Speaker Series 2024 #2 | Adaptive and Agile Spaces

Feb 2024

About the Session

The Speakers

Cities are facing dynamic changes, from the impact of climate change to demographic transitions. These diverse challenges underscore the need for more agile infrastructure and built environments. As communities evolve, so do their distinct needs and by embracing flexibility, adaptive reuse, and multipurpose spaces, cities can effectively address the unique demands of their residents. For resilient infrastructure, it is crucial to be agile and aligning with community needs to strengthen overall resilience. In the process, community engagement is critical as well as the activation of multipurpose spaces helping promote connectivity, wellbeing and productivity.

The second Cities on the Frontline session of 2024, jointly organized by Resilient Cities Network and GHD, “Dynamic and Agile Spaces” presents an opportunity to draw on global examples of multipurpose spaces, asset reuse, and repurposed infrastructure, offering valuable lessons for building resilient cities for current and future generations through the experiences of London, Bristol and Manchester in the United Kingdom and Penang in Malaysia. Our speakers Matthew Davis, Director, Institute of Place Management, Kate Picker, Operations and Experience Manager, Castlefield Viaduct, National Trust; and Sazlin Sabri, Senior Manager, Culture-based Economic Development, Think City, Penang, Malaysia, discussed some of the key considerations in the process of giving new life to underutilized historical sites with a deep embedded history for the benefit of communities.

In London and Bristol, UK, the Institute of Place Management showcased two interventions exemplifying urban revitalization strategies. Firstly, the renovation of the historical Chapel Road building now adapted as the city’s town hall illustrates the importance of preserving heritage while adapting to modern needs. Despite its bustling location, thoughtful design incorporating stalls for traders and recreational spaces transformed it into a vibrant community hub. Similarly, the Sparks Bristol project repurposed an old department store into a collaborative retail space, fostering community engagement and creativity. However, challenges persist in revitalizing England’s 2745 high streets, exacerbated by pandemic-related declines in foot traffic. The session emphasized the significance of partnerships in addressing these challenges and called for diverse perspectives and skillsets to ensure the success of urban renewal initiatives.

Next, Manchester through the work of the National Trust presented an urban intervention centered around the Castlefield Viaduct Structure which was left unused since the closure of the Manchester Central Station in 1969. This iron and steel structure became the focus of a community-driven initiative in 2021 facilitated by the National Trust, the Manchester City Council and the Department of Transportation.  The project addressed challenges of respecting and maintaining a historical structure while also adapting it to have access points, water and electricity to create inviting spaces for the local community. Partnership and community involvement were emphasized, ensuring feedback was considered to meet residents’ and visitors’ desires. Survey results indicate widespread satisfaction, sparking a renewed interest in heritage among locals. Plans for the future include transitioning from a pilot to a to permanent status and expanding to a 1 km sky park, highlighting the potential for community-driven urban renewal initiatives to transform cities and foster civic pride.

Moving to Penang, Malaysia, Think City led an intervention focused on revitalizing a public space formerly occupied by an illegal flea market within a world heritage site. Over a period of three years, challenges like community buy-in were addressed through extensive engagement efforts, including public surveys and workshops. The redesigned space, respectful of surrounding historical architecture, saw increased local utilization and attracted tourists. Post-construction surveys assessed the intervention’s impact, highlighting the significance of evidence-based approaches and meaningful community engagement in urban renewal initiatives. Think City’s commitment to prioritizing people and fostering transformation underscores the importance of community-centric strategies in enhancing urban environments.

Discussions during this session, through interventions in London, Bristol, Manchester and Penang illustrated the potential of adapting underutilized historical infrastructure to create lively spaces for communities to enjoy and thrive in. Most importantly, the speakers agreed on the power of collaboration to execute projects of this sort and the key role that communities need to have from start to finish emphasizing that sufficient funding is not enough to create a sense of placemaking but that rather this is driven by a careful consideration and exploration of people’s needs. These cities, through their insights into the process of implementation and management, offer valuable insights and lessons for cities at a global level and leave inspiration for practitioners to not overlook the potential of repurposing existing spaces and infrastructures.  

Key Insights:

  1. Importance of engaging communities: Meaningful community engagement is vital throughout the entire process, from inception to implementation, to ensure site-specific approaches that address local needs effectively. Communities possess invaluable knowledge about their spaces, making their involvement essential for successful placemaking initiatives.
  2. Partnerships and feedback: Partnerships play a crucial role in various stages of ideation and implementation, facilitating collaboration and resource sharing. Additionally, receiving feedback from communities in post-implementation is essential to gauge satisfaction levels and make necessary adjustments.
  3. Consideration of local needs: Mere investment in a space is insufficient for effective placemaking. Deep consideration of local needs, demographics, and motivations is essential to create meaningful and functional spaces that serve their intended purpose.
  4. Challenges and solutions: Challenges such as funding limitations can be mitigated through co-funding mechanisms, emphasizing the importance of resource optimization. Utilizing data for agile decision-making and maintaining a balance between historical preservation and adaptive capacity are critical considerations in intervention projects.
  5. Adaptation of historic buildings: Historic buildings often require adaptation to fit modern functions while preserving their cultural and historical significance. This may involve breaking larger structures into smaller spaces tailored to the needs of contemporary cities, requiring careful planning and execution.
  6. Role of champions: Projects benefit from passionate individuals or organizations who serve as champions, driving stakeholder engagement and community activation. Their enthusiasm contributes to the success and sustainability of intervention initiatives.

Kate Picker

Operations and Experience Manager, Castlefield Viaduct, National Trust

We see adaptability and sustainability as a core to what we do and we kind of work more broadly on that as an organization as well, from everything from reduction on landscape flooding to energy sources.

Matthew Davis

Director, Institute of Place Management

There is a lesson here, it’s not just about gleaming expensive, huge buildings, it’s also about how they are embedded in the streetscape and all of the myriad of different things that go together to make a place.

Sazlin Sabri

Senior Manager, Culture-based Economic Development, Think City, Penang, Malaysia

A people-first approach has been our main approach in the process, where we did so many engagements and consultation with the stakeholders including the local community in the area.”

Steve Scott (Co-host)

Global Product Manager,
EMEA Economic Lead – Future Communities, GHD

Saurabh Gaidhani (Co-host)

Lead, Programs and Engagement, Resilient Cities Network

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