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New Perspectives to New Problems

By February 21, 2023Learnings, News

The changing climate is not a new subject for many of the different communities around the globe. However, the degree of impact for these changes varies with the socioeconomic and political structures, gender, age, and other factors that can produce heightened vulnerability to climate shocks and stresses. While some of these factors might indeed increase vulnerability, those same factors, when seen from a different angle, may also spark innovative solutions. Age for example, is often seen as a clear determinant in vulnerability to shocks and stresses. Yet both ends of the spectrum, the fresh perspective of youth and the wisdom of elders, are clearly beneficial in finding solutions to the increasingly complex problems that face our planet.

Despite this, there are not enough opportunities today to meaningfully incorporate youth voices into decision making and solution finding. University student involvement in design workshops is an underutilized tool that can help find solutions to real-world problems, get fresh but also science based ideas and provide relevant arguments to change current processes. An emerging innovator in the space of higher education climate change engagement is currently making fast progress with a new method that may actually allow the world to benefit from implemented youth ideas: UCCRN_edu.

What is UCCRN_edu?

The Urban Climate Change Research Network for Higher Education (also known as UCCRN_edu) is the educational platform of the international network UCCRN which brings together more than 1,000 experts across the globe to define what “state of the art” urban climate change means with respect to adaptive pathways in planning, governance, and design. UCCRN_edu is one piece of that network which is aimed at the educational space and promotes toolkits, guidelines for climate resilient design, and also intensive study workshops. University students taking part in these Urban Design Climate Workshops (UDCWs) work on real-world climate challenges directly with city practitioners and decision makers in selected pilot cities across Europe. The UDCW format allows the students to lead and relies on them to identify appropriate climate-resilient governance, planning, and design strategies after engaging in knowledge-sharing and co-design exercises with local decision-makers, stakeholders, and communities. This process of learning and design occurs during the workshops themselves as well as during an intensive preparation and post-workshop phase. Active engagement of local communities both before and after gives space to create solutions that are locally informed and fit the context, making them much more likely to be implemented. This focus on active engagement also allows for a lengthy post-workshop implementation and adjustment period so the ideas can truly take hold and be carried forward into actions.

For the workshops, students are invited to attend from nine Higher Education Partner Institutions representing a wide range of physical contexts covering the Mediterranean, Continental and Northern European regions. The workshops typically last 7 days and include a public opening conference as well as a final public critique, in which students present their work to local authorities and communities involved.

So far, the platform has hosted two workshops with a third set to take place in Barcelona in a few months. The workshop series began in the city of Paris in the summer of 2022, followed by a workshop in the city of Aalborg at the end of last year. With the third workshop on its way in Spring of 2023, let’s take a dive into the Aalborg UDCW workshop attended by our students hosted by the Aalborg University Department of Planning in Denmark.

The Aalborg Workshop

The Aalborg workshop’s goal was to create a multidisciplinary and design-oriented solution proposal to support the climate-resilient transformation of the Østervold and Middelalderbyen areas in Randers Denmark, a small municipality outside of Aalborg. The focus throughout the workshop was on the creation of multi-scale design solutions supported by robust climate, environmental, and social analyses conducted in collaboration with local government, practitioners, and communities. This integration of complexity into the analysis is one of the innovations the UCCRN_edu workshops are pioneering with students, and which allows the solutions to be more implementable in the long term.

Another difference in the UCCRN_edu workshop style from most other educational workshops is a simultaneous focus at three different scales throughout the process. At the initial stage of the workshop students are divided into different groups focusing on change at 3 crucial scales when we are planning to adapt to changing climate; 1) The City/Neighbourhood Scale, 2) The Building Scale, and 3) Local Governance, Policy Framework, and Co-Design Approaches. Working at all three scales simultaneously allows for a free flow of information to both inform each other, and create synergy between these scales. The workshop began with a meeting between officials of Rander’s Municipality and the students who gave insights of their visions for the city while also explaining the history and current challenges of the communities in the city. The municipality then organized three guided walks around the town to form the foundation of challenges and possibilities for the students to work on. The community also played an important role in the decision-making process of ideas for the students through various community input sessions held at the local library, through an online survey, and with on-street interviews.

The Three Approaches 

The City/Neighbourhood Scale

This group concentrated on Randers municipality’s macro-scale challenges. They collaborated actively with the other two scales to create a conceptual master plan based on input from municipal planners, data, instructors, and field work. The initial meeting of students with Randers municipality and city officials laid the groundwork for dividing the project into different stages of understanding, evaluating, and ideating in order to align with the city’s vision for the future. They were challenged to rethink the Medieval City Centre and the problems (floods, water management, biodiversity) it is facing as a result of climate change.

The group walks around the city, with officials, provided students with a comprehensive understanding of the context, current developments, and future potential for the area. With this basic understanding, students began analyzing various aspects of the city in order to develop ideas. For example, the analysis software “SCALGO” was used to determine the existing traffic flow, unused spaces, existing green areas, catchment areas, rainwater flow, accumulation points, flooding areas, and heat stresses. This analysis aided in narrowing the ideas down to four main visions: zero-carbon development, biodiversity, connectivity and public space, and water management.

The design of micro-mobility hubs in and around the city center was included in the zero-carbon development plan to limit vehicle entries and promote a low-emission zone that is bicycle and pedestrian friendly. The biodiversity plan included the potential for urban greening with local species to replace the gray cover in the city and reduce heat stress during the summer season. The Connectivity and Public Spaces plan focused on repurposing unused city spaces in both temporary and permanent ways to create vibrant public spaces for people.

