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Can Cities Save the World?

By Irene Pedruelo, David Nelson | October 19, 2015

CREDIT: Mathijs Vos.

He has worked side by side with Lord Norman Foster for almost 40 years, but David Nelson doesn't preach about architecture. Instead, he prefers conversation. As the joint head of design at Foster + Partners architecture and design studio, he has worked on some of the studio's most emblematic projects: Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, the new German parliament in Berlin, the Bilbao metro in Spain, and the Florence high-speed railway station. Nelson is reluctant to speak in first-person when talking about the work he does. This decision, I will learn in our hour-long conversation on the future of cities, is not trivial but a direct reflection of his understanding of architecture and urban design as a collective endeavor: "We're a lot of people, and we all work very closely together. I'm just a representative."

IRENE PEDRUELO: The UN has estimated that by 2050, 66 percent of the world's population will live in cities. Managing urban areas has become one of the top development challenges of the 21st century. In this context, there's been a lot of conversation, a lot of hype, around eco-cities and sustainable cities, so let's start by asking: What are sustainable cities?

DAVID NELSON:  Being sustainable is to say: if we are going to survive on this planet for as long as we can, the way we live our lives has to change to reflect the reality of what we've got. The world's resources are finite, and if you look at the lifestyle of people in the United States, to maintain that way of life we need about five planets. In Europe it's about three or four. In the end, it boils down to—we need to do more with less. With those numbers of people—70 percent— living in cities, clearly the focus for this issue is in cities.

IRENE PEDRUELO: There is a wide array of sustainability rating tools that cities across the world use, but a generally accepted methodology is lacking. Could you be more specific about the factors that make up sustainability?

DAVID NELSON: Unfortunately, it's not that simple. The whole question of what is sustainable is really a highly complicated interrelationship between everything from jobs to energy sourcing, how we manage water, how we move around, how we do things, what we eat, etc. All of those things need to be thought of in a completely holistic way, and the systems, designs, and strategies—both physical and political—need to be developed to bring about a city that you might be able to put the word "eco" in front of.

Sir Norman Foster (center) and David Nelson (right) working on a project. CREDIT: Foster + Partners

IRENE PEDRUELO: To what extent do you think it's not only possible, but feasible, to implement these sustainable development models in already existing cities? Or do you envision starting from scratch and building new autonomous and sustainable cities?

DAVID NELSON: We've already got largely outdated infrastructure in cities. Europe, in terms of moving around the city, was invented for the horse and cart. The States was invented for the automobile. Neither of those are really relevant anymore, but we have to live with them because that's all there is. So to make those existing locations—where 70 percent of the population will be living—sustainable, we have to radically rethink how we do move around and how we consume energy within those cities. The reality is that the world population is migrating from rural communities into urban worlds. India and China are the two most obvious places where that is happening. In China 110 million people will, by 2020, be moving to the cities. To give you an idea, what this means is that between now and 2020 [they will have to build a] city the size of London every six months for six years.

IRENE PEDRUELO: With that kind of demand, the concept of thinking about a brand-new city from scratch seems to be highly relevant.

DAVID NELSON: If you think of it in a European context, where there's not that kind of pressure, the idea of a new city is much harder to accept. Although there have been proposals here in the UK at least for harking back to the so-called garden cities, they're not really going to solve the problem. They actually might produce a very nice way of life for some people to live, but not necessarily really solve the true bigger picture. And the bigger picture is very global, and the heat is in Asia and not in Europe.

IRENE PEDRUELO: Your studio has worked on many different projects that could fall under the umbrella of sustainability or "sustainable city." Called a "carbon neutral" and "zero waste" community in the middle of the desert, Masdar City is perhaps the project that has gotten the most attention. Masdar represents a specific response to its location and its climate, but in what ways does it offer a blueprint for the sustainable city of the future?

DAVID NELSON: Masdar City was really not a city in the intention of being, as it were, a city in itself, because its scale was relatively small. It was basically an initiative to look at the long-term future of moving away from an oil economy in the Middle East. It is more a city-scale experiment or a city-scale research project to look at all of the issues that we face when we design cities. It's not a city blueprint, it's actually a blueprint for looking at all the things that we need to look at simultaneously, to make proposals have more credibility and have more information as we move on and do things elsewhere. Its relevance, I think, is probably to those places where the demand would create an opportunity to consider doing something brand new from scratch.

IRENE PEDRUELO: Since the project was announced I always thought Masdar City's goal was to become a fully functional eco-city, and not a scale experiment.

DAVID NELSON: What I mean by city-scale experiment is that we have people living there right now, they're studying, they are working in laboratories, they're eating, they're sleeping, they have visitors, etc. It is a piece of city, but it's an example piece of city.

