From silo mentality to holism

Urban Life 16 November 2015 Søren Hansen

Radical changes await our cities as temperatures and water levels rise, and more people migrate to urban areas. To maintain and develop our current way of life, we have to start preparing our cities for future challenges. We need to replace patchwork solutions with all-inclusive masterplans, establishing new partnerships in the process.

8 min

Eyes were squinted and cameras flashed when a group of American civic leaders and professors toured Copenhagen one late-September day 2015. A rare sight indeed met passers-by at Cirkelbroen, Copenhagen’s new rotating bridge: 27 decision makers crossing the bridge in twos on matching rental bikes. The group had arranged the four-day study tour to Copenhagen to learn from the city’s success in implementing green initiatives as a municipal-level growth strategy.

“If we don’t prepare our cities, any sort of climate change is going to destroy the way we live. We need to establish strong partnerships, both public and private, to get these important conversations aligned and create long-term solutions for our cities,” says Malik Benjamin, an architecture professor at the Florida International University and a tour participant.

Changes requiring action

By 2050 the number of people living in urban areas will have climbed from 54% to 66% of the world’s population. At the same time, a growing middle class is demanding a higher quality of life. This increases the risk of resource scarcity, pollution and other environmental problems. Climate change also poses risks – and demands solutions.

Preparing a city for the future is a comprehensive and expensive process. But the costs of not adapting can be even greater. Taking this view, Jeddah, a Saudi Arabian city with 3.5 million inhabitants, implemented a masterplan, designed by Ramboll, that not only had potential to save the city EUR 1-2 billion annually but also improved its water and air quality, established an effective waste management system and created green, recreational areas within the city.

Henrik Stener, Director in Ramboll Management Consulting,  emphasises that a masterplan must incorporate a variety of social offerings to attract the right people and businesses to a city.

In Denmark the municipalities of Copenhagen and Frederiksberg have joined forces with Ramboll and other advisors on a plan to safeguard the Danish capital against cloudbursts and heavy rainfall. Some of the excess water will be retained locally for recreational areas, while cloudburst boulevards with high kerbstones will lead stormwater away efficiently and quickly.

“We have to invest in making our cities resilient to climate change, and we might as well try to maximise the value of our work and create additional value for citizens by making the local environment more attractive. If we do it right, investments in city infrastructure become value drivers instead of cost drivers. But this necessitates that we take a holistic approach and base investment decisions on thorough societal cost-benefit analyses,” Henrik Stener says.

Avoid the silo mentality

Outstanding masterplanning is about connecting different layers of the city – in various ways; 

We need to connect sewer systems with transport networks, parks and buildings. But we also need to forge connections between the technical solutions, the governance structure and the social and cultural offerings, if we are to create a city that is not only sustainable but also liveable. In practice, however, working across different disciplines and sectors can be challenging. The silo mentality – the mindset present when the experts involved in a project are only focused on their own fields of expertise – can be a major hurdle in masterplanning:

Masterplans are best solved with one, holistic solution. If experts have tunnel vision, tackling problems by focusing only on their own fields, it can be hard for them to grasp the value gained from an extensive, cross-disciplinary plan.

In Denmark municipalities, private companies and knowledge institutions have set up several partnerships to avoid this silo mentality and accelerate green transitions in cities. These partnerships help municipalities form a clear-cut vision for their cities and define specific focus areas for achieving the overall goal.

American guests inspired by holism

Copenhagen’s Mayor for Technical and Environmental Affairs Morten Kabell says:

“We have focused on making Copenhagen a more liveable city by creating urban spaces that invite Copenhageners to make greater use of the city in new ways. We were the first city to be named the world’s most liveable city twice in a row, and now our focus on  cycling has earned us the honour of being the world’s most bicycle-friendly city.”

Other trademarks of Copenhagen are its holistic approach to urban development and its outreach to citizens and investors, features that the American delegation also noticed on their bike tour.

“I’m very inspired by the holistic approach to cities I’ve seen here in Copenhagen. We’re definitely going to keep in mind that cities are built to be inhabited by people,” said Mayor Jeri Muoio from West Palm Beach, Florida, just before she biked across Cirkelbroen.

Holism and public involvement are also keywords that Professor Malik Benjamin believes define future urban development.

“If we want to make smart changes and add value to our cities, not just in terms of dollars and spreadsheets, but for citizens’ quality of life, we need to move to a more open, transdisciplinary conversation,” he says.