Future of Cities: Building the Urban Centers of Tomorrow through Nature and Diversity

An Interview with CEBRA’s Mikkel Hallundbæk Schlesinger

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he scene was apocalyptic: international megalopolises on lockdown. City streets bereft of traffic and people. Shops shuttered. Planes grounded. An eery silence upon the world’s largest cities as citizens took shelter in their apartments and homes or sought refuge in the countryside nearby.

As things go, the COVID-19 crisis has spurred more conversation on the future of urban planning and design in four months than the impending doom of climate change has managed in decades. And yet, here we are, faced with new alternatives brought about by the worst pandemic in a century, discussing a potential revolution in the way we think up and design the cities of the future. Will they be greener? More sustainable? Have less cars and more bikes? The questions seem endless. The good news is urban planners and architects around the world have the answers to many of them.

“During the lockdown, all offices and schools were closed, but we still managed to continue work and education,” says Mikkel Hallundbæk Schlesinger, partner at the Danish architectural firm CEBRA. “If we can utilize space better and build less, we lower our climate impact and can spend more money and resources on better, more livable cities.”

So, how are urban planners, architects and others working in the urban regeneration space to tackle the climate burden posed by cities? What role does innovation play in ensuring that cities are a victorious battleground in the fight against climate change? And what sustainable solutions have the world’s leading cities already deployed in order to mitigate the effects of a warming planet?

Denmark in New York spoke with Hallundbæk Schlesinger via email to discuss how the future of our climate (and possibly humanity) rests on the sustainable solutions we deliver to urban areas across the planet and how we dream up the future of cities.

Denmark in New York: The COVID-19 crisis can be potentially be considered a game-changer when it comes to reimagining the future of cities. What is one element of a future city that you think imperative and would not be able to do without?

Mikkel Hallundbæk Schlesinger: Learning from the COVID-19 crisis, CEBRA has noted four lessons that are essential when designing future cities.

Build less. Live more: The lockdown has proven that we have a lot more built space than we need.

Nature at our doorstep: We need access to nature right outside our door — even when living in a high-rise downtown.

We are better together: Strong resilient communities with a diversity of different people living together are better at adapting to change and handling crisis

Diverse communities are stronger: A mix of people of all ages and different income groups living together, are more able to see each other’s needs and support each other during a crisis.

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Our work lives and the way we design our workdays have been heavily transformed by the pandemic. As a result, employees and employers have been forced to rethink the structure and nature of the workplace and how employee engagement is effectuated. What can CEBRA’s WISE project teach us about working environments in the post-pandemic world?

Mikkel Hallundbæk Schlesinger: We can build less and live better. During the lockdown, all offices and schools were closed, but we still managed to continue work and education. If we can utilize space better and build less, we lower our climate impact and can spend more money and resources on better, more livable cities.

Working from home, location did not matter, and we were as close to our clients and staff in Toronto and Abu Dhabi, as to the ones in Denmark. Everybody embraced the digital possibilities since there was no other choice. I think we have all been surprised about how much can actually be achieved without physical meetings. It has become a focus point in our research unit WISE, that explores the architectural qualities related to Work, Innovation, Space and Education.

During the lockdown, all offices and schools were closed, but we still managed to continue work and education. If we can utilize space better and build less, we lower our climate impact and can spend more money and resources on better, more livable cities.

In the short term, we are exploring the possibilities of working partly from home and using more online education and meetings. Getting more time with your family, reducing travel and climate impact are strong drivers to expanding life in the digital space. If people work or take classes from home 20% of the time, the need for office space and school buildings will be reduced.

In the long term, we are looking at the benefits of utilizing space better. All cities have billions of square meters that are occupied less than 50% of the time. If we can map and utilize existing space more efficiently, the need for new build reduces significantly. CEBRA and WISE have therefore developed the digital platform Common Sense, that uses sensors to track how buildings are used. This results in qualified recommendations for how to activate unused space and improve the environment for users. During future pandemics, the platform can be used to avoid extensive lockdowns by activating unused space in the city to keep safe distance.

