MVRDV - Why our future city centres will be denser, greener, and more residential than before

Why our future city centres will be denser, greener, and more residential than before


By Jochen Zimmer
This article was originally published in German in Food Service Magazine.

In this interview, MVRDV partner Jan Knikker discusses how an alignment of factors – from the Covid-19 pandemic to the emergence of the "experience economy"  – all point towards a denser, greener, more residential future for our city centres.

The lockdown has turned the inner parts of cities into no-go areas. Will downtowns become permanently deserted as a result?

There is no doubt that Covid has exacerbated critical social and economic developments. In particular, we have known about the problems in mid-priced shopping for years – the same with the realisation that we can no longer revitalise downtowns with the old familiar recipe of new shopping options. For a decade now, gastronomy has been playing an increasingly important role as part of the experience economy.

That would be a positive sign for restaurateurs.

Only to a limited extent. In the Netherlands, for example, it has become apparent that more and more restaurateurs have had to divide stagnating consumer spending among themselves. Covid has once again exacerbated the problems of the city centre, with consequences for many businesses, in some cases dramatic ones. The task now is to find solutions for how we reshape downtown: We need less shopping, less gastronomy, probably less offices – but more apartments.

Less gastronomy? And yet it is precisely this that has provided footfall in recent years.

I think that there will also be cutthroat competition in the restaurant trade, as has already been seen in Great Britain. That's why we need to return to a more holistic mix in the city centre. A more balanced mix of living, working, and consuming should once again be created there. If more people live in the city centre, they will also provide footfall as customers. The big plus of downtowns remains their very good accessibility by various means of transportation – even without a car – which makes them the most environmentally friendly alternative. This is exactly where we should densify and add quality.

So far, however, the concept of a car-free city centre has mostly met with fierce opposition. 

There are a great many innovative mobility concepts in cities that are increasingly being used, especially by young people, and will gradually change mobility behaviour.  My generation wanted to live "American" – with shopping centres and cars – but the younger generation is tending more toward the "European", i.e. the mixed and small-scale city with short distances between destinations. In order to realise the desirable car-free city centre however, we need the right framework conditions, as in Rotterdam for example with sufficient parking spaces on the periphery that can be targeted without searching through traffic.

However, the Europaviertel in Frankfurt, for example, which has only recently been developed close to the city centre, instead gives reason to doubt the chances of realizing innovative concepts - even though many people now live here.

For me, the Europaviertel is a planning mistake that is also the fault of the city of Frankfurt. With the classicist facades, an attempt was made to revive a European urban planning tradition, but the reality is more reminiscent of Marzahn in Berlin. The highway-like street in the centre prevents the quality spaces that would invite people to linger. The ambitious restaurant project "Laube, Liebe, Hoffnung" unfortunately did not have the chance to provide an initial spark there.

How can such planning mistakes be prevented?

High density and flexible uses, for example with apartments, restaurants, small stores, and offices on the first floor, are definitely beneficial. In Bordeaux, for example, we are currently planning a neighbourhood on a small area of 35 hectares with 3,500 apartments that are also affordable for young families. The densification alone, and the greatly reduced space for cars, will ensure revitalization. Right from the start, an artists' colony, an organic food store and a restaurant have laid the groundwork for urban flair there.

In most city centres with established structures such as Frankfurt's Zeil, however, such developments from a single plan could hardly be possible.

The latest developments – see Karstadt – show that retail will take up less space in the future and that, as a result of falling rents space for living, working, or studying can certainly be created again from the second or third floor upwards. Even the pedestrian zone of the Zeil, which currently resembles a concrete bathtub, can be transformed into a more pleasant place to spend time. Our experience shows that banning cars can lead to more sales, not less. In Madrid, for example, retail and restaurant sales have increased by almost 10 percent by restricting car traffic. At the same time, it's important for city centres to become greener; this has been increasingly evident in Covid times.

In what way?

Covid acts as a wake-up call in this respect, because people have rediscovered nature and parks. It doesn't always have to be large parks; a lot can already be achieved by transforming parking spaces on shopping streets into green spaces that are maintained by neighbouring retailers and restaurateurs, as our experience in Rotterdam and other Dutch cities shows.

What role can restaurateurs play in redesign processes?

It depends on how committed restaurateurs are to the environment. As in Rotterdam's Meent boulevard, they can be family-run businesses, but they can also be franchise restaurateurs. What is important is the interaction between the various parties, i.e., merchants, restaurateurs, residents, and also municipal decision-makers. The crisis, which was intensified by Covid, has at least contributed to increased openness to out-of-the-box thinking on many sides.

Does this also apply to city authorities?

Cities have also understood that they have to do something and that good ideas can make a difference. When restaurateurs join forces to realize a car-free "Avenue Culinaire," for example, you see greater openness to these ideas today – not only in the Netherlands but throughout Europe.

What role can interim uses and pop-up concepts play in triggering a transformation process? As you succeeded in doing in Rotterdam with "The Stairs to Kriterion", for example.

There are an incredible number of different possibilities, such as so-called place-making, in which a development company invites gastronomy to enliven a transformation area with concepts that are not possible in traditional locations. In this way, the most exciting projects are created in many demolished buildings, which enhance the surrounding area. You don't always have to think in terms of eternity; you can use a site in the city immediately. Several restaurateurs have made a name for themselves with such projects.

But especially in a city like Frankfurt, with a very tight and high-priced real estate market, the city's room for manoeuvre is rather limited?

The municipal authorities certainly have scope to set a forward-looking regulatory framework. It also depends on creative ideas and the willingness to handle rules flexibly. The enormous housing problem in many cities means that a lot is moving in the right direction in this respect.

Main image is of MVRDV's supervision proposal for Eindhoven city centre.