvie Gallier Howard from Philadelphia stressed the importance of inclusive growth. Especially for a community like Philadelphia, which had to struggle considerably with deindustrialization and has one of the highest poverty rates in the USA, it prefers “growing in equity,” which means steady and responsible growth as opposed to unbridled predatory capitalism. Philadelphia should remain affordable and livable for all citizens and encourage dynamic diversity.

Cities need to work together

Astrid Panosyan, a representative for the business community, pointed out that connection and interaction are also functions of a city. Or to cut a long story short: the city is a living space for everyone! Therefore, cities need to work together to avoid imbalances and to enable a healthy mix of living, working, shopping and social purposes. Panosyan’s company intends to reduce its CO2 footprint by 50% by 2030 and is working with partners from all parts of the value chain to achieve this goal. Their aim also encompasses prosperity for all and inclusion across all population groups.

All stakeholders—ncluding citizens—have to be involved in finding solutions for the city of the future

Prof. Gesa Ziemer expressed understanding for the needs of municipalities because of the high expectations placed on them. Growth in conurbations usually leads to densification, because spatial expansion is often dictated by geographical or political boundaries. While in the USA and Asia—and not only in megacities with over 10 million inhabitants—urban areas have grown vertically with few reservations from the public, while many cities in Europe still have issues with integrating skyscrapers into their cities. The need for densification contradicts the understandable desire for urban development that encourages “green lungs” and airy environments.

In their City Science Lab, Ziemer and her colleagues are investigating interdisciplinary future scenarios in order to find solutions for cities of the future and, in this context, are asking questions about personal mobility in the future, possible types of housing and the how, where and amount of construction that is urgently needed for new schools. It is essential to invite the business community to participate because top-down planning no longer works today—all stakeholders, including citizens, have to be involved when finding solutions in order to be able to work constructively.

The “reinvention” of coexistence as one of the greatest challenges of our time

Cooperation with the real estate industry is essential for all these challenges. Only participatory neighborhood planning can create the conditions for quality of life and inclusivity. As an example, Sirdharan cites the former government quarter in Bonn, which combines living, office, childcare and shopping in a compact space, all within short distances. Private capital is a necessary fuel for progress in the city. For Helsinki, Sinnemäki puts the ratio of public to private investment at about 1 to 4 and would like the municipalities to set the targets and have investors be in charge of the micro-management.

All the panelists agreed that the cooperation between municipalities and private individuals has to be improved. The “reinvention” of coexistence is one of the greatest challenges of our time. Positive approaches can already be seen: In HafenCity, for example, ECE has shown how a private party can design public space in such a way that participation is possible and desirable. The ambitious environmental goals that our society urgently needs to set itself cannot be achieved by going it alone. Economic thinking in the real estate sector has to be expanded to include cultural and social aspects, and at the same time citizens must be encouraged to understand the financial objectives of private investors.

Stephanie von Keudell

Independent journalist