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The Future Cubed: Exploring Major Changes to the Built Environment

We recently explored how the built environment has been impacted by COVID-19 in a three-part speaker series, featuring leading industry voices from across the UK. Six IBI experts were joined by three guest presenters, and each was tasked with exploring three ideas in nine minutes in a PechaKucha-style presentation.

By IBI Insights


September 23, 2020

We recently explored how the built environment has been impacted by COVID-19 in a three-part speaker series, featuring leading industry voices from across the UK. In each discussion, panelists considered one of three key concepts that has been reshaped by the pandemic: the design of smart urban spaces, the evolution of the public realm, and the future of transportation and mobility in urban areas. Six IBI experts were joined by three guest presenters, and each was tasked with exploring three ideas in nine minutes in a PechaKucha-style presentation.

The first conversation, Being Smart, considered the influence of both technology and people on the integration of urban spaces, and included presentations from UK Sector Lead, Intelligence, Graeme Scott; UK Director, Buildings, Peter Ridley; and Managing Director of CTConsults, Alex Saint. 

Graeme’s presentation explored smart as standard, a concept that asserts that ‘smart’ is about more than just technology. Graeme argued that, despite becoming a more widely accepted concept in the UK, ‘smart’ is not yet firmly embedded in the design and planning stages. Smart as standard enables approaches to planning, designing, development, and implementation that consider smart city solutions from the start, allowing cities to leverage innovation to improve the quality of life for people and their communities.

Peter’s presentation considered the multi-modal future of smart cities. In his view, developing cities around people, not transit, is key. In a future world, where most people do not own a car, infrastructure traditionally used to house parked vehicles could become available for alternate uses. In a recent study, IBI Group examined this concept on a city-wide scale, reimagining New York City as a car-free environment, and determined that booms in shared and connected transport could save up to 42 per cent of roadway, which equates to 620 million sq. ft. of useable space, the equivalent of 17 new public spaces roughly the size of Central Park, valued at more than $1 trillion.

Alex focused on the idea that, when it comes to building smart and integrated spaces, it’s not just about the technology. In his view, behind every successful smart solution is an engaged group of people and partnerships. To that effect, not all innovation needs to be shiny and new. Designers can be innovative and creative with existing technologies, and should not underestimate their capacity. If the technologies we’ve deployed in existing smart spaces are not efficient or effectively integrated, Alex argued, it’s likely the case that there is a lack of foundational partnerships that can support the growth of digital capabilities and expand available use cases.

Space is the Future (but it’s not rocket science) examined change factors in the use, design and volume of public space. The conversation was animated by Global Director, Placemaking and International, Trevor McIntyre; Studio Associate and Landscape Architect, Richard Wild; and Hardscape Product’s Managing Director, Mathew Haslam.

Trevor’s presentation pointed to several important pandemic-related trends, which will continue to influence the design of public space long after the current crisis. Trevor noted how increased flexibility in the use of public space led to the creation of over 800 new outdoor cafes in Toronto, ON, achieved by repurposing curb lanes in key business and retail districts. He also noted the effective use of sensors across a Waterloo, ON streetscape project, which reinforced the benefits of public art, air quality and green stewardship in the public realm. Trevor also argued that utilizing the public realm as a creative learning space should remain a priority, and shared the example of an IBI project that leveraged virtual reality (VR) technology to design outdoor learning spaces at a leading Toronto private school, in collaboration with students and parents.

In his presentation, Rick identified the now-accelerated need for blue and green infrastructure to better support the wellbeing of city-dwellers, and that of the world’s ageing population, as a major trend in the design of public spaces. Rick focused on ideas of pedestrian-led and active travel-led design, and described how designing memorable landmarks and wayfinding elements could support improved experiences for community residents, both ageing and not. He also argued that paying greater attention to biodiversity and the conservation of natural resources is critical to the design of public realms, and to ensuring our cities continue to play a key role in improving residents’ quality of life.

For Mathew, space is a simple matter, but the methods by which it can be optimized are extremely complex. He argued that, during the first few months of lockdowns, optimization was made incredibly difficult, though there proved to be simple and effective lessons learned from the experience.  As the density of retail space and the presence of commuters changes over time, it will become even more important to furnish public spaces with art and opportunities for engagement. The public realm will need to focus more on green space, and provide opportunities for communication, interaction and relaxation within the confines of social-distancing protocols. Mathew also noted that the use of local materials in urban regeneration projects will continue to provide valuable character and continuity in the public realm.

Our final conversation, Should I stay, or should I go now (back to the workplace), considered changing modes of transport, technology interventions and patterns of work and home life. UK Services Lead, Intelligence, Colin Wilson, was joined by Placemaking Practice Lead, Oliver Hartleben, and Stantec’s Director, Transport and Infrastructure, Scott Witchalls, for this discussion.

Colin’s presentation suggested that the decision to travel, as well as one’s chosen mode of transportation, will have long-term impacts as a result of the pandemic. He argued that these consequences are likely to include the relocation and dispersal of organized workspaces, as well as the transformation of learning and retail environments. This, in Colin’s view, is connected to the challenges that lie ahead for public transportation systems in the face of evolving revenue and operation models, and he located potential solutions in travel demand management, in the form of new approaches to access, routing and congestion charging.

Oliver noted that certain mobility trends identified early on in the pandemic were not really new phenomena. Rather, they were extant trends being accelerated by the crisis. These include the ‘new commute’ to one’s home office or workspace, the ‘new freeway’, characterised by active and single-occupancy modal shifts, and the ‘new shopping experience’, which saw exponential growth via online retail and home deliveries. Oliver focused on the ‘stickiness’ of these trends, and argued that behavioural changes will be most enduring where benefits of personalisation, convenience and quality of life are experienced most strongly.

In his presentation, Scott considered several issues, including a ‘world of sharing’ based on unleashing spare capacity; ‘mobility on demand’, similar to mobile device data packages; and the prominence of flexible, adaptable spaces. Scott pointed out that, in the pre-COVID-19 world, cities were already facing environmental dilemmas posed by traffic congestion and pollution. Despite its many promises, he argued that switching to an all-electric fleet of cars will not improve quality of life, quality of place, or congestion, if there is a simultaneous rush back to single-occupancy ownership and use. In the near term, Scott argued that the quality of air on public transportation presents a central challenge, and opportunity, to designers of the built environment.

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