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What’s your return on livability? A new measure for a city’s success

April 29, 2021

By Farah Kassab

The emphasis on quality of life, sustainability, and overall health and wellbeing is increasingly impacting people’s decisions around where they live

In 2011, the Economist Intelligence Unit published a report on ‘livanomics’—or urban livability and economic growth. One of the key findings was that jobs take precedence over livability when people are choosing where they want to live. For businesses, it required the promise of economic growth. This meant cities needed to provide basic infrastructure, housing and governance to support investments, and commercial activities. The publication revealed at the time that workforces were prepared to relocate for the best opportunities.

Since the early 2000s, the countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have effectively been employing this strategy through the vision plans developed to attract businesses and talent. This essentially followed the “build it and they will come” approach. The key indicator for success was GDP and the return on investment (ROI) in the infrastructure and real estate that emerged in these cities.

In recent years, facing the post-oil reality, developers and cities are looking to maximise their ROI within tighter budgets. Goals have shifted away from the superlatives, like building the largest and tallest structures at any cost. These days, the focus is on value engineering and pragmatic, cost-effective design that can still maximize the gain on every square metre of development. 

Enabling cities to reinvent themselves through their users can enhance its performance while also financially rewarding its investors as a development or district draws in a mix of people and activity.

The changing reality

We are now facing a new reality—and potentially a huge shift in what we value as urban dwellers—for two reasons. First, due to the GCC post-oil reality, the tax-free environment that has historically been the magnet to the region no longer exists. Second, due to COVID-19, people’s lifestyle choices are changing, with social connections and work-location flexibility being valued more than ever. Companies and employees are realising work from home is both feasible and beneficial.

In the same vein, we are beginning to see a shift in the way cities view themselves. COVID-19 has put the ultimate test on technology and public health infrastructure. Likewise, it has cast a light on whether cities are fulfilling our values pertaining to community, time, and work-life balance with an emphasis on health and wellbeing. This could impact people’s decisions around where they live and what their lifestyle priorities are.

Accordingly, livability may soon take precedence in the decisions we make about the cities we live in, especially when it comes to economic resilience, health, and wellness. In fact, cities around the world have seemingly become locked in competition on other parameters, such as quality of life, sustainability, livability, wellbeing, and happiness. Cities have long promoted these elements to attract professionals and urban tourism. In a post-pandemic world, these features will become a necessity for cities to remain relevant and attractive to the average urban nomad.

Outdoor recreational spaces are one of many factors influencing where people choose to live.

Return on livability: A GCC perspective

How does the revival of these values influence city development in the GCC? Many urbanists, designers, and architects would agree that there is synergy between livability and the basic principles of good design—which, simply put, are human-centric.

It would be unfair to say that COVID-19 has suddenly created this paradigm shift in thinking for governments, developers, and policy makers in the GCC. The post-oil reality had already set in by the time the virus arrived, and cities have since been working on elevating their game in the competition for talent.

Throughout the last decade, we have watched major urban and infrastructure developments emerge in the region. This includes the recent roll out of government accelerator programs, like Abu Dhabi’s Ghadan21 that aims for driving growth in the knowledge economy. The stimulus program included smart governance to support the ease of business and development of innovation programs across a spectrum of industries with a focus on technology. Additionally, urban development programs aimed to improve the city’s existing public spaces and develop new parks and outdoor recreational attractions that would later enhance the appeal of urban tourism.

On a cultural note, the focus on tourism development in the region is evident as we have observed the opening of several museums in the region, including the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the National Museum in Doha, and Dubai’s Museum of the Future, planned for completion in 2021.

Furthermore, utility authorities are leading by example in their own facilities, such as the DEWA Research and Development Centre. Designed by Stantec and completed in 2020, the facility has a solar park linked to it and includes solar energy and smart grids. This demonstrates the strong advocacy by governments towards more sustainable infrastructure that will contribute to livability.

