Can digital technology accelerate urban diversity?

18 October 2018ContactCécile Diguet

Electricity made it possible to construct high-rise buildings with lifts or elevators. The expansion of the rail and road networks relied on coal and oil. The contribution of today’s digital technologies to the urban environment seems to favour hybridisation, by dematerialising many activities and connecting them more easily in time and space. The emergence of hybrid places and of transitional urban planning testifies to a new relationship with the urban environment, multiplying uses and spatial and temporal configurations.

Urban zoning in the past favoured single function spaces in response to then known specific needs (for peace and quiet or economic efficiency). But the rigidity of such planning soon made it obsolete. As early as at the end of the 1950s, the Megastructure concept arose, promoted by Yona Friedman and his mobile architecture, followed by Archizoom and Archigram, proposing nomadism, architectural mobility and open spaces. The 1970s saw more research into flexible architecture adapting to the social changes of the time. However, it was through sustainable development that functional diversity came back to the fore at the turn of the century. It brought into being an animated, diverse city with greater interaction between citizens, shorter distances, shared spaces and optimal use made of the urban land. Digital technologies then speeded up the trend towards the hybridity that is the hallmark of today’s city-living. By dematerialising so many activities, it favours flexibility of places, mixed use and openness. But how can these changes be sustained in the existing urban fabric and in new-build neighbourhoods?

Change of usage: hybridisation and transformation

Changes and diversity of uses, if not spontaneous, imply either architectural transformation or transitional urban development projects. All of this is subject to more or less favourable town-planning regulations. From the end of the 1960s, deindustrialisation led to transformative projects and the need to recreate the city over itself. This approach is still with us today, as the industrial heritage of the past is turned into cultural spaces (the brickworks in Vitry-sur-Seine). Alternatively, offices and former workshops are transformed into housing (Macdonald warehouses in Paris). Former bunkers are turned into data centres (Les Alluets-le-Roi, Yvelines county). A number of recent planning procedures support the dynamics of conversions to new uses, particularly in favour of new housing. Article 93 of the French Act of parliament voted in 2016 grants local authorities and public intermunicipal cooperative institutions (EPCIs) remission of property taxes on buildings (TFPB). Conversions of office space into main homes also benefit from this. The same benefit was voted by the Paris City Council in February 2017, for conversions of at least 250,000 sq.m. of obsolete office space into residential accommodation by 2020. A provision in the so-called “Macron Law” (Loi pour la croissance, l’activité et l’égalité des chances économiques) of 6 August 2015 allows local authorities to authorise temporary conversions of business premises into accommodation for up to 15 years. But conversions of property to other uses than residential could also be envisaged, leaving ultimate usages open. The New Generation Internet Foundation (FING)1 seeks to include non-specific zoning into local land use planning documents known as Plans Locaux d’Urbanisme (PLU), to foster all forms of change in use provided that there is no environmental damage and an adequate response to local needs. PLU land-use planning regulations are especially important for promoting, but also regulating, the de-specialised use of space. This option could promote the emergence, leveraged by digital technology, of new multi-functional and hybrid places , such as facilities for the delivery of public services, temporary or shared business locations in third places, public places for digital services, Fablabs, etc. Initiatives for transitional urban developments supported by the Paris Region also illustrate the trend to growing and recent2 hybridisation of usages, which have multiplied to some 65 since 2012 in the Paris Region. Often space is given over to hybrid uses pending the finalisation of more definite urban and architectural plans. The former Alstom offices at Saint-Denis have become 6B, a space for artistic and cultural creation, hosting a very large number of graphic and performing artists, artisans, an art gallery, a silk-screen printing workshop and meeting rooms.

Switch to reversible construction a change in approach?

Anticipating the need for diversity made possible by digital technologies implies innovative approaches to new-build activities. Reversibility must be designed to save on more embodied energy, to build more sustainable buildings and adapt to the faster changes accelerated by the digital system. Architect Patrick Rubin (Canal Architecture) has developed the model of a building whose structure makes new uses possible with only minor fit-out modifications, known as the Conjugo system. This architect, who practiced the diversion of architectural features, came up with the idea of a building without a specific end use. Another idea is a two-stage building permit, proposed by Didier Bertrand3,in support of reversible construction, while enabling local authorities to adopt a strategic vision of their local building programmes. The first building permit is limited to the volume (outer fabric), and the second one is delivered on completion, specifying the use of the building. The result is faster response to the changing economic cycle and social needs. There are obstacles, however, such as property taxes differentiated by the use to which buildings are put, the need to commit to the long term when building social housing, and the financialisation of real estate, which favour short termism. What applies to a building applies to wider urban projects. Thinking up programmes that are open and flexible is key, as in the Île de Nantes project. Structured around a strong core framework of publicly accessible spaces and new approaches to the renovation of heritage assets, this project can be developed step by step, inventively, on different spatial and temporal scales for uses and composition that adapt to changing needs and economic cycles.

A whole chain to be re-articulated

Digital technologies have boosted the demand for mobile lifestyles and more versatile use of space. The available operational and technical tools are now cutting edge, but negotiation is still required. Reversibility, upgrading, hybridisation, transitional uses are key issues involving local area development, which must adapt to specific needs and new visions to be shared. 

Cécile Diguet, urbanist, L'Institut Paris Region

1. Report Softplace - Une exploration des écosystèmes de lieux hybrides – Exploration of the ecosystems of hybrid spaces 
2. See Note rapide #10, Temporay urbanism: planning differently, October 2017, L'Institut Paris Region.
3. Mission Director for Métropole du Grand Paris.

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