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Interview with Luca Bertolini, professor of Urban and Regional Planning

How will the city dweller of the future move about? Is autonomous driving or car-sharing really the solution to increasing traffic gridlock? And what are some of the challenges cities will face as a result of mass urbanisation? These are some of the questions Luca Bertolini, professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the UvA, focuses on in his research. 

Credits: Jeroen Oerlemans

It is estimated that by 2050 about 70% of the world’s population will live in urban areas. What will be the biggest challenges facing urban planners over the coming years?

Urban planning is about making cities liveable, dynamic and attractive. Humans are an increasingly urban species, so it should come as no surprise that our problems, but also the potential solutions, are progressively urban. If current trends continue, climate change and growing inequality will pose pressing challenges to policymakers and urban planners. Cities and urban centres will urgently need to be adapted to reduce their carbon footprint and withstand the effects of extreme weather while remaining liveable. The same goes for inequality, which places serious strain on social relations and if allowed to continue will undermine the social harmony on which densely populated areas so badly depend.

Gridlock is a continually growing problem in cities all over the world and puts huge strain on the environment and on urban infrastructure. Do you think new technologies like driverless cars and car-sharing are a solution?

Mobility is not an end in itself – we use it to access something else, be it friends, family, services or job opportunities. The continued accessibility and future sustainability of cities won’t happen by placing our hopes solely on the ‘car’ as a means of transport. Cars are generally a factor 10 less space efficient than other modes of transport and are quite unfit for the densely populated urban environments the world will soon have. In addition, cars create physical barriers between people, whereas cities and public spaces are about facilitating human interactions.

Instead, planners and policymakers should continue to focus on designing cities that incorporate and facilitate various modes of transport, including walking, cycling and public transport. The focus should be on a better integration between different transport modes, so that their comparative advantages can be profited from. And urban streets should be seen in the first place as public spaces, not as traffic channels. Such a mix is, I believe, the best way to lessen congestion and put our cities on a more sustainable and liveable footing. The challenge, however, it is to implement policies that stimulate such transport use.

Do you think, as some observers argue, that smart technology, big data and autonomous cars will fundamentally remodel the shape and purpose of public urban spaces? 

Again, I think it is unwise to believe the challenges facing urban centres can be solved with a few technologies. City and mobility planning is a complex process that is most successful when it takes account of various aspects of the way we live and move around. Sometimes a new use of already existing technologies can be most effective. A good example is the Randstad Rail between Rotterdam and The Hague. This transport corridor has made it possible to connect two large cities and allow new and existing housing areas in between to flourish by encouraging the use of efficient and easily accessible public transport modes without the need for cars. Another example is the booming of the combined use of bicycles and trains, effectively resulting in a new, hybrid transport system merging the flexibility of the bike with the speed of the train, and altogether quite low environmental impacts. Which isn’t not to say these technologies won’t help, just that we shouldn’t place all our bets on one horse.

The sudden rise of disruptive technologies like Uber and Airbnb seems to have caught policymakers and urban planners off-guard. Doesn’t this show planners have no real part to play in the tech-driven cities of tomorrow?

These technologies caught everyone off-guard, not just policymakers. In a social and economic sense, their impact has been enormous. What they show, most of all, is that the future is fundamentally uncertain. We like to think we can predict what will happen tomorrow, next week or even next year. But that’s a delusion. The process of developing mobility and planning strategies and taking into account all of the possible future scenarios is extremely difficult, if not nearly impossible.

The only way to be able to deal with future scenarios is to build flexibility into the planning process itself. In other words, if you want to know the future, try to make it. This is why many urban planners are experimenting with different ways of moving people around and testing new concepts for redesigning urban spaces. The idea is to try various things – if one experiment turns out a failure, you discard it and try again. This is for instance what the city of Amsterdam is doing at the moment by trying by experimenting with different ways of using urban streets, or by experimenting with different types of urban mobility services.