Urban planning adapts to the needs of its times from industrial revolution to modernity; we have aimed to enhance development at an accelerated rate. We wanted more and bigger cities developed for cars and the ultimate technology. Facing the consequences of climate change, we now feel the urgency to understand our relationship with the materials and resources that make our societies work, which means slowing down our processes and building an innovative and conscious connection with the environment. But how can we continue an accelerated rate of living sustainably?
To transform growth dynamics at a medium-term, the European Commission implemented the European Green Deal as part of a plan to make the EU’s economy sustainable “by turning climate and environmental challenges into opportunities and making the transition just and inclusive for all. “(European Commission) The deal puts growth as a priority; the idea is for this new growth strategy to “give back more than it takes away.”
One of the Green Deal’s action plans is to “boost the efficient use of resources by moving to a clean, circular economy,”(European Commission) an action plan that primarily targets cities as regions that are both the producers of environmental footprints and spaces with the potential to develop a global sustainable development. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, cities play a leading role in implementing a Green New deal as today account for about 75% of the world’s CO2 emissions.
The Green New Deal has decided to bet for implementing a circular economy as it seems to be a responsible way forward to relate to our consumption and production habits, especially in cities. In a joint effort to reduce CO2 emissions, theorists, civil societies, NGOs, governments, and supra governmental institutions started adopting more circular measures.
Even if circularity is not a new term, it has popped up more and more in recent years. It forms part of a group of concepts such as resiliency, sustainability, and climate change that can transform the way we think about nature and resources as much as they can become buzzwords. Circularity refers to a transformation in how our societies relate to materials; the aim is to generate a cycle or value chain that prevents waste.
From self-destructive to self-sustaining
According to Francesca Zannotto, any production process and decision made brings waste as a consequence, “waste is a basic, unavoidable part of the metabolism of reality” (Zanotto,2020). Human needs at the pace our societies have reached consume a high volume of resources and produce lots of waste. As Zanotto describes, we face the contradiction of having waste at the center. Our everyday life consumption and domestic presence erode resources and leave debris.
Moving to a clean circular economy would mean to think clearly of the physical dimension of waste and resources while at the same time influence behaviors that foster circular practices. The Green New Deal plans to tackle the contradictions of waste vs. human existence by focusing on the circular economy, creating a synergy in which governance meets design and, most notably, urban design. The deal would bring changes not only to infrastructure but also to practice, but is this enough?
The circular economy action plan includes investment in environmentally-friendly technologies, supporting industry innovation, implementing cleaner, safer and healthier forms of transportation, decarbonizing energy, ensuring buildings are more energy-efficient and improving global environmental standards with international partners.
By principle, a circular economy aims to close loops, extend the life cycle of objects, and implement business models for circular and climate-neutral consumption. However, all this can be supported by creating thriving, resilient communities through new sharing, co-owning & managing cities’ resources. The transition to clean energies involves normative in creating products and their life-long cycles and people and their everyday life consumptions and practices.
The supranational focus on circular economies would validate efforts from civil society and governments to implement circular practices. However, as stated above, it remains primarily a task for cities and municipalities to think and implement circular practices. For instance, the Green City Accord is a policy initiative derived from the European Green Deal to fund the implementation of techniques for clean and healthy cities for Europe, with a €1.8 trillion package to put regions and cities at the core for a green, digital and resilient recovery.
The European Union’s efforts in a complex topic such as reducing carbon footprint have their caveats. There has been a proposal to think beyond the so-called technocratic approach to thinking of a Circular Society, not only a Circular Economy, meaning that the transformational change emphasizes the social perspective, addresses the long-needed systemic transformation, and reshapes the balance between techno-, eco-, and sociosphere. (Calisto, F. M, 2020) This approach thinks of a systemic change that implements self-sustaining dynamics to reach a mid-term scale transformative cycle.
