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Urban Trajectories

Balancing 'Soft' And 'Hard' Factors

30Aug

Population growth, desire for better life, more opportunities and engaging communities, are driving urbanisation across the world and particularly in emerging economies. The rapid-growing demand for urban life is currently being addressed through regeneration of underutilized existing areas (preferably), the creation of new planned developments or urban sprawl. While crafting real opportunities for the (re)creation of urban environments, people should be put at the forefront balancing and integrating multiple resilient strategies, adopting 'Soft' and 'Hard' factors that benefit the entire community.

Soft and Hard factors

Soft factors define the quality of the Socio-Economic environment, the human experience in terms of opportunities, accessibility, learning, interactions, inclusiveness, engagement, creative and cultural activities, respect of cultures and traditions, governance, policies and services.

Hard factors define the quality of the Built-Natural environment and include the availability of health-promoting, environmentally-sustainable infrastructure and buildings, affordable housing, high-quality spaces for social life and people-oriented smart technologies.

Soft and Hard factors are interdependent and striking the right balance between them is a very complex task, requiring on-going, long-term leadership, commitment and the understanding of local aspects, culture and right timing for their execution.

Hard factors can be relatively quick and easy to implement (i.e. building a bicycle track) whereas Soft factors can be difficult and take a long time (i.e. create a strong travel-by-bicycle culture).

A simple practical framework

If we assess the positioning of urban areas along the two dimensions of Socio-Economic and Built-Natural environment, we can create a practical, simple framework, which identifies four macro categories.

Distressed urban areas are characterised by a combination of low-quality Built-Natural and Socio-Economic environment. Some suburbs of existing large cities, dormitory communities and bankrupt cities fall into this category. 

Stressed urban areas are thriving, growing rapidly, offering opportunities, but increasingly becoming unaffordable for a large segment of citizens, not inclusive, polluted and congested, with overburdened infrastructure. Some major urban centres, or megacities, in developing economies, or some very dynamic cities in other regions of the world, can be positioned in this category. 

Green-Tech machines are visionary, self-sustaining, carbon-neutral urban areas, which have been designed with the main objective of minimising environmental footprint and maximising efficiency, but that are failing in the integration of humans, the creation of social capital and sense of place. 

The utopian Ideal City is a model resulting from the successful and balanced integration of resilient Socio-Economic and Built-Natural factors over time. An Ideal City is vibrant, liveable, authentic and resilient.

Virtuous trajectories and declining drifts

If we move from a static framework to a dynamic representation, we can identify potential 'trajectories' that urban areas can follow over the years. Virtuous, favourable trajectories towards the top-right corner of the chart originate from the understanding of where an area is coming from and its competitive advantages, the definition of a clear vision for the future and a strategic plan that is consistently executed with strong leadership over time. Vicious, detrimental drifts towards the bottom left of the chart can happen as a consequence of unmanaged, unfavourable events and trends, lack of vision, poor leadership or a combination of all these issues.

Green/Tech machines can turn into Distressed areas when social capital is not created quickly enough, when technologies become obsolete or not affordable, and because of unacceptable limitations on people’s behaviour. 

Stressed urban areas can progressively lose their competitiveness if talented young workers, innovative businesses and consumers move away to healthier, greener, sustainable areas. In some cases, urban decline is generated by bureaucracy, long and expensive permitting processes, which discourage or prevent the timely upgrade of real estate and infrastructure needed to meet the rapid changing demand. Urban areas can rise to near Ideal Cities and then fall into deep decline if they are not resilient to change, shocks or conflicts and fail to evolve and adapt (i.e. districts relying on one single industry/market, which suddenly de-localises or disappears).

Mature, organically grown, urban areas can have strong social capital but might suffer because of outdated, inadequate infrastructure. Newly built urban districts usually have state-of-the-art infrastructure and smart technologies but might suffer because they are perceived as antiseptic, not authentic and not vibrant.

Every urban area is different and history counts. Virtuous, favourable trajectories towards the Ideal City model can be very different depending on the initial positioning, local circumstances, the specific vision and strategy.

In general terms, a virtuous, favourable trajectory is a continuous sequence of successful strategic moves, consistently aligned towards the target positioning. Virtuous urban trajectories should be based on solid long-term fundamentals, should leverage core strengths and competitive advantages and meet stakeholders' needs and expectations over time. In the current rapidly changing world, a consistent sequence of affordable incremental steps, supported by adequate regulatory regimes, would allow assessing the actual outcomes, as implementation progresses, adjusting to constantly shifting conditions and optimising the deployment of always constrained financial resources.

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