Covid upheaval is opportunity for city transformation, says Norman Foster

The coronavirus pandemic is an opportunity to spur new-thinking in cities, driven by ‘a step change in public openness to change’, according to architect Lord Norman Foster.

At the ULI Europe Conference held virtually on 9 February, Foster called for the real estate industry and the public sector to work together, with public administrations being prepared to rezone cities in response to shifting work patterns, technology and public expectations.

“What excites me is the prospect of the city becoming greener, quieter, safer, more sociable and more attractive. We can rediscover some of the qualities from the past without the pollution of the past,’ he said.

The architect of Berlin’s Reichstag, Apple’s Californian HQ and Bloomberg’s in London said compact, walkable cities are far more sustainable - and desirable - than their sprawling counterparts, with self-sufficient and distinct neighbourhoods key to their success.

‘Zoning needs to be flexible to deliver the new living and working environments that younger generations are demanding – to allow our cleaner industries to coexist alongside culture, arts, living, working, galleries, cafes and restaurants and to allow buildings to be recycled for new uses.

‘The market will satisfy demands for more self-sufficient neighbourhoods, with less space given over to vehicles, but the private sector needs a degree of partnership with local authorities in terms of zoning.’

Foster said that the potential exists to industrialise housing, ‘to do more with less. There is no reason why there shouldn’t be research programmes devoted to that.’

But he criticised the label ‘affordable’ housing which he said was not helpful. ‘When I was a student, a large part of the housing supply was delivered by civic authorities and was the best of its kind. So the idea of affordable housing being somehow the bottom of the pile? That needs to be reinvented and it could be a civic initiative.’

He continued: ‘(The term) has so many negative connotations, I think it should be banished. We don’t think about going to an affordable restaurant or taking an affordable cab. It is a service and it should not be stigmatised in that way.’

More controversially, the architect championed nuclear energy as the future for cities. ‘Notwithstanding the proliferation and the lowering costs of solar and renewables, nuclear is the only one that can deliver that energy cleanly. Miniaturised sources of energy – a nuclear battery, for example – could power an entire community or a cluster of skyscrapers or desalinise water for 150,000 people,’ he suggested.

Foster, who was interviewed by Rosemary Feenan, head of research at QuadReal Property Group, is currently exploring solutions for the creation of habitations on the Moon and Mars in association with the European Space Agency and NASA.

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