The Water Management Plan considered both medium and extreme rainfall events for the city, as well as a former study of water flow, accumulation points, and flooding areas, and proposed retention basins and a green ecosystem system. Later, the ideas were once more examined in the program to determine their utility in the urban fabric. All of the ideas worked in tandem to create a city master plan that addressed both Randers’ mitigation and adaptation strategies.

The Building Scale

This group worked with the urban context analysis done by the former group and focused on three major sites affected and that have the potential for change.

Dytmærsken Bus Terminal, Slotspladsen, Laksetorvet and Odinsgarden were the sites selected for further development. Students tried to address both the urban-level and site-level problems simultaneously and aligned the solutions with the visions of the city master plan.

Working with the information gathered by policy, governance, and co-design group through their engagement with the community, they focused on answers to the question ‘What do you want to change in your city?’. Students focused on these community responses such as “to feel safer” and “make it easier to get around” and came up with solutions aligned with those ideas and desires. The Dytmærsken Bus Terminal which according to the context analysis is a flood-prone area was planned to have a retention basin alongside making it partly self-sufficient by integrating solar panels and a rainwater harvesting system. The green roof and green facade were designed to increase the thermal insulation of the building and contribute to the urban greening scheme.

Slotspladsen, an unused space in the city center, was proposed to be a new recreational space by providing urban furniture which formed a gathering space, pedestrian and biking lanes  increased the connectivity. Vegetation, and green spaces helped increase the attractiveness of the place, and reduce water runoff and heat stresses.

The last site at Laksetorvet and Odinsgarden is a historical building square heavily impacted by flood and was re-designed by the students to create a stepping interactive space that can also act as a retention basin in the event of floods. The proposal suggested creating a space flourishing with vegetation where people can enjoy various activities from sports to cultural events.

Local Governance, Policy Framework, and Co-Design Approaches

This last scale focused on the local governance and policies needed to facilitate and bridge the other group dimensions. The strategies suggested by this group were brainstormed and created to support physical interventions proposed by the other two groups and include interventions across five major themes: A Car Free City, Green Spaces, Water Management, Wayfinding, and Public Engagement. The group also provided a selection of case studies showing how the proposed interventions were implemented in other cities across the globe. Specific policy and governance suggestions were provided for each theme. For the theme of ‘A Car Free City’ for example, the students suggested policies for removing cars from the city center, improving accessible local public transit options, creation of micro-mobility infrastructure including bike/scooter lanes, and updating streetscape requirements among others.

Each theme and the accompanying policy suggestions were created with input and revisions by city staff, politicians, and community so they could appropriately address the local context while also bringing in fresh ideas. Take for example, the policy suggestion to make the city center of Randers a car-free zone: The intention of this suggestion was to show the multiple benefits that could be created simply by reimagining the use of historic streets within the city center as primarily pedestrian. Without demolishing any historic buildings or investing in new land, this policy change would create space currently dedicated to parking for water retention and cleaning solutions such as bioretention cells and urban wetland gardens. This in turn would help the area feel safer for pedestrians and create a more walkable center which could attract visitors to spend more time on the street and perhaps even shop at local small businesses to help generate tax revenue to invest further in the city. Although city planners indicated that this type of policy had been considered years ago, it ended up being too contentious to implement. Knowing this background, the students decided to re-ask the community from an outsider perspective and found that attitudes had changed in the last seven years as the vast majority of interviews and survey results supported a car-free city center. Not the outcome expected by the politicians or planners!

In addition to providing fresh perspectives, all of the intervention themes from Green Spaces to Wayfinding are interconnected and also woven into the solutions proposed by the other student groups. For example, a policy suggestion in the Wayfinding theme is to implement signage for the wetland gardens explaining flooding measures and increasing public awareness of flood risks. These wetland gardens were designed by group two but are only possible if the cars are removed from the city creating space for their implementation.

This collaboration across scales illustrates the range of benefits available when implementing a cohesive vision for a city. It also ensured that students carefully considered the impacts of their suggestions, since each one impacted all the rest it was impossible to isolate and work on a single intervention alone. For this reason, many supporting interventions were suggested by this third group since they supplemented and enabled the site and regional level interventions proposed. More detail on each of the intervention themes and specific recommendations created by group three is available here through an interactive story map created for the project.

Takeaways from an ongoing process

From a learning perspective, this workshop provided both hands-on experience to implement multi-scale analysis and problem solving. Historically planning, policy and management have treated green, blue, and gray infrastructure networks separately, but this workshop helped students understand the integration of these networks to address urban resilience and sustainability goals together. From the youth innovation perspective it also created a tangible way for students to create solutions that would be taken seriously, and incorporated meaningfully into the future of Randers Municipality. At the intersection of the two, it played an important role in conveying to students the importance of involving local decision-makers, stakeholders, and communities at different scales to achieve desired change now and in future work. The full report for this workshop will be available here once it has completed the post-workshop phase, check back soon.

While the UCCRN_edu workshops are still growing and evolving themselves, it nevertheless offers a hopeful view of the future where it is possible to value and meaningfully incorporate nontraditional voices such as youth in solving complex problems like climate change.

Authors:  Mara Owen and Mrinal Patil