Future Cities Forum's Infrastructure 2021 discussion highlights
Grimshaw design for Shenzhen Airport, Terminal One - based on the Mangrove tree
Future Cities Forum held its May 'Infrastructure 2021 - Innovation, sustainability and transport hubs' forum with Chief Commercial Officer of Zurich Airport, Stefan Gross, Transport for London's Head of City Planning, Alex Williams, Leader of Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council, Cllr Ian Courts, Newcastle City Council's Head of Transport, Graham Grant, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners' Partner Andrew Tyley, Managing Partner of Volterra Partners, Ellie Evans, Partner at Grimshaw, Jolyon Brewis and Costain's Head of Business Development (Transportation), Andrea Green.
The discussion - which took into account the devastating losses to air travel revenue due to Covid-19 - looked at the following:
the balance of investment between long-distance and local travel needs
healthcare services and hospitals as anchors for transport hubs,
the need for transport infrastructure to stay flexible for long term growth and relevance to communities
how data could be used to improve inclusivity across transport networks
The pandemic has meant the loss of revenue for airports such as Zurich International where the construction of 'The Circle' - a conference and health centre for international travellers with retail and restaurants is being completed. The airport is hoping to attract its full complement of travellers as lockdown lifts. Despite that local residents continue to provide income for the airport.
However, Stefan Gross, CCO at Zurich International Airport, admitted that in the planning they may have missed a trick by not considering how the airport could become a centre for broader cultural activities and that this was being considered in future plans:
'We realise we might have made a mistake, underestimating the need for other leisure and entertainment activities at the airport. We should have provided more space for communities to meet...we have been too corporate...too logical ..and we are considering cheaper spaces or for free to allow this to happen We have now found out that the e-gaming community and young start ups want to have hubs and meeting spaces to bond - gravitation points...not just to go to the pub. Post lockdown we are also facing a loneliness problem in society.'
Zurich International Airport has also been advising the Delhi Naidoo airport in India, on constructing a new and major health hub. As Stefan said, there needs to be activity at airports rather than just a plain piece of infrastructure:
'Airports are expensive infrastructure developments but with good connectivity, so it is logical to place health facilities in these environments and not just rely on the car to get you to hospital. So we are not just planning a hotel or meeting rooms but a health hub and this is important for governments and local authorities where everyone wants a benefit and to give something to everyone.'
Jolyon Brewis of Grimshaw stated that airports should become a 'piece of the city' and need to remain flexible for future growth.
'We are probably seeing more similarities than differences across the world in terms of development of airports. There is always a strong interest in sustainability across the airport estate, including looking at airports as pieces of city and moving away from the airport outside the city. They are assets for people living in cities. Zurich has been a leader in that respect for decades as it is used by the people of Zurich which is something that impressed me 20 years ago when I worked on a project there, but it has taken time for the UK to get on board because of planning rules which are thankfully changing now.''
Should airports look at their cultural offers for the in-bound traveller as London City is starting to do, through art work displays by leading artists?
Andrew Tyley of RSH+P stated that 'nations are defined by their portals of entry - they set the benchmark of experience as you travel onwards - and they have an important part in defining our nation's character:
'There is no difference in China where we are working on Terminal 4 at Shenzhen Airport, they are portals - but they are also connections for communities. Density issues are the same for China or the UK and all transport infrastructure needs to remain relevant to communities.'
Cllr Ian Courts (Leader of Solihull MBC) described the necessity of keeping all parts of developing infrastructure and community facilities in play and has been heartened by the release of land recently from HS2:
'We don't know what will emerge after the pandemic, or what will attract people to city centres, so we have to stay flexible with our visions, but we do know that people will travel for experiences. We don't have an airport in Solihull but I want to make sure that we have a transport system to and from Birmingham Airport just 15 minutes away. I also want to build an education and employment hub in our centre and a health campus and hospital which will change the face of healthcare in the West Midlands. Solihull does need connecting up and I want the airport, town centre and business parks all connected up. With HS2 it is all taking shape, as they have released land for development, but we still need government support for the hospital'.
TfL's Alex Williams described how he felt people had enjoyed rediscovering their local areas but with the lockdown release they feel it is time to re discover the centre of London:
'We have half of our normal ridership levels pre pandemic and that's even before workers come back to offices. I think everyone wants to get back to some sort of normality. The big question mark is over the return to office full time. Boroughs are re-investing more in town centres, public realm, and hospitality offers which is good and our investment in the widening of pavements in local areas, are really keeping those spaces going. After all they have been a bit unloved over the last few decades. We won't know till the autumn whether commuters will come back to the office full time but this is something that we will be tracking. '
The issue of what we have learned from the pandemic and how we come out of lockdown with improved plans for integrated transport was taken up by Andrea Green of Costain:
'I think we need to think about integrated cities rather than zoning where business or living takes shape separately. This approach has been accelerated by Covid-19 and there is a move to help people make better transport choices. Integrated ticketing is an example of how to make journeys simpler and more connected and that goes across the population from helping to create a fair system for the disabled to women feeling safer at night. At Costain we are experimenting with avatars to predict future needs around integrated transport hubs'.
Ellie Evans of Volterra Partners described how difficult it is to plan for the future, using current data for future needs, but stated that flexibility in the planning system is a must:
' Economists won't be correct - we can't measure everything - but there is more flexibility coming into the planning system which will make it more resilient. There are still wider issues around equality groups and assessment methodologies are still based on the 'white male', so there needs to be a more detailed baseline exercise early on in the planning process to understand what communities want which will lead to more fully inclusive infrastructure.'
In Newcastle, Graham Grant (from the City Council) observed that because of the pandemic people have started to value their time differently and this is across both the young and old and is changing people's ideas about the commute and where they want to live. He remarked that we are trying to make these decisions on a future that isn't yet written:
'We have talked about the pandemic as a chance for change over the way the city operates. We have tried to steer towards more sustainable transport like buses but already traffic is at an increase on pre-pandemic levels. People are worried about taking the bus when there is no need to be and sustaining the business modal around that is difficult to manage. London's bounce back will be different to ours in Newcastle and investment in intra-city travel will create the biggest difference for us because at the moment it is still three hours to get to Birmingham, which eventually HS2 will change.'
Watch out for more comment and research in our full report on this fascinating and important discussion for city development, coming soon.