The New Urban Agenda –the Perspective of New Towns - INTI - International New Town Institute

The New Urban Agenda –the Perspective of New Towns
Article by Michelle Provoost

The global urbanization, which is presently taking place, is predicted to lead to 70% of the global population living in cities by 2050. This makes clear that cities will define the social, economic, cultural and ecological quality of human life in the 21th Century. It stresses the importance to redefine what our cities should be and the necessity to involve all the parties that are engaged with planning, developing, governing and managing cities.
In recognition of the urgency of improving cities, the “New Urban Agenda” will be ratified at the Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador in 17-21 October 2016. Recently, the Zero Draft of the New Urban Agenda was published by the United Nations.

The New Urban Agenda is a highly ambitious document, which aims to be “the first step for operationalizing sustainable development in an integrated and coordinated way at global, regional, sub-national and local levels”. It is guided by three main guiding principles: that cities should become socially inclusive, achieve a fair and equitable economy and become ecologically sustainable.
The contents of the New Urban Agenda point the way forward to better, more inclusive, livable and sustainable cities. But how can these ambitions be put in practice? Numerous challenges exist, most of them political and/or financial. What should be the priorities and how can they be implemented?

Our aim on the International New Town Day is to highlight the priorities for New Towns within the New Urban Agenda and to start with the implementation of it by creating partnerships between cities and private companies.

What New Towns share
New Towns are a special category of cities, with their own characteristics and specificities. They share the same DNA: they are built according to a master plan, from scratch on a location where previously there was no city, and they have a high degree of political autonomy.
New Towns have existed ever since humanity started organizing itself in settlements. Planned communities have always been the ultimate challenge for politicians and designers: what is the ideal city? What is the city of tomorrow? Planned cities are a perfect reflection of the ideas and ambitions of their time, as cities like Canberra, Stevenage or Dodoma demonstrate. But after some decades, these showcase cities become outdated and need to be adjusted to changed social, economic and demographic conditions. What once was designed as the ‘city of tomorrow’ needs to be updated and re-conceptualized.

Postwar Generation

This is especially true for the existing New Towns built in Western Europe after World War II. Europe was reconstructing itself and the economic boom of that period caused a huge migration from the countryside to the urbanized areas. In order to limit the size of the European metropolises, New Towns were constructed for the ‘overflow’ of population. Usually they were dormitory towns with little economy of their own. By now, they are perceived as outdated, and many of the modernist planning principles with which they have been constructed have proven to be disadvantageous in the long term. They are trying to reposition themselves in relation to their mother city, the metropolis they are ‘connected’ to.

They were based on large scale, top down planning using inflexible blueprints that make it hard to adjust to changing conditions; they were designed with a purely car based infrastructure and have often abolished the traditional mixed use street with safe sidewalks for pedestrians and bicycles lanes. Because of that, the streets lack liveliness and safety and the city is not easy to move around in without a car; they experience a lack of diversity in program, housing typology and architecture, which makes them unattractive for all but one group of customers (usually families); their organization, planning and financing was in the hands of the government only, which made them vulnerable for changes in finance and policy; finally, they were based on the predominant idea of the city as one collective, without taking the individualism and diversity of its inhabitants into account. So the question is: How can we reinvent and update the post war New Towns?

New New Towns
Next to these older New Towns, there is a new generation on the drawing boards. The exasperating figures of economic and urban growth in Asia have become familiar to us for the last decades, especially since 2007 when the world population reached the magic 50% urban dwellers. Now it is also South America and Africa where economic growth is starting to attract global attention and therefore also plans for new smart cities, economic cities or high tech cities are being planned. Huge investments are going into these New Towns and large ambitions are attached to them. While economic factors are prevailing, we think an infusion of New Town planning with other factors like integral planning, social sustainability, resilience, inclusion, local culture and residents’ participation are very necessary.
Usually the New Towns in Africa and South America are examples of privatized urban planning and become enclaves next to sprawling metropolises. Their formal urban design distinguishes them from the largely informal character of the existing cities.

Given INTI’s global experience with New Town planning, we see possible problems of segregation and social exclusion, which are exacerbated by the building of New Towns; we see a proliferation of outdated modernist planning with growing informal developments as a reaction, lacking recent insights on integral or sustainable planning; we also notice a lack of attention to residents’ participation, nature and ecology. Now that we are experiencing a wave of new New Towns again, we have to ask: What are the alternative strategies to create more livable and inclusive cities? What will be the city of tomorrow? How can we conceptualize, design, finance, build and govern it today?

Learning from 20th Century urbanization there is a strong consensus amongst urban professionals that we need to strive for cities that are: resilient and flexible, that can grow in an organic way, are inclusive and offer a habitat for all income groups within society; cities should be socially cohesive and diverse; they should cater for pedestrians and bicycles; they should be sustainable, energy efficient, greener, healthier and smarter; they should be organized not just by one party, but by many, including residents. All these ambitions and principles are formulated in the zero draft of the New Urban Agenda. New Towns are excellent laboratories for implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

Looking at the New Urban Agenda through the lens of New Towns
The New Urban Agenda is very broad and extensive; it covers a wide range of relevant topics and ambitions. But where should cities start with the implementation? While all cities are different and are shaped by their own specific conditions and culture, we assume that New Towns, because of their shared DNA, face many similar challenges and opportunities. New Towns usually share the characteristic that they started from an optimistic ambition to shape the city in the best way, employing innovations and pioneering inventions, according to the ideas and ideals of that moment.

