Strong shifts in socio-economic trends, increasingly harsh environmental phenomena, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic are collectively challenging urban cities.
Post-industrialization and digitalization are global processes that are changing investments, infrastructure demands, and everyday behaviours in our cities.
Additionally, climate change is shaping urban agendas as it highlights its economic damages and hazards to both human and ecosystem securities. Such challenges deeply influence urban planning and urban management: it is imperative for public administrations, practitioners, and private stakeholders to take a new approach to urban landscaping.
One fundamental premise for the conception of cities as urban landscapes is the acknowledgement that cities could not exist without citizens and citizens’ culture. Such an approach to urban landscaping is neatly summarised by Jan Gehl’s maxim: “. It follows that urban landscaping is ever-changing and it involves a high degree of fluidity, embedded in our growing desire for social interactions and interconnectedness.
Additionally, urbanization’s ever accelerating pace entails a newfound focus for open spaces. This is caused by the EU-led ecological transition — epitomised by the European Green Deal — and by people’s shifting views around what urban landscapes should look like. In fact, there has been a growing desire by those who live in cities to be closer to nature, making it a fundamental prerogative for the improvement of people’s quality of life.
Due to their predominant role in determining dynamics on a local and territorial scale, it is unsurprising then that ecological urban landscaping plans are largely unfolding in major cities.
As landscape architects, our approach to urban landscape has led us to conceive public spaces as green infrastructures which, much like acupuncture, set out to reconnect people with nature.
In this regard, Europe is leading the way. Since 2013, the European Commission has cast Green Infrastructure as a fundamental strategy for the construction of multifunctional, urban and rural green areas that provide environmental, social, and economic benefits, in what are known as “ecosystem services”.
As such, recent research projects have recorded significant improvement of urban management and people’s well-being across European cities wherein nature-enhancing solutions were implemented. In fact, on top of boosting the aforementioned benefits, ecological urban plans were also found to be helpful tools in managing rainwater, controlling microclimates, reducing pollutants, and providing healthy and biodiversity-rich spaces.
Europe, the Environment, and COVID-19
The Green Deal launched in December 2019 by the European Commission aims at making Europe the first carbon-neutral continent that promotes sustainable development opportunities, a truly circular economy, and the protection of biodiversity.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated existing changes in sustainable urban planning and pushed them on top of the agenda. The pandemic has placed us in front of unexpected challenges: our daily lives, the way we live in cities, and how we experience open spaces were forced to take an inward, domestic turn.
Now, the way we work, meet, relax, and live must be radically rethought in order to guarantee a comparable – if not better — quality of life for everyone.
Building upon the past decade’s momentum around climate resilience and urban regeneration, the pandemic provides the radical opportunity to conceive a new urban development model based on social well-being and environmental quality.
Crucially, the promotion of open spaces is at the core of public interest as well as the private sphere. In fact, digitization processes have long deepened the virtual and interconnected dimension of public spaces. Now, this process has also spilled over into the individualization of civic life, as reported by German journalist and author Hanno Rauterberg a few years ago. In fact, the pandemic has propelled us to resolve to outdoors sociality, boosting the desire for more widespread urban greenery.
As such, the intersection between society’s growing concern for quality of life, well-being, and climate resilience — coupled with the accelerated transformation caused by the pandemic — has led us to a unique moment in time where we ought to reevaluate our way of living and designing our cities.
Accordingly, a number of cities are advancing sharing-economy programmes by promoting sustainable mobility, participatory planning, and the use of digital infrastructures. Notable mentions include Melbourne, New York, Copenhagen, Rotterdam, London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Turin, and Milan, among others.
However, we must not forget the fundamental role that urban vegetation must play in order to avoid an unhealthy compartmentalization of open spaces and the loss of urban quality.
Time is Running Out for the Regeneration of Urban Landscapes
In the digitalization era, the struggle to maintain — or make — our cities adequately habitable has pushed us to seek solutions whose impact will be immediate.
Our LAND Research Lab interprets these needs and expectations by translating them into innovative approaches. These are inspired by the goals set in the 2030 Agenda and are fuelled by our involvement in European research, for example through the network of Horizon projects UNaLab and T-Factor.
The European Green Deal provides both a path and tools to take advantage of the opportunities granted by this transition. The Deal also promotes a kind of Pan-European cooperation that goes beyond finance, customs, economy and laws and keeps landscape as its core.
At the turn of the millenium, the European Landscape Convention had already encouraged greater collaboration between EU member states. Since then, it has been implemented in several EU-funded research and innovation projects for climate resilience and biodiversity restoration.
Lastly, this paradigm shift offers the chance to create new productive landscapes.
As suggested at the presentation of the New European Bauhaus in January 2021, the change towards a green transition must be seen as an opportunity that generates beauty, culture, resilience and cohesion at multiple levels. In other words, it must be conceived as an opportunity that provides new services for citizens’ well-being, better efficiency for climate and urban management, as well as new drivers for economic and social development.
We are all called to take part in this ambitious cultural process and to establish a balanced synergy between ecological, economic, and social development by recasting nature at the heart of our cities’ restoration.