Contemporary challenges have proven the importance of rethinking the growth pace that our societies have developed in recent years, especially in cities. To achieve that, efforts like Europe’s Green Deal propose a platform for design to meet policy, this might translate in an efficient way to redesign our relationship with waste and consumption through sustainable practices such as Circular Economy. Cities will be the main target for this transformation since they are both centers of hazard and opportunity, the next questions rely on how circularity can be part of not only the economy but also society and the city system as a whole, involving its citizens and their practices.
A European Green Deal. Striving to be the first climate-neutral continent
Calisto, F. M., Vermeulen, W. J. V., & Salomone, R. (October 01, 2020). A typology of circular economy discourses: Navigating the diverse visions of a contested paradigm. Resources, Conservation & Recycling, 161.
EU Circular Economy Action Plan. A new Circular Economy Action Plan for a Cleaner and More Competitive Europe.
You may have seen the famous see-through public toilets in Japan. The stalls made of transparent coloured glass show the inside of a bathroom and turn opaque when locked. Challenging the privacy of what a toilet represents, these toilets aim to be inviting by showing people how clean the toilets are. But why would designers put so much effort into designing a toilet? Why should we care?
When we think of inclusive public space, a toilet is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. We tend to avoid public restrooms until we need one, but they can tell us a lot about accessibility. Toilets are as crucial as wide sidewalks, ramps or seating because being able to use a bathroom translates into the ability to use a fundamental piece of infrastructure for community building, leisure and amenity in cities.
When did we start thinking of public toilets?
Necessary hygienic regulations which are now an essential part of our everyday life were not always like this, before the widespread use of indoor plumbing and city hygiene before 1750 public toilets didn’t exist. It was until modernity, cities, and when public life became relevant that local planners enforced hygienic measures and architects decided to consider toilets in building design. European cities started discussing public hygiene as a result of diseases such as the plague, cholera, or typhoid; these transmitted faster in densely populated areas like industrial cities. It was until the relegation of women to the household, and men’s ability to move between the public and the private sphere that society segregated toilets. Social segregation also influenced the hygienic division by class, gender and ethnicity marking degrees of exclusivity, not only between men and women but also, between rich and poor, and black and white. The so-called ‘racial hygiene’ was a racist approach to hygiene where people couldn’t use the same toilets. For instance, black people had to use bathrooms located outside of buildings.
Toilet infrastructure stands out as spaces where the public meets the private sphere and therefore unveils a broad spectrum of needs which designers should consider. The most evident are gender needs. Standing infrastructure, for instance, might be cheaper but it only considers males. Women who might need a clean seat or shelter find it more challenging to find a toilet on the street that can fulfill their needs.
The transgender and non-binary population also suffer from sex segregation. The architect Joel Sanders identified the lack of attention that other architects, designers and planners gave to the subjective experience of a gay man in public toilets, and therefore the experience of many others in the LGBTQ community who often don’t feel safe in the bathroom they are assigned.
But gender is not the only limitation in the provision of public toilets. Older people need to use a bathroom more often than their younger peers, to the extent that they could plan their routes around toilet accessibility. Besides the infrastructure older adults’ needs are more complex; they might need toilet handles, some might ride a wheelchair and need more spacious stalls too.
Toilet infrastructure shouldn’t be a luxury, since it covers one of the most basic needs, especially for the less abled bodies. Disabilities translate into a list of gadgets that fully-abled users might not even think about like adult-size changing boards, accessible seats, wide stalls, no stairs, and even running water. This lack of infrastructure silently pushes some social groups out of the public space by limiting its accessibility. The topic is not as widely discussed because of the level of privacy and individual experience it involves.
Toilet provision around the world
Sanitation is one of the biggest challenges in developing countries. In some places, the provision of public toilets doesn’t come from the local authorities, but users rely on commerce, bars, restaurants, gas stations or public buildings to use a bathroom. This private toilet provision not only cannot guarantee appropriate infrastructure but also relies on the will of private parties to grant access making them potentially inaccessible. Australian cities like Brisbane, for example, have proven exceptional standards for public toilet provision. They mapped the existing toilets, added changing tables and broadened the space.