IRENE PEDRUELO: When working on Masdar City your studio looked at how the mechanics of day-to-day life would work in a "zero waste" city surrounded by desert. You focused mainly on two things: energy and transportation. Do you consider you were successful at solving the challenges that such an extreme climate poses?

DAVID NELSON: Masdar is a very climate-driven project. We studied the kind of indigenous architecture that happened over many hundreds of years, and realized that the buildings and spaces between them were very tight and very close to generate shade. We adopted this very simple principle in the planning of Masdar, and it's proved to be successful: It's a lot cooler there than it would be outside or in the center of Abu Dhabi. You have to leave your petrol-driven car at the perimeter, and [use] a sort of personal transit system powered by a 10 megawatts solar [farm] that takes you in. You get transported under the city through an undercroft and arrive at the destination. Then you move up to the elevated ground level, which then links to the buildings.

IRENE PEDRUELO: What about water supply?

DAVID NELSON: We thought that all the materials coming to the site should come from as close to the location as possible and therefore minimize transport. The sea there is very salty, so it would have had to involve a desalination process, which we could have done using solar power, but it would take a lot of power and it would not be purely efficient in itself. We weren't particularly successful on that. We also consciously decided not to look at generating food there. It turns out if you dig into the ground and look for groundwater in this part of the world, it's even more salty than the sea, which makes that problem much harder. We looked at a large part of all those issues that come together to form a sustainable strategy. We did an awful lot. We often say, very sadly, there's only one Masdar. There should be 20 or 200! There should be work going on all over the world that actually explores these very difficult, technical, and interrelated questions. It's not just the architect's responsibility. The truth is development does need experimentation.

IRENE PEDRUELO: You mentioned some researchers are living there. How many are there?

DAVID NELSON: It's several hundred people involved with it. Some come and go, and some live there.

IRENE PEDRUELO: With only a couple of hundred people living there, it's still probably really hard to assess whether the public spaces your studio designed are working or not, because they were meant to be home to over 40,000 people.

DAVID NELSON: That's in the full extent of the city, and that will be built out through time. The first phase is complete, but [in the future] there'll be about 90,000 to 100,000 people there. We built one small piece of it, but the good news is that piece is working very well. Dongtan, for example, was very good, but filled with corruption, so there are many reasons why these things don't necessarily happen as quickly as they should.

IRENE PEDRUELO: How do you build a sense of place from scratch?

DAVID NELSON: Most of the places that we, in the West, have come to love—it might be New York, London, Paris—those places have evolved over many hundreds of years. That little shop on the corner might have been a bar or florist 20, 30, 100 years ago. Bits of the building got modified through time, literally, over history. The typical configuration of a project that might come to us will be within 3 million to 6 million square feet. That is about as big as it gets. If we're going to build 6 million square feet day one, you've got to build a sense of place from day one, which is an extremely difficult task. Not impossible, otherwise we wouldn't be doing what we're trying to do, but it requires you to almost accelerate history and think about everything in advance before you can produce a plan.

IRENE PEDRUELO: So how do you do it?

DAVID NELSON: It tends to boil down to having a real focus on what we call the "public realm." The interesting thing about architecture and urban design is how you integrate two things—the public and the private—together. How people—the thousands of people at ground level, city level, moving through from one part of the city to the other—interface with the private worlds of those buildings that hover above them.

IRENE PEDRUELO: There have been moments in history where cities became unpopular and where people fled from city centers. Hearing you talk, it seems you don't question that the rapid urbanization happening today is unstoppable and that people will live in these kinds of cities.

DAVID NELSON: You're quite right to point out, historically, there's been an ebb and flow, and at the moment, there's definitely a flow towards cities, and that's going to last for quite a period of time. But "unstoppable" is an interesting word. Who can control whether it stops or not? The real point is: If people flowing to cities is inevitable, what can we do about it and how can we react? The trouble is that what's at our disposal is very much an outdated system. Mumford makes reference to it. He called it a kind of dense urban development tied to free market processes. At the moment, most of the world is being developed in a free market context. By that, I mean it's developers—it's not so much cities, institutions, or the government—who are building. It's really left up to the private sector to develop. And it is doing it through a financial/development canon that isn't necessarily looking at the priorities that it should, because it's private and it's finance-driven. Everybody that develops 6 million-square-foot projects is very brave. I would never do it. They borrow such a huge amount of money from the bank and they've got to pay it back, so it's highly understandable that their prime motive in life is getting the money back, not necessarily solving very long-term issues.

