Social Infrastructure the Lifeblood of a Cities Spirit

Ross Donaldson, Woods Bagot

For the first time in history, more than half of the world’s people live in cities, with nearly two billion new urban residents expected in the next twenty years; estimating that by 2050, 80% of the population will live in urban areas.

As cities grow at an ever-increasing speed, the road to realising urban environments that deliver high liveability value are becoming a challenge. In a report chartered by the Economist [Liveable Cities Challenges and opportunities for policymakers, The Economist] that investigates the latest thinking about urban liveability, there is a resounding call that a top-down model of urban planning is no longer appropriate, and that there is a desperate need to foster a more lateral approach to urban planning in order to help cities thrive. I agree.

Recently, I presented at the annual World Class Cities conference held in Istanbul, where the heart of my discussion paper and presentation lay in the underlying premise that social infrastructure is the lifeblood of a cities spirit. I strongly believe that investing and embedding social infrastructure such as schools, cultural institutions, health and places of worship that breathe life deep into the fabric of the city, not in separated precincts, into our dense urban environments and public space amenity, will enable our globe to embrace urbanism and drive the output of liveable cities for tomorrow.

In fact, so strongly was my interest in the relationship between social infrastructure and high liveability value, our team at Woods Bagot decided to embark on some research, ask some questions and provide, perhaps not concrete answers, but inexplicable links to the power that social infrastructure has, and plays in a city’s urban wellbeing – again, that notion of ‘liveability.’

As we did, come with us and let us cast our eyes across the globe. As we know it, the weaving of community infrastructure that is intricately linked to the greater cities framework, such as the High Line project in New York City, Florida’s Public Library System and Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum has spurred on ancillary development and proved to inject direct economic benefit.

The High Line has spurred an estimated US$2bn in ancillary development, including 2,500 apartment units and 12,000 jobs have been added to the economy since 2009. Similarly, the direct economic benefit of Florida’s Public Library System to organisations and individuals is estimated at US$6bn per annum.

Furthermore, the renowned Bilbao effect associated with Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum was in fact due to a comprehensive series of projects totalling over US$1.5bn including but not limited to, the Basque Public University Auditorium, KIASMA Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Euskalduna Bridge.

So, what is this telling us you ask? The pursuit of modest scale community infrastructure rather than mega ‘star-architecture,’ has proved to be a successful formula for both New York, Florida, and Bilbao in spurring on economic prosperity, adding life and everyday experiences of local communities – truly elevating liveability for locals. Yet how do we achieve a true elevation of liveability for our cities across the globe?

A fundamental link to the success of our urban environments lies in the way in which the city is operated. Further research undertaken by Woods Bagot found that cities that perform consistently well in the index of liveability (as cited in the Liveable Cities Index, ‘The Economist Intelligence Unit’) also have governance mechanisms that allow these cities to implement infrastructure on a city-wide scale.

Hence, the key lies in the way in which the city is operated. Cities that have an interstitial layer of governance, where a metropolitan wide level of authority is solely responsible for a single city, enables appropriately planned community scale infrastructure that is unique to its sense of place.

On the surface perhaps it seems quite straight forward, however to this day, urban planning schemes continue to neglect the evidence of liveable cities – addressing issues that deal with the well being of inhabitants, the strength of a community and the increasing need of civic engagement. We continue to plan for precincts of social infrastructure often disconnected from, rather than integrated with the broader fabric of the city. Investing and embedding social infrastructure such as schools, healthcare, cultural institutions and places of worship that breathe life into our dense urban environments, will enable our globe to embrace urbanism and drive the output of liveable cities for tomorrow.

Ross Donaldson is a registered architect and urban planner with over 25 years of experience, with a wide range of involvement in architectural, urban design and community planning projects. He was the Director for the Education and Science Sector for Woods Bagot and in 2007 was appointed Managing Director for the Group.

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