In contrast, cities in developing countries like Mexico City don’t have public toilet infrastructure provided by the local government at all. Sanitation becomes a challenge in this city because public urination is considered a felony but local authorities don’t offer public restrooms.
Who is talking about toilets nowadays?
There are pressing conversations around public toilets, and there are several proposals concerning their desirable features. Proposals aim to achieve toilets which are:
Flexible: toilets that are easy to move
Stalled! is an initiative which “takes as its point of departure national debates surrounding transgender access to public restrooms to address an urgent social justice issue: the need to create safe, sustainable and inclusive public restrooms for everyone regardless of age, gender, race, religion and disability”. Their approach is to design guidelines and prototypes on how toilets can be more inclusive, this together with lectures and workshops, writings and interviews.
Nette toilette: German cities launched the “Nette toilette” (nice toilet). In this project, retailers and restaurateurs provide a bathroom for public use free of charge, for which they receive an expense allowance from the city. This way, local governments use already existing infrastructure and guarantee public toilet provision. Restaurants and shops can join the program, and the local authorities evaluate the accessibility and conditions of the provided toilets.
WeCo: The city of Saint-Étienne, France, offers the first flushing toilets which are both ecological and architect-designed, promoting the environmental transition of public sanitation. Wesco’s “flush toilets recycle the wastewater which is transformed into clean water and fertilizer or fuel thanks to energy-saving technology”. Beyond the sustainable approach, WeCo provides urban shelters with comfortable and spacious cabins. Their optimized dimensions and the absence of connection to the water network facilitate their repeated removal and assembly, making them easy to move from one place to another.
Cities should not only ensure public toilet provision but also think of its design and scope for the use and enjoyment of public space. Denying someone access to a bathroom is denying access to cities.
question of how we will inhabit cities after COVID-19 has popped amongst most
urban planners, as we all question urban dynamics and see the pandemic as an
opportunity to reshape not only the way we inhabit cities, but also how we move
the first images from an isolated Wuhan to the photos of empty streets in New
York, the media have shared powerful images that invite urban enthusiasts to
question the use of street space generally dominated by cars.
disruption of our everyday lives brought a perfect momentum for urbanists to
push forward a sustainable mobility agenda as many people worked from home, micro-mobility
became the only type of mobility for many, and even the World Health Organisation
encouraged people to consider riding bikes and walking whenever feasible.
public transportation and cab services are still considered risky spaces for
infection, local governments decided to pedestrianise streets and broaden bike
lanes in cities such as New York, Berlin, Milan, Bogota, Barcelona, Mexico
City, Paris, Vienna, Sydney and Brussels.
and local governments have described it as a moment for mobility to change, an
approach that is still to be tested once the social distancing restrictions are
lifted, and the use of walking and biking is tested versus motorised
transportation such as motorbikes and cars.
affluence dropped to almost 40% in most major cities; some cities adopted temporary
measures implementing pop-up bike lanes while others fast-tracked bike
paths scheduled in the pre-corona city planning.
mobility adapting to a health crisis
One of the most relevant
examples of city mobility adapted to the health crisis is Paris. The region plans to invest
300 million euros in building 650 kilometres of pop-up and pre-planned
cycleway infrastructure. In an overnight operation
street workers blocked traffic and painted bike icons
streets into safe streets for biking.
lockdown and the decrease in car traffic accelerated the implementation of the
which is part of major Anne Hidalgo’s promise
to turn every street in Paris cycle-friendly by 2024.
introduced 20 kilometres of pop-up bike lanes, as Berlin Roads and Parks
Department official Felix Weisbrich called this a “pandemic-resilient
infrastructure.” As the pandemic has
accelerated the discussions in districts and municipal parliaments, public
officials can push for urban infrastructure to be implemented
ata faster speed than what the bouroucratic procedure would usually take.
city of Milan implemented the “Strade
Aperte” plan which contemplated the
transformation of 35
kilometres of city streets into either pedestrian or cyclists roads. The
Italian government issued bike-friendly traffic rules and promised people in
bigger cities to provide a subsidy of up to 60 per cent of the price for the
purchase of bicycles and e-scooters, up to a maximum of 500 euros.
planned to build a total of 40 kilometers of new cycle lanes.