IRENE PEDRUELO: Sometimes the goal of design seems to be overshadowed by aesthetics. The performance is measured by aesthetics. What kind of mindset does this sustainable architecture and urban planning require from architects?

DAVID NELSON: We have lived through an era where one could argue style and appearance have overshadowed in some instances pure function. What a building looks like and what it is have become very dominant in the process. The art of urban planning from a design point of view has to some extent been diminished by the power of the individual building. For us, urban planning is working on something that is part of a city. Developing very livable spaces for people to act out their lives may not need "iconic architecture." Quietness has been something which has probably not been to the fore in architecture in recent eras.

IRENE PEDRUELO: Some claim that eco-cities or sustainable cities that are appearing in a diverse array of locations around the world are largely conceived and designed by a small, elite group of international architecture and planning firms based in North America and Europe. How do you take that criticism?

DAVID NELSON: How many buildings can you have by any international practice in one place? The "international elite" may get quite a bit of publicity for things that they do as individual buildings, but certainly in any city, the vast majority is done by local architects. It is the truth of it. I think that what makes things look the same is that the mechanism is free market. Also, the media disseminates imagery of buildings and building forms so fast! We've designed buildings in some parts of the world that have been copied in others and built before we've even finished our first one. Our objective is to avoid things looking the same. We want to do something that's unique in a given place. If we are alien to it, if we are the foreigner, we have some advantages in the form of a bigger picture, a more global view—we have fresh eyes—but we have to respect and understand exactly what's happening locally in that given situation and what is culturally relevant, to do our best and generate an architecture that grows out of climate and program and sight and orientation.

IRENE PEDRUELO: This criticism somehow mirrors the criticism many have about international development and the international community pushing the same idea of what modern and development means.

DAVID NELSON: A country that's developing, a country that wants to actually move forward, usually wants to copy the West. "Modern" and "global" means what other cities have. It's not necessarily designers and architects going in and just doing it for the sake of it, it's invited in—people want to actually emulate and be different from where they are, and at the moment what the world seems to be copying is the West. Inherent to that is that any mistakes we've made along the way will inherently be copied.

IRENE PEDRUELO: Several times through our conversation you have mentioned the role that the free market plays in the development of the urban landscape. What role do you think that the international community and government can play in shaping the way we live so we do it in a sustainable way?

DAVID NELSON: Sustainability is such a burning issue that people are talking more and more about it. You would think that somebody would grab the initiative, but it needs a bit of courage. Somebody's got to go into public spending.

IRENE PEDRUELO: So you are suggesting that governments should lead experimentation themselves around sustainable cities?

DAVID NELSON: The sustainability conversation gets all caught up in "if you separate your waste, that's sustainability; if you buy organic food that's sustainability; if you don't drive a car often that's sustainability." These are all good measures; the things that we all do and try to do every day to make things better are not a vain attempt. But the scale of the challenges we are talking about is much bigger than all that and does need a greater level of, first, comprehension. You can't design a building without worrying about power supply, water supply, waste management, where the materials come from, job creation, energy source, etc. These are highly complicated things that [are] in and out of our discipline called architecture. If we truly want to have a demonstration of a full piece of city scale, a really workable city scale, then governments around the world—because it can't be done by private enterprise, it's too big for private enterprise—should participate. Maybe even you could get some of the major corporations around the world forming a core, but the corporations can't do it without the government's support. I think in the end, it all comes down to how we manage ourselves as human beings. Maybe when we get that right, we might be able to have solved some of these problems.

Policy Innovations' Eight Quick Questions

Where do you see yourself in 20 years? Still doing what I'm doing today, hopefully.

What are the three main attributes of an innovator? Enough imagination to have an idea in the first place. The courage to pursue it. And the determination to make it happen.

What other obsessions do you have in addition to design or architecture? I don't know. I like to understand how people work, how they play, and how they live, at an extremely detailed level sometimes. It's a bit of an obsession.

What does social innovation mean to you? It means a lot of collaborative work, as it is the only way to innovate, to make the work better, etc.

What do you do in your free time? I like to travel, I like to walk, and I like to walk through cities. One of the things I like best is to go to a city I've never been to before and get lost, because only when you get lost do you really start to understand how it all ticks.

Finish this sentence. I'm afraid of . . . I'm afraid that despite of all the efforts one might make, this problem's totally unsolvable.

Finish this sentence. Life is about . . . Life really is very special and you only get one, and you need to appreciate it.

What would you tell your younger self if you had to start over? Do exactly the same; maybe more intensely, and realize that you can never teach experience.

Read More: Cities, Business, Energy, Ethics, Sustainability, Migration

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