This is only a small portion of the changes we have observed across the GCC that support attracting visitors—and hopefully retain a portion as residents. But the question remains: How might these cities set targets towards a more attractive and liveable environment? To find the answer, there are several different perspectives and indices to consider.

In a recent collaboration with Happy City on a site-wide, detailed master plan update for the Town of Mirfa (Abu Dhabi, UAE), our team looked at the Happy City Framework developed by Charles Montgomery and his team. This framework focuses on human needs for social belonging, connectedness, joy, resilience, and safety. We cross-referenced these with experiences in the urban realm and aspects of our land use planning. Our starting point was that Mirfa exhibited a lot of key qualities that warrant it a happy city, and our approach to the master plan focused on interventions and design elements underlined by the qualitative outcomes of the human experience in mind. 

Monocle’s Annual Quality of Life Ranking measures 60 different metrics. They include the cost of living, the cost of rent, the enhancement of business, the embracement of technology, the diversity of cultural and leisure attractions, public safety, and even the quality of a city’s dining scene. It also considers a city’s intention to serve its residents better, which includes factors such as quality of infrastructure and policies that enhance residents’ well-being.

Our work with Dubai Multi Commodities Centre to create a well-connected community, and a place made for working, living, recreation, and leisure, is perhaps a microcosm of a city that can make it on the top quality of life ranking. This project is also successful in its ability to continue to further refine itself and develop with the times.

We may now start to see a trend where developers proactively revisit their constructed developments long after they have been implemented.

We may now start to see a trend where developers proactively revisit their constructed developments long after they have been implemented.

Defining livability in the post-COVID-19 reality

The COVID-19 outbreak forced cities and their residents to adapt quickly to a global crisis. In a short time, many people developed the habit of operating remotely in work and play, while making use of every possible green space around.

With so many of us realizing we can work from virtually anywhere and the surfacing of collective thought towards a need for a better quality of life, it’s natural to examine our work cities and ask ourselves serious questions. Given the choice, which city would I live in? Does my current city reflect the values for which I aspire to live by? 

Questions like these led me to look at a parallel model of Maslow’s pyramid of self-actualization to help determine how cities should position themselves—both socially and economically—to respond to our needs. Development is a process, change is inevitable, and progress is the sign of achievement and growth. So, why couldn’t we look at a city the same way that we look at ourselves? Below, we can assess what that model might look like.

The pyramid of ‘City’ actualization.

Maslow’s pyramid of ‘City’ actualization

In the debate over GDP and happiness that has emerged over the last decade, the above model may strike the best balance. I would argue that both are equally relevant indicators for a city as it grows, evolves, and advances with time.

Another point of debate I often come across with my peers is the practice of looking to top ranked cities as models that were emulated in the region. With that, we observed systematic organizing and top-down planning that is based on copying components of another city rather than referencing the solution to an associated context most of the time.

The Maslow’s Pyramid type of approach suggests diagnosing a city in terms of where it stands, rather than looking at a competing city or development trend beyond its borders. As we transition into a post-pandemic world, I would argue that cities ought to look back at the past year and reflect on where they stand. Local governments should look at the basic tangible components and determine if they need more attention. These can include:

  • Improved streets and walkability
  • More parks and green spaces
  • Policies to manage economic diversity and protect local businesses
  • Increased standards for “healthier” buildings that perform highly on the WELL Buildings Standards—a building certification focused on human health.

In the GCC, we can argue that stakeholder engagement is not a common tool in addressing the wider public, which may make it difficult to address residents’ needs more directly. But with technology and big data, developers and consultants can establish the means to attain feedback in a non-traditional way that enables them to acknowledge what is occurring in communities.

Enabling cities to reinvent themselves through their users can enhance its performance while also financially rewarding its investors as a development or district draws in a mix of people and activity. As urban nomads explore a wider pool of options with jobs no longer on the priority filters of their list, cities must ask themselves if their return on livability will make the cut.

  • Farah Kassab

    With an architectural background and keen interest in the bigger picture, Farah has been focusing on building her urban development project delivery skills in the MENA region.

    Contact Farah
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