Repurposing public space: cities' inward expansion

By 2030, approximately three in five people will live in a city. Cities are constantly changing environments; they evolve, expand in different directions, leave certain parts behind, experience booms in population and even population drain too. The nature of these ever-bustling and changing beasts means that spaces are changing all the time; what was once residential becomes a shopping area, and what once was an industrial zone becomes a vibrant new living quarter. With all this in motion, the uses for public spaces have to evolve too.

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Why build inwards?

Outwards expansion of a city is not always possible due to other nearby populations, geographical limitations or the risk of damaging green habitats. In recent years, the popular solution has been to expand upwards with ever more elaborate skyscrapers, like those seen in Beijing, New York and Tokyo. Building ‘inwards’, on the other hand, is a phrase used to describe the use and repurposing of older and disused buildings, of land between existing buildings and of public spaces, all to avoid expanding the city beyond its existing limits.

In Berlin, for instance, the former Tempelhof airfield has been turned into a much-loved public park with businesses and community allotments. In Hamburg, regeneration of the dock areas has seen a once-industrial space become a beautiful residential and cultural quarter. Other cities have turned to the water for solutions, such as in Copenhagen where the firm BIG Architects has fashioned affordable student accommodation from floating shipping containers.

What kind of public spaces?

The kinds of public spaces that city planners may be seeking to redevelop include ‘common ground’, like squares and plazas, the ‘dead space’ between buildings, disused buildings and spaces such as former tram lines. All of these have limited value before redevelopment, but a wealth of potential to meet the needs of growing urban populations. Each city of course has different wasteland to work with. Former industrial cities may have more factory spaces, and potentially contaminated land too, while former market towns may have wider squares to utilise. Old towns will have smaller, historical buildings and narrower streets to contend with.

Are there any negatives?

For city authorities looking to accommodate a larger population and utilise inner-city space, there are two possible negative effects of poor planning. The first is that natural habitat and biodiversity could be at risk. Even cities are vibrant habitats for a range of animals, and any use of green space for building puts those habitats and species at risk. However, good planning can ensure that cities retain their green credentials with architectural projects that incorporate foliage and plants to absorb carbon dioxide, improve air quality and help support inner-city ecological diversity.

The second potential drawback is that cities risk losing parts of their history and heritage if they choose to demolish buildings that are too old or small for use. There are creative ways around this, however. Cities might consider repurposing factories into fashionable living spaces or mixed-use community spaces, like the Toni milk factory in Zurich and the landscape park in Duisburg on former industrial land.

How will our cities of the future look as they expand inwards and upwards, champion smart technologies and face up to changing models of work and environmental threats? One thing is clear: it’s all change from here.

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