While the British government announced an
emergency plan of 250 million pounds
set up pop-up bike lanes, safer junctions and cycle-only corridors.
Bogotá is one of the cities with the largest pop-up cycling lanes expansion
during the pandemic crisis as the city implemented 80km of temporary in-street
bikeways to supplement 550 km existing bike paths.
pop-up infrastructure like removable tape and mobile signs not only makes it
easier for people riding bikes to keep self-distancing,
but it also encourages people who would not cycle regularly to explore new ways
of transportation in a more comfortable space.
What about cars?
adaptation to COVID-19 is not always sustainable and resilient. The sanitary
measures present a risk as cars represent a tool for isolated mobility.
Car-centric cities may continue to be so as car use increases.
there is a higher demand for activities to restart under social distancing
conditions, many cities in Europe started embracing drive-in culture not only
for food but also for churches, cinemas and even concerts.
of drive-in entertainment alternatives take place in the outskirts of cities as
it is the case in Lithuania and Denmark. German car cinemas became
popular near Cologne, and the city of Schüttorf close to the border of Germany
and the Netherlands hosted a party in a drive-in club where the performer
invited people to “honk if they were having a good
the United States, famous for its drive-in culture, a strip club continued operation under this new modality that would allow people to
keep distance as the attendees stayed inside their cars.
drive-ins help entertainment industries to cope with the closures imposed by
the sanitary restrictions, there is a risk, especially in the suburbs, to
develop an even more motorised culture and a lifestyle that is more dependable
What can urban planning learn from past epidemics?
of the first examples of a city adapting to an epidemic is the cholera outbreak
mapped by John Snow which encouraged cities to
establish higher hygiene standards and prompted the relevance of statistical
data in city planning.
more recent outbreaks like the case of SARS epidemic that affected cities in
China, South East Asia and Canada highlighted the vulnerability of dense cities
to become arenas for a fast spread of the virus. Although
the use of public transportation was reduced in cities like Taipei, -the daily
ridership of public transportation decreased to 50% during
the peak of the 2003 SARS period– there is no significant evidence of a shift
toward sustainable transportation. The SARS epidemic provided
more examples of social control and exceptionalism than examples of sustainable
the case of Covid-19, even if urbanists hope for the outbreak to be a
significant opportunity to design more sustainable cities in the “new
normality”, and car sales have drastically dropped, there is hope in the car
industry for sales to rise once the distance regulations
are eased since people will opt for a car to comply with social distancing
Korea and China the fears of contracting the Coronavirus have already shown an
increase in the sales of cars and in the United States, according to the IBM study on Consumer Behavior Alterations, “More
than 20 percent
of respondents who regularly used buses, subways or
trains now said they no longer would, and
another 28 percent said they will likely use public transportation less often.”.
addition, they claim that “more
than 17 percent of people surveyed said that they intend to use their personal
vehicle more as a result of COVID-19, with approximately 1 in 4
saying they will use it as their exclusive mode of transportation
going forward.” .
this matter, public transportation might be the most affected in terms of
revenue, New York City metro system reported its worst
financial crisis as their ridership decreased by 90%, while London Underground
put one quarter of its staff in furlough as it has only been used at a 5% of
its capacity for the past months. Even
after the social distancing measures are eased, public transport might be
considered more hazardous than other means of transportation
and be the most affected financially.
Can city mobility restart in a resilient way?
the biggest part of the crisis has passed and we
will inhabit cities with eased
sanitary restrictions is still uncertain whether
mobility patterns will be affected in a permanent way. Further data will show
the coronavirus pandemic did encourage the creation of instruments for the
implementations of sustainable mobility or it perpetuated a car centered approach.
far, at a medium-term, the relevance of longer-trips has
been questioned, and work from home acquired
significance as an alternative to commutes. Trips are expected to be carried
out mostly by walking, cycling and driving a personal car
and the investment in cycling infrastructure will remain as a long-term outcome
of this pandemic.
outcomes of this experience can also have a long-term impact
as they will be documented
in guidelines and the experience will set a precedent for critical and
resilient responses for local governments.
