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New district creation: Part One of our Venice Sustainability 2023 report

Above: aerial view of Venice's historic port district, dusk September 2023

There have been widescale reports in the news of the damaging effect of cruise ships to Venice and its lagoon and more recently to Amsterdam, along with questions to be answered on solving the problem of over-tourism in both cities. There is also dialogue on how port cities can expand sensitively, how they are re-designed to make use of available land and what uses these new port districts will have in the future.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's Port-Cities Programme aims to identify how ports can be assets for urban development. It states that the link between port and city growth has become weaker in recent times and is comparing policies to answer the question on how ports can regain their role as drivers of urban economic growth and how can negative port impacts be mitigated.

Venice has worked to mitigate the harmful effects of cruise ships mooring close to the city centre in the old port, moving them further out to the industrial port of Marghera, but 'wash' from these large vessels is still harming the natural structure and habitat of the lagoon. Future Cities Forum in Venice last week looked at the development of new districts both in cities and at sea ports. Leading insurance and real estate company Generali hosted the forum at the Procuratie Vecchie, San Marco along with The Human Safety Net, and the discussions ranged from mixed-use developments in Milan to the emerging innovation district plans for the old port of Venice.

Commercial activity has now been largely moved to Marghera, away from the traditional and older port of Venice, allowing architects and planners to consider whether this abandoned port area could be re-developed. Professor Jacopo Galli, who works for Universita luav di Venezia and also the Venice Sustainability Foundation, described the opportunities ahead for the city to expand its research capability and student population through a new building project at the old port of Venice:

'In Venice, we are considering how building can take place in the 'most ancient city of the future' as we term it. We hope it will be a city of sustainability. There is a willingness to keep public and private companies thinking and working together on this. There are lots of possibilities . We now have fifty members in the Venice Sustainability Foundation and one of its purposes is construction projects, to change parts of the city. The first project that I am working on is a new Venice city campus. Our analysis of the city with its current conditions, is that it is a city of tourism, a city of production in Marghera and also a city of culture - which should develop together.

'So our proposal is that we should operate on the basis of being a city of culture but construct a new piece of city with an enlarged population. This would allow the city to showcase its culture but also be an active producer of culture. In this new piece of city (on the land of the old port) as we expand the university activities, we will encourage more professors and students to study and work there.

'What will this place - the new piece of city - look like? We want it to look like Venice, but better. Many historical areas in the city of Venice are empty. Part of the function of this new campus at the old port is to develop another part of the city, a new edge of the city, constructing a new border. There will be housing on the campus for both the general population to meet the current housing crisis but also for students. There will be much needed public services too.

'Tourism brings money to Venice but the needs of people who live in the city are different and need to be met in a more balanced way. Some cities in Europe have a 20 to 50 per cent student population but in Venice it is only 8 per cent, so we need students to come and live/study from all over the world. In a sense, Venice is an open campus where we can learn from the historical city not only in architectural terms but with the sustainability problems we face. We have the greatest opportunity now to re-balance our economy and place.'

Above: aerial view of CityLife Milan (courtesy ZHA for Generali Real Estate)

Future Cities Forum wanted to find out if there were similarities in the design of new city districts, what challenges they face and are there lessons that can be traded between coastal city district development and land-bound urban regeneration?

Paolo Micucci, CEO of CityLife (Milan) and Generali Real Estate's Head of Engineering and Project Management, who joined our panel discussions in Venice, commented on achieving the right balance for mixed-use developments across new city districts for sustainability, health and wellbeing.

Covering an area of 366,000 sqm, CityLife is one of the most important urban redevelopment projects in Europe, a balanced mix of private and public services including a business hub, a shopping district, a residential area and a huge public park which, with its 173,000 sqm and over 2,000 trees, represents a place which allows leisure-time walking and connections with nature. An entirely pedestrian area, CityLife boasts a futuristic underground traffic and parking system, which is unique in Italy.

At the heart of CityLife is the CityLife Business & Shopping District, the three iconic business towers designed by world-famous architects Zaha Hadid, Arata Isozaki, Daniel Libeskind, and 100 shops, services and restaurants facing the public park. Two new buildings connected by a wave shaped photovoltaic roof and designed by Bjarke Ingels, will complete the skyline and bring the Business District up to 200,000 sqm gross lettable area (GLA).

