Design flexibility and it’s importance in today’s built environment
The evolution of our cities
Cities are constantly adapting to meet the demands of human behaviours. As time progresses, we are seeing an exponential change in the way cities are used, how districts at a macro level are changing and how buildings at a micro level are starting to take on an entire new lease of life, somewhat different to what they may have been originally intended for.
There was a time that people and their behaviours didn’t determine the evolution of cities but instead other factors such as industry, trade and commerce decided what went where and what our built environment was used for, people were merely the inhabitants.
The industrial revolution was to a large degree the catalyst behind some of the world’s greatest cities; cities grew around a purpose and that gave reason to their rise, including industrial mills with housing for workers, ports for the export of goods and railways for the transport and movement of goods.
Then came the practice of Town Planning; traditionally organising our cities in to workable districts and communities, protecting what existed and making simple yet effective conclusions about human patterns and activities that would be facilitated in our ever growing cities, keeping the CBD, or Central Business District as just that, the suburbs became just that, inner cities had their own cultural criteria, industry went where it was told and so forth – the idea worked for many years and to some degree formed some of the world’s best cities to date.
Move to more recent times and cities globally have transformed, people have determined where they want to live, how they want to live, where they wish to work, and more recently how they want to work. Technology has becoming the enabler of human control and our cities need to keep up. We need to plan adaptable zones and places at a macro level and buildings at a micro level that can change easily as we try and determine what they will be used for in the coming decades – a significant challenge for all those engaged in the development of the built environment.
Cities are constantly adapting to meet the demands of human behaviours. As time progresses, we are seeing an exponential change in the way cities are used.
What should we focus on?
A way of looking at how we deal with change is to focus on the four key elements WSP has measured global city performance against in their Global Cities Index; namely Places, Technology, Mobility and Urban Systems. Each of these factors are ‘user’ influenced recognising that our cities need to accommodate design flexibility in these key areas.
Can we create places that meet our evolving expectations?
Places form the foundations of a user experience. They are relevant at a macro level through district zoning and use, and at a micro level in terms of how we use the spaces between our buildings. Focussing on the micro component will help us adapt to changes at a macro level; our cities are seeing places being used for different activities during the day compared to night and during the work week vs weekends. The key driver behind design flexibility is a need to ensure that we don’t create vibrant hubs of activity that become a ghost town during evenings or weekends – how do we create places that have the right energy throughout the day and week? How can open spaces accommodate office workers having lunch or taking time out throughout the day and then transform in to socialising spaces as evening approaches? What happens to these same spaces over the weekend – how do we attract families, shoppers and those looking for entertainment into them to keep the energy alive?
These are all questions we must ask ourselves when we create spaces – we must design flexibility for what we know today whilst looking ahead. This approach will stand us in good stead for what we don’t know about the future of these districts at a macro level.
Cities globally have transformed, people have determined where they want to live, how they want to live, where they wish to work, and more recently how they want to work.
Does technology drive human behaviour or does human behaviour drive changes in technology?
Technology is having an exponential impact on our way of life, how we work, live and play, every element is being challenged and as such the way we use our built environment needs to adapt to suit. In fact, it could be said that technology impacts human habits more than any other factor and this in turn impacts what humans require from their environment. Connectivity has changed the habits of generations; we are now working from different places, moving away from the confinement of large corporate commercial spaces to offices in our homes, coffee shops, public squares – pretty much anywhere where you can connect! It is often said the workplace is changing, but the reality is the way we work is changing!
This has had influenced the rise of SMEs and their working patterns which influences need and the type of commercial space that is now needed – the rise of a ‘we work’ environment can be seen making an impact here in the Middle East now. The Rove Hotel Group actively promoting it’s new flexible, modern working places – who needs to rent an office when you can simply turn up, plug in and even invite clients to a space where you can eat, relax and move around? – it’s a new way of providing commercial working space that is set to continue. Of course, there is a still a need for large corporates wanting large floor plates but even that work space environment is changing – it needs to be designed for agility and responsive to user needs – bringing a sense of flexible modern working to it’s occupants.
Human behaviour is changing more than the way we design work spaces, it’s even changing how we spend our hard earnt money, altering the way we shop and resulting a need for retail malls to change, the need for space and flexible unit sizes is changing and will ever evolve in response to human expectations. Retail is less about shopping and more about experiences, so we are seeing increased investment around retail malls and town centres becoming destinations focused on experience and meeting that expectation. As a society we are becoming accustomed to convince, speed and ease of access to the goods we need, driving an increase in amount of delivery drivers on our roads serving vast on-line shopping habits, and larger online retailers testing drone delivery. It’s clear that we need to consider the impossible to realise the future.
Technology is having an exponential impact on our way of life, how we work, live and play, every element is being challenged and as such the way we use our built environment needs to adapt to suit.
What impact will the future of mobility have on the built environment?
Mobility related technology exists now and it’s simply legislation and the interaction between new and old that prevents us from being able to fully implement what is available. The biggest challenge is around integration and the coexistence between new and old?…How does autonomous technology work alongside traditional human controlled mobility?
Advances in standalone technology such as hyperloop will make us review inter regional travel and the viability of existing plane and rail travel. Hence, the challenge remains to think about flexibility in relation to existing mobility infrastructure and what new infrastructure looks like – accommodating high speed rail, hyperloop or autonomous technology? What impact will autonomous and connected vehicles have on the built environment, how will the townscape change with shared zones for pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles but no street parking and less signage clutter?
Urban systems – what next?
The things we don’t see, power generation, transmission, water, sewage. These factors have been under scrutiny for some time and it is here we have seen some of the most significant changes. In the Middle East, cleaner power is now integrated into our grid at a macro and micro level. The Mohammed Bin Rashid Solar Park plugging directly into the DEWA grid at a macro level is supported by changes at a micro level where each home can now provide its own solar energy and sell and excess back into the grid – this is happening more and more the world over. But what is next? Power without a grid? How about that? We are already charging mobiles and even electric cars through wireless technology – what if our roads became a large wireless charging network that recharged our vehicles while we drove on them, what if our houses took power from these same roads in the same way?
We must engage future generations and all types of communities to ensure we are designing places where people will want to live, work and play.
Can we design a future for everyone?
The possibilities beyond what exists today are endless. One thing we know is that almost everything we interact with will evolve and change as move in to the future. Our approach to design must anticipate what changes will occur and what the impact there will be on our built environment. To a large degree, as key stakeholders in the future of our built environment we all must take these inevitable changes, and our evolving expectations, in to account and design for the future, not for now. We must engage future generations and all types of communities to ensure we are designing places where people will want to live, work and play. This means our approach between legislators, authorities, developers, planners, architects, engineers and contractors needs to be less silo and more collaborative and holistic. The challenge? Creating a forum and platform for design flexibility, so our collective future is brighter.