The global slowdown and its corollary effects on the environment have once again put the climate crisis into sharp relief. What key areas of urban life should we be looking at when building back better, smarter, and more resiliently?

Mikkel Hallundbæk Schlesinger: We need nature at our doorstep. Access to nature and outdoor spaces became a luxury during the lockdown. Being able to get out on a balcony, a roof terrace, in a garden or in a public park, made life bearable in the city. Urban nature is also an important part of the solution to the climate crisis. Cities must be planned around natural biotopes and water flow to sustain biodiversity, reduce climate impact, handle water and provide natural cooling for comfortable microclimates.

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“Cities must be planned around natural biotopes and water flow to sustain biodiversity, reduce climate impact, handle water and provide natural cooling for comfortable microclimates,” says Mikkel Hallundbæk Schlesinger.

In Abu Dhabi, we just finished a cultural park around the old Qasr Al Hosn Fort that creates a large, public space in the heart of the city. The park is an architectural interpretation of the coastal desert landscape surrounding Abu Dhabi with exclusively indigenous and culturally significant plants, including ghaf trees, date palms and traditional kitchen and medicinal gardens. The project thereby aims at creating a locally anchored park aesthetic of hardy, sun tolerant plants that require minimal irrigation, which is provided by collecting usable wastewater from the neighborhood.

Between the need for social distancing and the sharp uptick in remote working, the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically impacted the way urban dwellers live their lives. What have been your lasting impressions of urban life amid the COVID-19 crisis and what questions about the future of cities has the crisis prompted for you?

Mikkel Hallundbæk Schlesinger: We are better together. The need for social connectivity in the city has become evident. People living in tightly knit communities with strong social bonds have been a lot better at reacting quickly, adapting to changes and protecting each other during the pandemic.

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CEBRA’s Qasr Al Hosn Fort project aims to create “a locally anchored park aesthetic of hardy, sun tolerant plants that require minimal irrigation, which is provided by collecting usable wastewater from the neighborhood.”

As architects, we can help build those communities. CEBRA has been working on the development of NYE, a new city for 15,000 people in Denmark, since 2006 and we can now start to see the effects of the urban planning. Community building has been an important value and design parameter since we started. We anticipated that we would have to facilitate community building to get people together, but experienced that communities are formed naturally as soon as the framework and facilities are available.

When we made a football field, they started NYE United. When we designed a community building, they organized community dinners, a choir, gaming nights and Friday bars. When we added green houses, they started growing vegetables together. By offering clearly defined, accessible community spaces in the city, strong and resilient communities are created.

The pandemic has also spotlighted the stark social iniquities of our urban centers and the dramatic effects that architecture and urban planning can have on vulnerable populations in a wide variety of areas — from health to education. How do we ensure that future urban design and architecture can better impact the living and working spaces of those most in need?

Mikkel Hallundbæk Schlesinger: Diverse communities are stronger. The pandemic has made the inequalities between neighborhoods very visible and low-income neighborhoods with social problems have been hit harder. A mix of people of all ages and different income groups living together, are more able to see each other’s needs and support each other during a crisis.

We have seen that young families started shopping and cooking for the elderly in their neighborhood and a retired couple organized home schooling for their neighbor’s kids, while the parents went to work at the hospital. When we live close to each other, we notice the need for help and are willing to step in. The crisis proofs the benefits of different people living together in the same neighborhood.

Diverse communities are stronger. A mix of people of all ages and different income groups living together, are more able to see each other’s needs and support each other during a crisis.

To achieve diverse cities, all income groups have to be able to get into the real estate marked — also in the popular areas. Experimenting with alternative ownership models and scalable homes, are some of the tools CEBRA are using. The award winning Iceberg was designed for a mix of social housing and privately owned apartments with sizes varying from 400 to 2500 ft2. This allowed for people of different ages and from different income groups living together in the seafront property.

Andrew Zaganelli Giacalone is the Head of Strategic Communications and Press at Denmark In New York.

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The Official Medium Blog for the Consulate General of Denmark in New York. For all things Danish, #DenmarkInNY.

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