Hour City: How to fix the world’s urban challenges in one hour

AECOM’s Global Director of Cities Stephen Engblom led a discussion about urban transportation, housing, and economic development with Nick Brooke, Chairman, Professional Property Services Group, Hong Kong; Juliette Michaelson, Executive Vice President, Regional Plan Association, New York tri-state area; and Peter Murray, Chairman, New London Architecture. The conversation was an outgrowth of the Urban SOS student ideas competition: “hOUR City,” presented by AECOM and Van Alen Institute, with 100 Resilient Cities – Pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation, in which Nick, Juliette, and Peter served as jurors.

Stephen: “Have communities become disconnected from economic opportunities in your city/region? If so, why?

Nick: In so far as physical connectivity is concerned, communities in Hong Kong are generally well connected via an efficient public transport system. However, due to the high cost of housing, many have limited choices as to where they can live, and because of this, many communities, particularly in the New Towns, are a function of affordability rather than social choice. We have also done a great deal to disconnect and disturb existing communities through our urban renewal policies.

Juliette: In New York, many communities are disconnected because we have failed to expand and improve our public transportation system. Communities with poor access to jobs fail to grow and further disinvestment occurs. In the suburbs, overly constricted zoning regulations and an over-reliance on property taxes to fund local services, including public schools, exacerbate this disconnection, perpetuate segregation and continue the cycle of neglect. At the same time, communities that are well connected to jobs are bursting at the seams!

Peter: The United Kingdom suffers from huge disparity of opportunity between the north and the south of the country. This disparity has been driven by the shift from a manufacturing economy to a service economy in the 1970s and 80s and accentuated by the growth of London as a global financial sector following the deregulation of the banks in 1986. The pull of Europe has also benefited the South East of the country. The British Government is trying to rebalance the national economy by giving greater autonomy to the regions, supporting the ‘Northern Powerhouse’’ and investing in High Speed 2, a new railway link which will, in time, connect London with Edinburgh. Sceptics suggest that it is just as likely to further benefit London by drawing wealth into the capital rather than out of it. The northern areas of the country also suffer from inadequate cross-country communications; critics suggest that the money for HS2 might be better spent on improving local networks.

Stephen: What role do you think new/revitalized housing, transportation, and economic development infrastructure can play in (re-)connecting a community to economic vitality?

Nick: Hong Kong to date has not been very successful with its efforts to distribute employment opportunities throughout the Territory. The two New Towns that are planned in the New Territories will have significant local employment elements, and if these are combined with a much wider range of affordable housing opportunities, there could be a more even distribution of economic activity. Developing greater housing opportunities in the urban areas is limited due to existing density, and the creation of new nodes of employment is a key component of HK’s future land strategy.

Juliette: New and better transit connects people to jobs. But there are other things that we can do to improve opportunity: More housing near transit, and more affordable housing in all communities, can reduce living costs. Mixed-income housing helps reduce segregation and integrate low-income kids with better schools and job opportunities. And better tenant protections will help communities stay more stable as they gentrify without displacement.

Peter: In London we are seeing significant changes taking place as a result of the new Crossrail 1 (now called the Elizabeth Line). Although this will not open until the end of 2018, it is already encouraging development along its length, helping to deliver much needed housing and employment accommodation. Thamesmead in the East of London is a case in point. Developed in the 1970s as a new community set in a landscaped environment, the area became run down because it lacked connectivity and local people had restricted access to jobs. The planned opening of the Elizabeth Line has instigated major investment in the improvement of the existing accommodation, the development of new homes and the creation of new jobs.

Stephen: What kind of economic opportunity will drive change in your city/region in the coming decades? To what extent will this economic opportunity be dependent on infrastructure?

Juliette: American states have a bad habit of using tax breaks to attract major employers. Here in the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut area, we can’t afford to undercut each other! If we could instead figure out how to collaborate on attracting Amazon and other major employers and invest in infrastructure together – not just transportation, but also schools, parks, and libraries – we could increase the size of the pie, not divide it.

Peter: London will see a levelling off of the decline in manufacturing and greater protection of industrial accommodation. Nevertheless, the major employer will remain the service economies of various kinds. The financial sector will continue to be a key part of the local and national economy, as will eds and meds, the knowledge and creative economy. London will remain a key center of Europe’s tech sector. The big shift we will see is away from the center-focused city to a polycentric city where mixed-use neighborhoods in outer London centers provide places to live and work. This will require greater orbital, rather than the current radially-biased, movement. While some of this may be delivered by ‘traditional’ infrastructure like rail and trams, it is probable that digital, on-demand systems will be the key to delivering efficient orbital movement.

Nick: Domestically, HK will continue to focus on its core competency as a services hub and a centre for raising international finance, with innovation and technology playing an increasing role in areas such as fintech and big data, including storage and management. However, the more major development relates to the Greater Bay Area initiative involving nine cities and two SARS and a population of 67 million people covering the PRD, which potentially, as a result of enhanced physical connectivity and collaborative governance, could change the dynamics of the region and of Hong Kong.

Stephen: If you had the ability to implement one improvement to housing, transportation, or economic development infrastructure to help re-connect our communities, what would it be and how would it work?

Peter: As I mentioned, flexible movement patterns serviced by on-demand systems generated from real-time data. These systems should be integrated with active travel solutions and the delivery of better street conditions for pedestrians and cyclists.

Nick: We need to see a much-improved holistic approach to the planning and delivery of the aspects mentioned and the implementation of a liveable city agenda which will involve leadership and brave decisions. We also need to re-examine our approach to urban renewal and focus on revitalization and regeneration with minimal community displacement.

Juliette: It’s hard to choose one because so much depends on the context. On the housing affordability front, allowing all single-family home owners to rent out a part of their house—a small apartment above the garage, for example—would add a large number of new housing units to the market and would give people more diverse housing options. In the realm of transportation, embracing demand-based dynamic bus routes could dramatically improve commutes in the suburbs and cut costs for transit providers.

Stephen: Infrastructure alone cannot facilitate (re)connected communities: what does the revitalization of infrastructure need to be paired with?

Nick: It requires a “people first” approach and far closer engagement with the community. However, in the end, decisions will have to be taken which are in the interests of HK, which inevitably cannot please all members of the community.

Juliette: Community-led plans. The best way to achieve wholesale improvements at the community level is if community members have shaped the plan alongside the developers and elected officials so that change benefits not just developers and future residents but also existing ones.

Peter: New infrastructure leads to increases in value – in London, that increase in value is seen as a key to funding new infrastructure in the future. This can also lead to unacceptable levels of gentrification where existing businesses and communities are squeezed out of their neighborhood. As a balance to that, affordable housing and workplaces are key to creating balanced communities.