Technische Universität Berlin

No Sooner Do We Have the Answers Than the Questions Change

Annual conference on urban planning: How to plan in a world of uncertainty?

How to plan for the unforeseeable? Resolving this contradiction was the main focus of the annual conference of the Network-Association of European Researchers on Urbanisation in the South (N-AERUS), which took place in digital format in February 2021 in cooperation with the TU Berlin Institute of Architecture’s Habitat Unit. In her opening speech, Dr. Ximena de la Barra, human settlements advisor and Latin America public policy advisor for UNICEF, described what is meant by uncertainty: “As soon as we know the answers, then the questions change.” The coronavirus measures introduced to combat a virus with unforeseeable mutations make it clear for everyone what it means to plan in uncertain situations.

Using modeling to react to uncertain situations

“The pandemic has made it clear to us that we require flexible modeling for urban design and urban planning to be able to react to crises. Community-driven planning methodologies, where local actors and residents share responsibility, are effective in the context of catastrophe management,” emphasizes Dr.-Ing. Paola Alfaro d’Alençon, co-organizer of the conference. Alfaro d’Alençon is a German Research Foundation research fellow at TU Berlin’s Habitat Unit and professor of urban design at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. “For example, we need to be able to devise urban development plans using climate relevant data: Where do climate hot spots occur? Where might deserts or floods occur? We need urban areas that can react to severe weather events like flooding. Areas able to absorb water that act like a sponge are intended to aid urban areas and their climate as climate protection zones.”

COVID-19 is changing our cities

Using Berlin as an example, Alfaro d’Alençon explains the impact that COVID-19 protective measures, such as maintaining a distance of 1.5 meters, have already had on urban development and planning. Now that people rarely meet indoors, a long-forgotten flâneur mentality is reemerging in public spaces such as the Museumsinsel.

Regulations enabling people to work from home and increasing digitalization will lead to a longterm change in the use of office space in Germany. “Monoclusters, in other words purely office buildings, will no longer be attractive,” says Alfaro d’Alençon with conviction. “Links are developing between co-working, co-housing, and co-creation. A building will have to serve a number of functions.” The pandemic has also shown us that at-risk groups, such as older people, require greater protection. “We have to ask ourselves: How can we meaningfully organize a multi-generational society? Residential communities, cooperative living, integrative residential projects with people from the same age group taking care of each other offer greater flexibility,” says Alfaro d’Alençon, summarizing what has been learned from the experiences of COVID-19.

Looking beyond Europe can be helpful as she explains: “We can learn a lot from traditional urban societies in rural areas of the Amazon or the Ecuadorian Andes. These cooperative societies, known as mingas, promote community relations and territorial links and work together with nature. Local agriculture is characterized by a respect for natural resources as valuable assets for advancing the wellbeing of the communities.”

Global networked research on urbanization processes

Populous cities in developing countries are centers of social and economic potential. To harness this energy to develop and strengthen democratic structures requires planning practices with direct impacts. These practices need to be developed collaboratively on the basis of interdisciplinary cooperation, transcend the North-South divide, and be capable of reacting innovatively to unforeseeable situations. N-AERUS was established in 1996 by European researchers to combat potential negative effects arising from urban growth in the Global South. At the start of February 2021, experts gathered for the N-AERUS annual conference to discuss the social, cultural, economic, and ecological dimensions of urban development.

User-centered urban development

The conference highlighted projects demonstrating strategies and work in the area of urban design aimed at bridging the gap between solidarity, knowledge, and production. Independent advisor Leonora Pechardo Gonzales and Dina Cartagena Magnaye of the University of the Philippines used the example of the design of urban green spaces in Manila to highlight problems such as the lack of money for park maintenance and the fact that plastic waste and the type of vegetation present prevent water being absorbed and stored as ground water.

Laura von Puttkammer, advisor for participative planning, explained how the UN-Habitat program for human settlements draws on increased skills and acceptance for the use of digital options arising out of the pandemic to pursue a gamification approach. The online video game Minecraft, where players create a 3D world with digital building blocks, is being used for co-creation by enabling members of the public to plan sustainable cities and communities working together with public administration staff.

Prepare for the unexpected

Beatrice Galimberti of the Politecnico di Milano showed how actors can respond to unforeseen events. When COVID-19 interrupted a project for installing public school toilets, project workers identified a need for face masks and used the logistics developed for the toilet project to transport textiles and then sewed and distributed community masks themselves. Preparedness enables people to pool their skills to adapt to unexpected situations.

At the end of the conference, Professor Dr. Philipp Misselwitz, chair of the Habitat Unit at TU Berlin’s Institute of Architecture, stressed the need to attribute greater importance to uncertainty as a critical factor. Experiences of COVID-19 could provide an impetus to strengthen interdisciplinary research on the relationships between public health, social and natural disasters, and the city. The findings of such research could help governments better prepare for unexpected events.