CityLife residences are Class A certified, in accordance with the project's focus on environmental sustainability. The use of renewable energy sources, as well as the choice of insulating materials, ensure very low energy consumption with the utmost respect for the environment.

Above: opening panel at 'Sustainable Cities' at the Procuratie Vecchie - with (from right) Generali Real Estate's Paolo Micucci, Heather Fearfield of FUTURE CITIES FORUM, Professor Jacopo Galli of Universita luav di Venezia and Keb Garavito Bruhn of Pilbrow & Partners

Paolo Micucci told the forum:

'I am not the keeper, as Alexia Boro of The Human Safety Net suggested, but I was the project manager for the Procuratie Vecchie restoration and development. I am also responsible for all Generali's project management activities round Europe. CityLife in Milan is special not because of size, or the artists involved, or the architects we commissioned including Daniel Liebskind and Bjark Ingels. To have successful development is not just (choosing)'the asset class, rather the most important thing is to create a great quality of life.

'The people are the centre, and you need to provide what is needed for their quality of life. However, this was very much affected by Covid-19. We are using the home and the office differently now. Before we spent less time at home but now we need different spaces - bigger balconies, more comfort and services nearby and to be close to nature. It is important to escape from traffic and pollution and be near greener spaces. We have been lucky as the CityLife concept is based on the park.

'We spend less time in the office - post Covid-19 - but that time needs to be higher quality with better communication. This needs more flexible areas and spaces for collaboration. The pandemic also accelerated energy transition. Now we are trying to be less dependent on other countries for energy supply, and we are working on reducing energy consumption. In keeping with Generali's values as a leading insurance company, we insist on reducing carbon in our buildings and real estate portfolio.'

Above: CGI of EDGE London Bridge - courtesy Pilbrow & Partners

Architectural practice, Pilbrow & Partners, has been working on designs for new office provision next to London Bridge Station with the Dutch developer EDGE. Both have been concerned about the health and wellbeing of the site and the opportunity it can give to the community. Pilbrow partner Keb Garavito Bruhn joined our panel discussion to explain how important 'porosity' is in design of buildings and districts and he was also able to refer to his experience of designing housing in former industrial river city sites.

He said:

'We are at a crucial time post Covid when we have all be re-evaluating our world and asking how we can develop cities in a different way. The office building development at London Bridge is EDGE's first project in the UK and as a developer it has brought a breath of fresh air. The elements of the design have almost anticipated the issues that have been brought up by the pandemic. The world needs better buildings and I am very interested in this idea of 'porosity'. How can an institutional porosity enable the social and economic needs of the wider community?

'One of the most important elements is to recognise the position of any new building in the site allocated to it. The EDGE building will be a high rise but there is a methodology behind that - it recognises the wider sustainability in terms of density and being near a significant transport hub. I was reminded flying out of London to this conference in Venice how low density London is. There is much higher density across Europe, but we cannot re-imagine London on the Paris or Berlin model, it is not possible.

The site of the EDGE building was a former government detention centre but it had a small community garden and we immediately wondered whether we could make that more generous and permeable. Could we work with the charity that owned it and produce a more generous green vision for the site, working with schools and businesses to provide access? This would give the commercial client a new vision. We wanted to design the building to allow schools to hold their annual plays in it and also provide space for local business use, so open the ground floor areas up to the public.

'We also wanted a new vision for housing on the Greenwich Peninsula where there is much of London's industrial heritage. There had been a masterplan by Terry Farrell but we wanted to re-evaluate the architecture of the site and look at how the green space worked. There was a blunt arrangement of open space and we wanted the housing to feel as if it was not built in a windswept place. The community wanted to feel more comfortable using it and the original features of the industrial piers on site were also used for community relaxation.

Future Cities Forum would like to thank the Venice Sustainability Forum, Generali and Pilbrow & Partners for bringing their expertise and ideas to our discussions on city district design, workplace and retail re-development as well as place-making provision.


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