For instance, the guide for temporary bike lanes
titled “Making a safe space for cycling in 10 days”, developed by the consultancy
Mobicon, delineates what should the first relevant action should
to keep safe distance while boosting more sustainable commutes.
restoration of activities in dense cities might not bring an
automatic radical change in mobility behaviour and policy but,
despite the circumstances, life under social distancing became an
actual experimental period that many urbanists have dreamed
of and many citizens had not experimented before.
relevant question now is whether we will be able to maintain partially closed
streets and broader bike lanes after lockdown restrictions are lifted once
cities get through this moment, hoping for planners, public officials and
citizens to recognise the perks of having more room and infrastructure for
Ursula moved to Berlin to work as a UX
developer four years ago, going through the excruciating process of finding a
place to live. Her journey went from unfortunate situations in flatshares to
short stay apartments. In March 2020 she experienced her last move in the
middle of a pandemic to a studio apartment where 51% of her income will be
spent in rent. After four years in the city, she realised that every time she
went on a flat hunt, prices would have doubled and opportunities were more
Even if Berlin rents are not amongst the most expensive in European cities, the Global Residential Cities Index reported that in the past five years Berlin rent prices rose by 69%. As a measure to mitigate what is considered a housing crisis, the German capital Senate approved a rent cap law that aims to freeze prices at the cost registered on June 18, 2019, for the next five years. A measure that aims to benefit 3.1 millions Berliners who are home renters and represent 85% of the city’s population.
The path towards an example of how rent
control can benefit tenants and relieve a housing crisis is still to be defined,
since the controversial law is yet to be approved by the federal constitutional
court. Landlord associations and investors count on the federal government to
declare it unconstitutional as they argue it violates the freedom of the market
and the right to make a profit.
After the fall of the wall in 1989, Berlin was
considered to be ‘reborn’ thanks to the 1990’s urban underground cultures. The
so-called creative class played an essential role in the local urban
restructuring process that ended up having the city mayor describing Berlin as
“poor, but sexy” in 2001, when living costs were considered
particularly low amongst world capitals.
From 2010 onwards, the local government pushed
towards a transformation of the city into an inclusive and diverse startup
ecosystem. The traditional working-class and migrant neighbourhoods like
Kreuzberg experienced the consequences translated into a radical change,
tangible in the ethnic composition of the areas.
Like most cosmopolitan cities Berlin faced a
rapid population growth, reaching an average of approximately 40,000 people
moving into the city per year. New contracts and short term rentals allowed
rents to increase, having old Berliners experience one of the most rapid rent
increases in Europe.
According to the Financial Times, in 2001
Berlin had a vacancy rate of 5 per cent; by 2017, that had dropped to 1 per
Rent cap has been amongst the housing
expropriation activist agenda for quite a while. The groups have been expressing
their claims since 2015, based on article 15 of the
German Constitution, which states that land may be transferred to
public ownership for the purpose of nationalisation.
The non-profit Rent-watch (Mietenwatch) registered
that only a few private housing companies control a significant part of the
rental apartment market and thus also influence the price formation on the
market. The rent-watch identified ten housing providers with the most online
offers in the German capital. The property company Deutsche Wohnen alone owns
over 100,000 apartments in Berlin.
The association states that living space is
traded as a commodity as they found out that rent prices depend mostly on the
The non-profit also found that “private
providers hardly rent apartments below 10 € / m²” even if Berlin’s average
rent is of 6.72 €/m² before the establishment of rent control. In addition to
the lease, it is noted that some of these companies charge very high additional
management costs, an average of € 3.98 / m².
