The future of cities, under debate: “We must look for intergenerational meeting places to avoid unwanted loneliness”.

In a context of broad debates on the future of cities and the need to put life at the center, has organized this Wednesday a conversation on the transformative changes in mobility, the new paradigm of sharing or the challenges of using urban space.

The aim of the event was to talk about some of the characteristics that a city must have to be sustainable, how we have advanced in this transformation in the last year, how the pandemic has affected the cities, and what changes we must make in the metropolis to make them less hostile to their inhabitants.

To talk about it we have counted on the opinion of experts such as Elisa Pozo, architect, urban planner and researcher at the Polytechnic University of Madrid, Elena Hoyos Santamaría, manager of the European project PE4TRANS of the Agency for Innovation and Economic Development of Valladolid, and Antonio Roig, director of business development of Acciona Construction.

Raúl Rejón, moderator and journalist of specialized in the environment, began the event by asking about the different aspects that can make up these new sustainable cities in the face of the threat of the climate crisis and how the distribution of public spaces and infrastructures is going to change. For Elisa Pozo, urban planning has great potential in this fight, since “cities originate by reading the territories, radiation, prevailing winds, water, resources and type of soil”, although due to the rapid population growth of the last century, these principles have been lost to give way to a less thoughtful and conscious expansion. The key to solving this, according to the researcher, is to “return to bioclimatic design and adapt the different materials and spaces to this scenario of climate change and extreme temperatures”.

The past and the future of cities

Antonio Roig insists that when analyzing what the cities of the future will be like, it is important to bear in mind that “in the 19th century, only 3% of the population lived in cities, while by the end of 2030 it is estimated to be 60%”. Furthermore, “in the world there are more than 500 cities with more than one million inhabitants, and 74 of them already have more than five million”. This confirmation that “the future lies in the big cities” makes it necessary to think about the city in a comprehensive way and “encourage collaborations between the private sector and the public administration”, in the opinion of Acciona’s Director of Construction Business Development.

For Elisa Pozo, this future involves taking into account environmental sustainability, but also the health of the population with measures such as “more spaces for walking and accessibility so that these are safe regardless of gender and age”, “more nature, so that this is not a specific factor that is sought at weekends, but something integrated into everyday life” and “more intergenerational meeting places to avoid unwanted loneliness and mental health problems”. There are numerous examples of cities that are carrying out similar initiatives, such as Paris, Copenhagen or Vancouver, but the urban planner insists that “each city has its own potential” and it is necessary to take into account the differences between, for example, Mediterranean countries and Nordic countries, or North American cities and Spanish cities.

The challenge of public transport in the post-COVID era

Another big question is how the pandemic will affect the way we travel, since, due to restrictions and the fear of possible contagion, public transport has not yet recovered the levels of use it had before the health crisis. Elena Hoyos considers that the coronavirus has done a lot of damage to public transport, but it has also allowed us to reflect on what kind of transport we want, because as it is a loss-making service it is not so important to think about recovering the same level of users as it is to think about how to improve the service. An alternative designed by PE4TRANS in the city of Valladolid is transport on demand after reaching an agreement with the University to establish a shuttle service designed through surveys and statistics that has helped to redefine the service.

Another project carried out in Valladolid to raise awareness in society is “Safe School Roads”, to encourage children to walk to class when it is a short distance to educate them so that when they grow up “they do not have that dependence on the car”, as for Elena Hoyos, “training, education and awareness are fundamental”.

Antonio Roig believes that the trend is to continue “developing transport networks and combining them together with park and ride facilities and intermodal services” to ensure that users come to the conclusion that their use is more efficient than the car.ado. In view of this, Elisa Pozo points out that “40% of daily mobility are journeys of less than 5 kilometres that can be covered on foot”, and insists that the change in awareness necessary for the population to decide to use their vehicles less must come “not only from incentives, but also from penalties”.

The importance of data

When facing the challenge of proposing new measures and plans for large cities, one of the main tools available is data. Antonio Roig argues that thanks to big data, “we can confirm the existing capacity with new sources of mobility data through telephone companies or disaggregated GPS data while respecting data protection laws”. This information is important because “until now, infrastructures were planned based on origin and destination surveys, whereas now we have much more precise data that allow us to see mobility patterns that can be statistically disaggregated to explore solutions that had not occurred until now”. For Elena Hoyos, “data are essential for public administrations to make decisions and for private companies to establish new business models”.

Adapting housing to improve sustainability and health

The rehabilitation of housing is another of the great challenges facing Spain to improve its performance and efficiency, as noted Antonio Roig, “in the state there are 25 million homes and 45% of them were built before 1979, that is, when there was no law or technical code requiring insulation to housing”. This means that “more than 70% of the housing stock in Spain has an energy certification lower than C”, and if we want to decarbonize cities, “we can talk about transport but the other pillar is housing”.

In Valladolid, Elena Hoyos explains that one of the solutions they are bringing to change is “rehabilitating entire neighborhoods to change the gas boilers for biomass through the technique of district heating” and insists that the most important thing for this to be carried out is “citizen commitment, explain how it will be the operation of the investment and what it means for them to make a rehabilitation of their homes.

The challenge of renaturalizing urban spaces

Throughout the event, the members of could leave their questions and one of their main concerns was related to the urban trees and the feeling that the cities of the city are becoming more and more urban.The use of vegetation is decreasing in favour of diaphanous spaces covered with concrete. In view of this, Elisa Pozo points out that “vegetation in cities has to be biodiverse, with low shrubs and landscaped areas”, since “the only and exclusive solution is not always a boulevard and the alignments of trees in the streets have to respond to water management and the urban plans of the city in order to generate more pleasant spaces”.

Elena Pozo adds that renaturation is “one of the main measures applied to combat climate change” and “reduce the heat island effect”, although she also comments that the administrations are faced with a maintenance problem, as this renaturation requires care and needs that many local corporations cannot afford, which implies the obligation to seek new low-cost formulas. For Antonio Roig an example of the actions that must continue to be carried out is “the performance of Madrid Rio and the sections of parallel park that were missing,” because according to him we must focus on that “a thousand trees consume 50 tons of CO2 per year and we must continue in this line.

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