Back in the past, the future looked a whole lot different from now. Mainly, we thought it would involve flying cars. And maybe a couple of jetpacks. These days, however, visions of our future cities don’t tend to feature all that many cars at all, be they airborne or not.

Homo Urbanus

Instead, when we think about how our cities will cope with a continued influx of people – it’s expected that two-thirds of the global population will be living in an urban environment by 2050 – combined with a whole plethora of challenges and risks resulting from climate change, it’s other ideas that come to the foreground.

In Amsterdam, a lot of the thinking revolves around what kind of urban planning encourages strong community bonds and healthy, balanced lifestyles. These lifestyles are determined by a variety of factors: housing, work, transport and free time. Another aspect is, of course, how to make the process of creating all the new buildings that are so desperately needed less wasteful.

Future-proofing

How do you future-proof a city? “We want to guide and also challenge our clients’ brief, and ask: ‘Is this really what is good for society? Is it good for the planet, is it good for the city? What value does the development bring to the people and the city?’” says Ren Yee.

Yee is head of innovation strategy and forecasting at cutting-edge – and globally acclaimed – Amsterdam architecture firm UNStudios, whose local projects include the newly arising Booking.com campus beside Central Station.

With this job, Yee spends quite a lot of his time thinking about what our future cities might look like. “We want to design future-proof buildings and we want to future proof the environment,” he says. “Increasingly, you have to bring in as much cross-disciplinary knowledge and stakeholders as you can into it. We need to think out of the box, literally, and we need to think long term together.”

Building for flexibility – and community

Office design is a good example. Instead of planning for a set number of desks spread over a set amount of square metres, there are wider-ranging aspects to consider. Planners need to “anticipate how devices will change the way people work in the future, how work patterns in the office will affect where people are.” Flexibility is the magic word when it comes to accommodating different possibilities. This can be as simple as not having too many electric conduits inside walls. “We question the cost of making an inflexible space.”

Other requirements may change too. According to Yee, there’s a shift away from open-plan offices – “people don’t want to work in open-plan offices; there’s no sense of space ownership and it can be very noisy.” But at the same time, there is an interest in adding a sense of community to the workplace. “People may prefer to feel that there’s a sense of a city happening inside the building,” says Yee. “What they do not want to feel is that they enter at 9:00 and they leave at 18:00 and their only contact is with people related to the company. They want to feel that they have access to the community – that they’re in touch with the community.”

Giving ground-floor spaces of office buildings more public functions is one of the ways this can be achieved. The aim is to create “a sense of vibrancy that you cannot create in a workspace that is only composed by people from that office.” In short, “the idea of mixed-use developments is getting more and more popular – so that a building is not mono-functional. It doesn’t feel like it’s alive during working hours and it goes dead after.”

How to build community spirit

And if you get it right, it works both ways: “The building has a lot of effect on the city,” says Yee. Perhaps unsurprisingly, multi-functional developments that include workplaces, housing and public spaces are an important part of the City of Amsterdam’s award-winning Structural Vision 2040 programme, which states that “various monofunctional business parks will be transformed into areas with an urban mix of residential and business functions.”  

The problem with trying to create intangible states such as ‘vibrancy’ and ‘liveliness’ is that like at a party, too much planning can destroy the vibe. How can you avoid the soullessness of pre-arranged fun, i.e. an artificially created community spirit? Get the guests involved, of course. Yee mentions Amsterdam’s Buiksloterham neighbourhood north of the IJ as a prime example of “how planners try to approach planning in a more inclusive manner. It’s quite an interesting project, because the municipality has tried to see if there’s a new way of designing a city – one that is much more participatory, much more citizen-engaged and open for innovative ideas to be implemented.”

There were certain preconditions – mainly relating to a focus on circularity and other sustainability efforts – but “the way they plan it is by creating a framework instead of a top-down masterplan.” The City’s attitude in Buiksloterham, he says, is “we are open, we’re learning by doing; we want to invite people who live here, who work here, but also companies with new technologies and ideas and concepts to come and try it out.”

Clean ships

Two initiatives within the Buiksloterham project in particular have garnered a lot of attention, and in both of them, the architecture, urban planning and concept development company Space & Matter has played a major part. Schoonschip is a residential area consisting of self-sufficient homes floating on the River IJ, equipped with solar panels and heated with water pumps. The project was initiated by the current residents, and ‘translated’ and supervised by Space & Matter and a team of consultants. The first 26 homes are in place, and by the time Schoonschip is expected to be completed, it will include 46 homes for more than 100 residents.

The second project, De Ceuvel, is a sustainable workplace for social and creative enterprises. Located on a former shipyard, it features office space, a sustainable café, a cultural venue and a floating bed-and-breakfast. Everything is as eco-friendly as possible; plants purge the soil of contaminants and sewage waste is stripped of nutrients and used to create biogas, while heat exchangers capture and recycle warm air escaping from the offices. 

Ripple effects

Schoonship was initiated and designed by its residents, and De Ceuvel, too, has closely involved the people who now work and spend time there. Space & Matter co-founder Tjeerd Haccou is enthusiastic about the way De Ceuvel has changed its community, talking in a previous interview with I amsterdam about “the impact it’s had not just on local residents, but also on local policy, local businesses and the local mindset, as it encouraged people to embrace the principles of the circular economy.”

Haccou believes that communities can be created and encouraged by smart planning and new ideas. “We really believe that if you see each other a lot and really know your neighbours, especially in a place like Amsterdam, you get a better city. And so we promote that with the design of our buildings. We call it ‘community building’ because we are building a community while building for the community.”

Innovation as business model for a shiny future

Yee sees Buiksloterham as a reflection of the city’s general interest in innovation. “I think Amsterdam has a very, very healthy innovation climate – a climate that promotes urban innovations while the City is also being very transparent. The fact that they are affiliated to the Amsterdam Smart City platform is a good example. And Amsterdam supports a bottom-up approach. There are a lot of interesting ideas floating around.”

The interest in innovation is partnered with a healthy entrepreneurial spirit, thinks Yee. “Amsterdam is also interesting because they are aware, and this is maybe the Dutch mentality, they are aware of the importance of business – of viable business models. You need the business side, too. And I think Amsterdam is very well aware of that. It’s a very exciting climate, I feel, that’s happening here.”

And it may not harbour as many flying cars as previously hoped, the future still looks shiny.