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How can we create desirable, inclusive and sustainable cities?

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Philippe Chiambaretta is a French architect and town planner, founder of PCA-STREAM, a think tank and architecture firm. PCA-STREAM combines theory and practice in a multidisciplinary approach to design the cities of the future. Here, he explains his urban policy based on the health of cities through various experimental projects.

Why have you described the city as a metabolism?

The demographic explosion combined with the improvement in living conditions in the second half of the twentieth century has had a drastic effect on the biophysical equilibrium of the planet. The exponential increase of the human population will lead 90% of the population towards various forms of urban habitat within the next 50 years. This confirms the fact that cities will play a key role in the transformations that await us, and are the places where these changes will happen. This urban concept should be approached with the benefit of hindsight in order to instil a sense of resilience that is unknown today.

By metabolism I mean that a city is a complex and dynamic system that functions very much like a living organism.

At PCA-STREAMS we see urban projects through a prism that brings together the five levels that define cities: mobility, infrastructure, use, buildings and of course nature. After analysis, we can put forward a conceptual framework capable of taking into account the infinite complexity of such systems. We have been commissioned to study the future of the Champs Elysées avenue in Paris for example, the aim being to bring back residents to this avenue that now belongs mainly to tourists. A group of fifty experts, scientists, artists and designers are collaborating with us to analyse traffic flow, real estate, planning of public and green spaces. Starting with the data, we run simulations for road traffic, different way of using spaces, temperature and so forth. The data produces an MRI scan of the city andenables us to measure the effectiveness of what we do and adjust it if necessary over time, in a test and learn approach. The challenge in urban design is to be able to go beyond a segmented, specialised, top/down and linear model and aim for a cross-cutting and interdisciplinary, bottom-up and circular model. In this way, the architect becomes the conductor of a collective form of intelligence, backed by artificial intelligence that is merely a tool at the service of a new form of urban conception. 

In what way is inclusive design a crucial factor for cities?

Inclusive design places users at the very heart of the projects. We have gone from an era of ownership to one of use. We refer, for example, to mobility rather than to cars and we work from home with more permeability between our private and professional lives. It is therefore the fundamental definition of our habits, behaviours and life scenarios that we believed were intangible that have been turned upside down.

Our true ambition is to respond to the needs and expectations of end users, to renew their relationship with space so that it can provide some added value that cannot be accessed remotely. This applies to office buildings but also to shops and public spaces. In the end, it’s all about user experience. More than ever, the key to success in the real estate sector lies with the understanding how we use space, whether it be imagined or real. Once the script for the use of the given space is written, it becomes about setting the stage and the architect steps in to enhance it.

Philippe Chiambaretta

In our capacity as city players or designers, we become doctors or researchers striving to heal cities rather than to create. Today, we have to learn to live with an element of uncertainty and our role has changed considerably.

Philippe Chiambaretta
Founder, PCA-STREAM
France

You put forward a ‘health policy for cities’ to make them simultaneously desirable, inclusive and sustainable. Why and how? 

In our capacity as city players or designers, we become doctors or researchers striving to heal cities rather than to create. Today, we have to learn to live with an element of uncertainty and our role has changed considerably. To reduce, or even neutralise the negative impacts of general urban sprawl on the ecosystem, I propose ahealth policy for cities to make them desirable, inclusive and sustainable.

Desirable, because today they are stressful and polluted and are no longer a source of well-being. We must generate a ‘love for cities’ through lifestyles and living spaces. Inclusive, because they incite more and more exclusion. Sustainable, because they consume 80% of the planet’s resources while occupying only 2% of its surface.

A target such as this requires a myriad of simultaneous transitions in all the aspects of a city, in particular regarding mobility and nature. The balance is extraordinarily complex to achieve and more than ever before, we must rely on data and a combination of various forms of expertise. The architect observes the weak signals in the evolutions of lifestyles in order to look forward over at least five years, which is the average time it takes to produce a building. This means stepping out of the agency and comparing different points of view with scientists, geographers, designers, artists and of course, users. It’s by capitalising on different forms of expertise that we’ll really be able to get to the root of cities’ ailments.

Do you include citizens in your approach? Can you present other leverages to create more inclusion? 

 The project manager in an inclusive design approach is in charge of defining the scenario to be adopted and bringing together all stakeholders. Consultations must therefore take place, via collaborative platforms in particular. For the Champs Élysées project for example, we used the platform ‘make.org’ to request citizens’ views, and this was very successful as it gave 100,000 inhabitants from the Paris region the opportunity to express themselves. In the same way, for architectural projects, the idea is to adopt a horizontal, flat approach rather than a pyramidal approach.

Co-construction, more than ever, creates inclusion. On the topic of inclusion, the evolution that remote working represents could be an interesting avenue of research in imagining a different way of organising the land, not only via the organisation of cities but also in the articulation of cities with regards to one other, with the city centre, inner suburbs and medium sized cities. It will probably take several years to see if companies are transformed by different ways of working, if new technologies are developed and if all this produces clear and quantifiable benefits. It is most certainly one of the most important areas of research for the coming years.