Shenzhen, China (photo: Lard Buurman)

The pioneering economic model of Shenzhen (China) and its subsequent development into a place of technological and also social innovation is but one example. The ambitious way in which Ningo Pram Pram (Ghana) is presently designed by a young group of urban planners, incorporating the newest ideas on flexibility in urban design, using new insights in energy supply, mortgage constructions and economic development is another example. But also in historic perspective, New Towns were built with this progressive and modern ambitions: Ningo Pram Pram is in no way different from the innovative way that the city of Tema (Ghana) was designed 50 years ago, introducing modern services and amenities, but also creating new social collective values by transforming the housing and neighborhood typologies.

Tema, Ghana

Another example is the future city of Vinge (Denmark) which showcases a focus on participation, and the importance of high quality public space. This is a very similar ambition to that of the city of Almere (the Netherlands), built in the 70’s. Our conclusion is: there is a lot that New Towns can learn from each other’s experiences.

This is especially true since New Towns are usually second or third tier cities, of a smaller size and with a different position in the urban networks than the metropolises that attract the most attention. Predictions are that 45-50% of the population growth will happen in smaller cities, up to 500.000 inhabitants. New Towns worldwide might have more in common with each other than with the main metropolises in their region.

What should be the priorities for New Towns within the New Urban Agenda and how can they be implemented?
As a start, I propose the following 10 priorities and themes that are especially relevant to New Towns in no particular order:

 Emphasize innovation
The culture of New Towns is forward looking, with an emphasis on innovation and experiment. This ambition is optimistic and should be fostered. For new New Towns this means looking for inventions, not only in technology but also social, cultural, political and financial innovation. New Towns are excellent laboratories for implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

 Regeneration based on existing qualities
Older New Towns share a lack of diversity in housing, services, in cultural and commercial facilities, and a lack of jobs. Usually they suffer from a negative image, losing their attractiveness in competition with historic cities. The regeneration of these cities needs to take into account the local culture that has developed and build on the characteristics and qualities that exist.

 No city is an island
The bigger spatial context needs to be taken into account. The reinvention of the existing New Towns requires re-evaluating the position of the city in the region and nation, and the changing relation to the mother city. Future New Towns should be based on a national spatial policy and not be planned as an isolated project.

 New Towns should be inclusive
Cities should be built for a cross section of society, including affordable housing and public transport. Because contemporary New Towns are often undertaken as commercial projects they are often not able to provide for the lowest incomes. There is a need for new financial models to achieve inclusiveness. Especially in Africa there is a need to incorporate or facilitate self-built settlements, since they will make up the largest part of urbanization.

 Infrastructure and mobility for all, from the start
The urban plan should not only cater for cars, but also for slow traffic, carts, bicycles and pedestrians. The provision of public transport to the existing cities from the immediate start of development has proven to be a main factor in the success or failure of New Towns.

 Plan for flexibility
The urban plan should be flexible and adjustable, resilient and able to cope with new insights and developments over time. A lack of reserved space, possibilities for transformation and adjustment will threat any New Town with becoming outdated soon.

 Adopt green and water networks as the basics for the urban plan
In the light of climate change and ecological threats, the importance of a network of green open spaces and water is of the utmost importance. This network should underpin every urban plan, combining ecology, flood prevention, water retention with public space and leisure.

Combine Top down and bottom up
New Towns share a largely top down approach, with a fixed relation between the government or private party developing the city and the residents. To become more resilient and fair, and to unleash the vital dynamics that can develop the city, they should provide for a more inclusive and participative approach.

 Use no universal model and no export of urban models
There is no one-size-fits-all model for New Towns. Models from one part of the world don’t guarantee success when exported to another part. Local capacity building is necessary and should be stimulated, so any country can develop its own urban models, based on local culture, climate, politics, social needs and financial possibilities.

 Stimulate exchange between New Towns
New Towns share a lot of challenges and opportunities. Research into common urgencies should be stimulated and the lessons learned should be disseminated and exchanged. A best practice network of New Towns should serve this goal.

Ningo Pram Pram (Ghana)

Doing New Towns better
The International New Town Day is meant for refining the New Urban Agenda from the perspective of New Towns. To that end we have presentations of representatives of 12 cities, who will share their challenges and opportunities and present their innovative approaches. Representatives of other cities, engineering firms and architecture offices have been asked to give statements with important additions to the New Urban Agenda, highlighting what they feel should be priorities.

At the end of this day we will compile the agenda and offer it to representatives of UN Habitat to bridge the step to the Habitat III conference in Quito in October. But of course this is only the first step. In Quito INTI organizes an event to start the actual implementation of the improvements proposed by the New Urban Agenda. We propose to create partnerships to exchange knowledge and experience between New Towns. What are the innovations that New Towns are developing already and how can they share that with other cities?

Curitiba, Brazil (photo: IPPUC)

Curitiba is a forerunner when it comes to waste management and recycling, and especially in effective social campaigns and strategies to make recycling successful. Almere aims to become a zero waste city. Can Almere tap into the successful innovations that Curitiba already developed? Guangming and Tatu City are both eager to improve the ecological quality of its green spaces and its water network. Dutch New Towns and engineering firms have a lot of experience in dealing with water management. Can Guangming and Tatu City profit from this knowledge? Ningo Pram Pram proposes new flexible urban planning principles. Are they useful for other cities developing in the Global South?

This International New Town Day is the start of an exchange platform and aims to produce realistic and concrete future projects.

Introduction to the International New Town Day, June 30th 2016

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