While the Federal Statistical office states
that the average Berliner spends 28.2% of its income in rent, Mietenwatch
reported that only 4.4% of apartments are affordable for a single individual, based
on the city’s average monthly income.
does the law actually say?
The law stipulates that rent increases are
banned for the next 5 years except for 1.3 % inflation scheduled for 2022. This
means that old contracts cannot raise their prices, existing tenants can apply
for a rent decrease and new agreements are not allowed to exceed 10% of the
average price which is settled for € 9.80m².
Still to be approved by the federal court,
this law would have effect in November 2020 and will exclude subsidised public
housing and apartments constructed after 2014.
One of the main concerns regarding rent
control is the negative effect it can have on renovations and housing
improvements. The law permits reformations as long as these do not raise the
rent by more than € 0.50 m².
If landlords decide to keep increasing the
rent price, the violation of the law is punished with a fine as high as half a
million euros. The measure may seem drastic, but it contemplates that only 5 %
of the property is owned by small owners, and most property is managed by
The law holds a particular clause for
pensioner households and landlords whose primary source of income is rent. They
can increase the prices if it is proven that they are not making a profit out
The rent cap, however, is more complicated
than only charging €9.80 per square meter. Landlords have until April 15 to
provide tenants with a letter that states their rental conditions such as the
age of the building, energy usage and particular features.
A group of legal experts called Wenigermiete have become relevant actors in the calculation of rents, since they claim that 90% of renters are eligible for a rent reduction. The association developed a free online tool which allows tenants to calculate the potential cost reductions with the implementation of the rent cap.
the local government have the capacity to enforce the law?
Although most Berliners are pro-rent cap,
there is still scepticism on whether the law will actually become effective.
The capability of the local government to enforce the law is put in doubt and
landlords keep trusting a lack of capacity amongst authorities to find and fine
all law violators.
Housing providers turn to the easiest way to
avoid the regulation: renting to foreigners moving to Berlin for the first
time. The floating population enters a hypercompetitive market without
knowledge, time or legal tools and this can lead to desperate measures, making
them both victims and scapegoats for the increase in rent prices.
Experts claim that the lack of capacity to
enforce the rental cap law may lead to the growth of a grey housing market.
What is the current discussion among rent cap detractors?
The owner protection association “Haus und Grund” bet
for the federal government to stop and reverse the law, their main argument is
that this is an “entry into an ever more extensive state intervention
spiral to hide the self-created problems on the housing market”.
Haus und Grund’s opinion coincides with that
of the Christian Democrat party and Berlin-Brandenburg Association (UVB). Their
argument is that rent control will lead to a lack of investment from real
estate developers, housing production will decrease, and existing flats will be
in a deteriorated state.
The rent cap is also criticised by building
and housing cooperatives who claim that it might bring uncertainty in the
market. These groups find that their existence will be threatened since their
user’s fees are already below the market price, and the rent increase is a tool
that allows them to modernise, provide maintenance and build new housing
Amongst the detractors, there is a proposal
for the federal government to create “a fair housing market” by
opening the market to new investment and housing development. However, the
existing housing shortage has already caused Berlin Real Estate investment to
record the highest transaction volume in Europe of around 3.11 billion euros with
private and public funds, followed by Copenhagen with 2.43 billion euros.
In short, the housing shortage is non-exclusive to Berlin; it is experienced in almost any major capital city, the difference is how activists and the government in Berlin decided to deal with it. The establishment of rent control in Berlin opens a relevant discussion for big cities facing gentrification, displacement and excessive rent charges. A rent cap may be only replicable under a similar governmental composition (left-green coalition) and consistent pressure from activist groups. The Berlin case brings to the table a relevant discussion on fair policy and housing provision in cities facing similar problems. Not leaving aside the fact that, even with stringent laws, there is always room for a grey market that puts tenants into hazardous situations. Also, if Berlin managed to set a precedent with this so-called radical regulation, affordable housing might involve a longer process than what it seems.
As for Ursula, if the law is activated, she might be able to reduce her rent to a third of the price she is currently paying.