April 11, 2021

“The new challenge for cities is social balance”



Alfonso Vegara is an urban planner. Architect, yes, but not alone. Think of the cities, those places where “man moves, lives, works, has fun, learns”, from buildings, but also from social relations, the economy and nature.

Three careers support him and, above all, his desire to transform cities into more equal spaces, a change that the coronavirus pandemic will facilitate because it has been opened, highlights in an interview with Efe, a space for urban experimentation away from administrative constraints usual.

This Alicante resident from Madrid -architect, sociologist and economist- advises from his Fundación Metrópoli on how to grow and transform to cities as diverse as Singapore, Mexico, Bilbao, Buenos Aires, Kuala Lumpur or Moscow, which now, in the postcovid era, will change your public spaces, as will, predicts, our houses, schools and shopping centers.

Question.- We are going through an unexpected health crisis with unprepared cities, what quick actions would you apply in large cities?

Answer.- Rethinking the public space of the city is important, especially the central areas, because the peripheral ones are easier to organize. At the heart, for example, of the M-30 in Madrid is where you can experience how to use public space for current and future activities. This is a fascinating challenge because we will never have such an opportunity. We will never have politicians ready to make drastic decisions to try to find good solutions. We are going to learn many things.

Q.- And with a view to the future, will the way of designing these urban public spaces change?

A.- The cities have already understood that cars do not fit in the center. As a country develops, the population acquires a higher level of income and access to vehicles, restrictions must be put in place because public space is limited. Really advanced societies are where the wealthy use public transportation. This transitional moment, when the terraces are going to be expanded and some streets are going to be pedestrianized, is a way of experiencing and seeing that the city can be different.

Q.- And the interior spaces, do we have to rethink them?

R.- I think so. For example, the type of housing is going to change a lot. In the future we will aspire to have hybrid homes where you can live and work. And flexible, because the family stage changes a lot over the years. Trends that were already coming will accelerate. The houses are going to be different, the work places are going to be totally different, the commercial function is going to change dramatically with e-commerce and also education, schools and universities, where there is going to be a greater role for education from distance. Cities are going to change a lot and that is going to make people want to work where they would like to live. The great magnetism of the future of cities is going to be the quality of the environment.

Q.- With the confinement, the “mini-flats” have been converted into cages. Should we rethink the way of life of cities?

A.- It is also happening in other types of housing, the dormitories for workers who temporarily go to other countries. Some of the most powerful pollution nodes have been the bedrooms. But cities have 5,000 years of history, pandemics have passed, crises have passed, and they are still cities. Man is a social being by nature and needs to be with other people. That is why they are not going to change significantly in their structure, although we are going to change the use, we are going to improve them, we are going to make them more human. And above all, it will be strengthened so that you can live and work in different cities. Live, perhaps, in an average city where you have access to a bigger city. This can be an alternative to the traditional way of life.

Q.- Threat of confinements, pandemics that spread at full speed, do you think there will be a reflection on the type of urban versus rural life?

A.- Yes, it is an acceleration of trends that have been taking place. When industrialization occurs, people concentrate in cities and when a certain level of development is reached, they return to the rural world. Look in France, which has a very sophisticated rural world. The rural world has many incentives, especially if it has good digital connectivity and infrastructure. The key again is to think about the city system, that we can have a series of average cities that provide services to the rural world, and Spain has a magnificent city system.

Q.- Madrid has been the hardest hit by the epidemic, how will it get out of it?

A.- Madrid has impressive things as a city, but they have not been able to wrap themselves in a concept that is presented to the world. I think Madrid could be next on the list of innovative cities. We have had these decades in which Barcelona has prevailed, then Bilbao, now Malaga, perhaps La Coruña, but for the future Madrid could be a benchmark for Latin America and other cities in the world.

Q.- We have spent years betting on public transport to achieve sustainable cities, are you now at risk?

A.- The cities are here to stay and the pandemic I hope is here to leave soon. Now there are many precautions to be taken in public transport, but globally it brings many advantages to cities. When you have had problems is when you have not taken precautions.

Q.- Where should cities look?

A.- The great battle of the cities in the future is not going to be attracting investment or organizing international events, it is going to be the battle for talent: how I manage to train, retain and attract talent. Those are going to flourish because companies are going to want to be there.

Q.- As a sociologist and urban planner, what opportunities does this crisis offer to improve our way of life?

A.- For many years there was talk that cities had to be competitive, fight and attract investment; at other times they had to be sustainable and agenda 21 appeared; then they had to be resilient. Now what is coming as a great challenge is solidarity, the fight against poverty, the imbalances within the big cities. If you have an unbalanced city, it cannot be competitive because you will have insecurity. We have not experienced such clear moments of need for that solidarity in the world as we are living now. Social balance is the new challenge for cities and we can achieve it by connecting cities, with mobility, or by creating public spaces in less favored places.

Q.- How would you like the urban planning of the postcovid era to be?

A.- I would like it to be more endowed with creativity and innovation and less administrative rigidity. Writing a general plan in Spain can take 15 years. Why not have a city project, a flexible and shared vision of the city? Try to make the laws more flexible, that there is not so much social bureaucracy, trust more people and try to make a very creative urban planning. And that the administrative divisions of the territory are diluted to understand the design based on the ecology and functionality of the territory.

Maria Traspaderne

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