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Project management’s role in repurposing cities for a flexible future

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How our cities will evolve in future is a topic of perennial interest, but it has come particularly to the forefront since the COVID-19 pandemic and the dramatic shift in working patterns that it triggered. Interest in the future of cities is also accentuated by the challenge to meet net-zero targets. Cities are where an increasing part of the world’s population live, and residents of cities have a lower carbon footprint than the population as a whole.

From a project management perspective, one of the biggest shifts in urban projects will be a growing emphasis on repurposing buildings or constructing new buildings that are far more versatile in how they can be used. One key driver for that, according to Andrew Edkins, Professor of the Management of Complex Projects at UCL’s Bartlett Real Estate Institute, is the pro­spect of prohibitive demolition taxes reflecting the embodied carbon in buildings, which will make the economics of knocking down buildings and replacing them every few years much less tenable.

The real estate sector is not very good at reusing buildings, he points out: “We much prefer to knock down and rebuild, rather than think cleverly about how we’re going to repurpose something that already exists.”

Repurposing projects will be different from new builds. Who will provide the funding and what caveats, such as ESG requirements, will come with the money are two key questions to be answered. Project professionals will need to become far more involved in the early stage thinking where the critical decisions are made, Professor Edkins adds.

Gig venues in city basements

The forms that repurposing will take are many and varied. At one level, office buildings that have poor performance on energy and other sustainability measures will require extensive retrofitting to bring them up to leading-edge standards.

Re-engineering will be needed to adapt buildings to new styles of working – for example, the flagship corporate headquarters may have to accommodate multiple companies sharing the same building or even co-working. Retail spaces such as closed-down department stores are already being converted to alternative uses, such as residential, and the continued decline of high streets will see that kind of repurposing accelerate.

There will also be smaller, more subtle transformations required. ­A space that’s used as a boardroom in the morning may become a tie-dye works in the afternoon or something completely different, suggests Yolande Barnes, Chair of the Bartlett Real Estate Institute.

“It’s more like a hospitality model than a conventional real estate model. The corporate taking a 25-year, single-use lease, I think, is going to be quite rare. And it’s much more about how we accommodate people in cities and how we cater to all those human activities.”

Lisa Taylor, Director of Coherent Cities, says: “A graduate on a course I run came up with the idea of using the basements of office buildings in the City of London as music venues. Because the City is quite dead at night.”

Bringing life to drab suburbs

Denmark, says Alex Budzier, an expert in project management at Saïd Business School, is building a new generation of hospitals designed to last 60 years. “These are flexible buildings that can change if they need to, just as healthcare needs have changed over the last 60 years.”

In the residential sector, there is arguably the biggest repurposing challenge of all. The UK has a vast stock of property built over the last 150 years that is poorly insulated, not especially attractive and makes poor use of space in the context of today’s extreme housing shortage. Knocking it all down and rebuilding to modern standards is not a viable option, especially considering the environmental cost of demolition and the fact that most of this housing is in private ownership.

However, there are imaginative ways it can be extended into new units, its energy performance improved and its appearance made far more attractive. The same is true of the suburbs in which much of this housing resides, which were often built as ‘dormitories’ for commuters.

Today, suburbs need to become vibrant communities where people work, live and play, and that means creating an environment that works on every level out of those drab post-war suburbs. (A glimpse of what the future could look like can be seen on the website for the Supurbia project.)

The challenge, as with all repurposing, is to make the most of what we already have – and project management can play a big part.

Look out for APM’s thought leadership paper on project management in conflict and emergency environments which will provide project professionals with insights into managing projects in extreme situations. Register to keep up to date with the latest project management news and information.

APM members can read a longer feature on the future of cities in the autumn 2022 edition of Project journal, out in September.

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