DesignMENA Summit, DesignMENA Summit 2018, Masterplanning, Urban design
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designMENA Summit 2018: Architects and planners are designing more flexible masterplans to create social impact, experts say

During the first panel discussion at the 2018 designMENA Summit, architects discussed how the methodology and thinking behind master planning in the emirate has shifted to allow for more flexibility, human-scale build, and social impact. 

Steven Velegrinis, head of master planning at Aecom, explained that architects are beginning to take on a less traditional approach to master planning, creating a more flexible urban design that as a result, allows for more public interventions.

"I think we are less focused on a fixed master plan nowadays. I think in urban design terms, what we are facing is really designing open systems that adapt and change in ways that we didn’t anticipate. So we have gone from developing a masterplan to developing almost a master-process and I think that allows for things like social dimension in urban design to come into it," he said.

"I think that realistically we as professionals also need to stop seeing ourselves as people who determine everything but as people who enable things  we didn't intend to happen. I think that’s when the magic comes around in public spaces; when things you couldn’t possibly imagine actually start happening.

"People always think of the city as something that is built and finished but cities are not like buildings:  they are more like ecologies or processes that continually changing and I think we are in a phase now when we are coming back and addressing some of the things like the social dimensions of a city," he added.

Samer Touqan, project director at Dewan Architects and Engineers, agreed, adding that the changing demographics of new cities like Dubai demands a flexible masterplan that can easily adapt to the various shifts that are consistently taking place.

"The issue with cities like Dubai is that the fundamentals of planning, that we start with, keep changing. The demographic of the city keep changing, the financial model keeps changing, the number of people, the different ethnicities, the social backgrounds, keep changing: your masterplan cannot be static. Every space that you design needs to remain flexible to accommodate this ever-changing demographic of the city," he explained.

David Lessard, design director at H+A, also agreed that there has definitely been a shift from a more "top-down approach" to designing masterplans to more "bottom-down developments" that address issues such as human scale and social impact, however, "we are not there yet," he said.

Touqan argued that one of the ways in which architects can create more socially impactful communities is by setting up platforms where public opinion can be recorded and later used to inform the design process. "During the process of design the public is not there , they only come later.," he said.

"But after the development is built, are we learning lessons? I believe we are because the public – whether we like it or not – is actually donating their opinion (through various social channels) so the opinion of the public is somehow being transmitted to the planners, to the architects, to the designers, and to the developers. Sometimes this is after it’s too late. That is why I think a method needs to be put in place where the opinion of the public – and also concrete data – is available to the planners," he said.

Velegrinis agreed that public opinion should be used to inform design decisions, but in a less traditional manner that takes into consideration present-day behaviours. 

He argued that the UAE government is already implementing ways in which to gain public knowledge or desires, however it is less about presenting an concrete idea and more about understanding what the public wants their future to look like. 

"I don’t think we are ever going to be in a place where it will be ‘here is a master plan, what do you think of it’. I don’t think it is this place and it is not this time anymore," Velegrinis said. 

Stephan Frantzen, design director at P&T Architects & Engineers, added that some project types are easier to implement based on public opinion than others. 

"Revitalising is easier when it comes to asking for public opinion. What should an existing place be revitalised to? If it is new master plan we actually have a lot of knowledge. We know that if you have good urban design it actually gives you a longer life, we just need to implement it. We need to use all the data we have from cities like Dubai and combine all the knowledge and do it," he said.

Lessard, on the other hand, argued that public opinion does not always guarantee success. 

"I think democracy in design is not always the greatest thing. I think town planning and opinions about what things should be are great but I think ultimately, to leave that to the professionals is very important."