City planning needs to be people centric, it is more about providing open spaces for end users to use as they see fit Image Credit: Shutterstock

Rapid expansion of cities as they get overcrowded and polluted is an urban planning challenge. Modern day urbanisation strategy hinges on creating manageable and self-sufficient pockets of urban living within a city. Optimising what is considered “dead-space” as well as revitalising zones that have historically remained unpopular for habitation are some of the ways city planners are looking to meet the challenge.


Reimagining a city is not a complex planning concept. As an example, think of places you go out to for dining or shopping. Think of the restaurant you like but don’t visit often as the surrounding area seems dead, or the outdoor promenade you fancy but avoid due to traffic congestion? There are several drivers that prompt us to choose or avoid a place - ease of access, traffic management, adequate parking, lively and vibrant decor - these could be some of your triggers of choice. And this is where reimagining steps in. Planning, either in advance or within existing spaces, creates valuable experiences for end-users.

Heritage, convenience, sustainability

Eventually, cities are more about the people who inhabit them than the roads and infrastructure and buildings. And it is these people and their habits that should influence and guide our urban planning, suggests Firas Hnoosh, Principal, Design Director of Architecture at Perkins+Will, a leading interdisciplinary architecture and design firm in Dubai. “We have to create urbanism which responds to our heritage and culture and is not just an architectural language applicable to the world but not the location”.

Ibrahim Ibrahim, Managing Director, Portland Design Associates, feels sustainability and convenience should be driving factors. “Cities today need to focus on densification - to build up and maximise the use rather than building out. This enables better use of natural resources and is more cost effective as you utilise existing services like transport links. We need to densify around existing urban centers so there are more people working and living in that same space. This will lead to a need for more amenities and retail and services. And we need to be smart and strategic about how we do this. How can we better use a space? Can an office be an office in the day and a retail or entertainment spot at night? This is reimaginging,” says Ibrahim.

Driven by end users

The obsession with architecture and building iconic shapes often leads to a compromise of the human component of space planning. This leads to exaggerated hyperbolic structures that do little to infuse life and habitation into a space. “Too many projects are driven by architecture alone or places are driven by shapes. Projects need to be driven by the end user,” says Hnoosh. “We need to understand who they are and have all our drivers focused on how they use the space. Architecture is for people, not architects. Architecture doesn’t make a place. People make a place. What we can do is glue the people together via experiences. This is the fundamental core of urban centers”, he adds.

Creating experiences requires revisiting and reimagining existing districts and pockets through the eyes of the end-users, keeping journeys unique but interconnected to the overall city character. “Think of them as experiences, as a part of the whole. Create distinct districts and characters and encourage journeys by residents and tourists that are intuitive. Downtown Dubai, for example, has been resolved in terms of how it functions as a whole. JBR has also been revisited as a whole and is now very successful”, adds Hnoosh.

According to Ibrahim, consumers benefit from the right mix of ingredients, from retail to outdoor spaces. “It’s important to have more opportunity to walk and access outside public spaces. Consumers benefit from retail, education, healthcare and open spaces. Lesser reliance on cars is another important benefit. Unused spaces such as rooftops can be turned into public spaces as well.”

Bring cold spots to life

Imagining multiple use experiences for a space can give it 24/7 uptime and avoid the “dead-zone” syndrome, feels Ibrahim. “City centers should have a 24/7 lifecycle. Downtown, like DIFC, is less used out of working hours. However mixed-use creates a sustainable investment. Going forward we will see more mixed-use developments. This will eliminate dead space”, he adds.

Hnoosh says “creating destinations in cold spots” will get rid of those dead spots. “We need to make a place real in peoples heads and hearts and everyday life. Fixed, stagnant space is not sustainable as an experience for the end users. It is not about fixed plots, plazas and squares but creating activity and events in these spaces.”

People-centric planning

If cities need to be sustainable, it is time to relinquish power back to the people, say the experts. City planning can no longer be about architects and designers and municipal planners. It needs to be people-centric. The concept of the public realm is becoming a reality. Public spaces are becoming digital and fluid. It is no longer pre-determined by a planner where you will sit, eat, play. Instead it is about providing open spaces for users to use as they see fit. “Any urban development that is not human centric is completely irrelevant and is not sustainable”, says Hnoosh.