The Inclusive City; the Sustainable City; and the Missing Urban Developer

In June of this year, New Yorkers bore witness to a rather unfamiliar historic moment. In the persistent urban struggle between real estate lobbies and tenant protection organizations, surprisingly it was the latter who found their hands raised. As a result, a substantial range of rent control and tenant protection mechanisms were set in motion throughout the city.

NYC real estate recoiled. The achieved rent reforms were deemed an investment moratorium on projects with affordable housing components. The market for multifamily housing plummeted.

For the real estate sector, this was seemingly a death knell. And yet for housing reformers, this was a starting point. A miniscule gain in a much further reaching agenda of urban equity.

With new and deeper reforms on the horizon, renewed and deeper recoils from the real estate sector can be expected. And yet, this is just one layer of the urban fabric.

Just as many cities seem to be accelerating how they are addressing issues of equity, many are also accelerating how they are addressing issues of sustainability—incentivizing, and in many cases requiring, new urban projects to be more energy efficient, more carbon neutral, more supportive of biodiversity, more active in environmental infrastructure, and so on.

Consider for instance, Toronto’s green roof bylaws; Barcelona’s urban planning measures concerning green infrastructure and biodiversity in the city; NYC’s green infrastructure grant program; the city of Frankfurt’s push to achieve passive house standards within social housing projects; to name a few.

Part of this urban environmental trajectory is of course rooted in the Paris Climate Accord. While the United States is seemingly in the process of withdrawing from this international agreement, the parallel story is that 438 mayors in the US have reaffirmed that they will uphold the Paris Climate Accord in full. There are a range of other such municipal sustainability accords and networks to note—C40 Cities, the Global Covenant of Mayors, The Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, the Climate Alliance, the Sustainable City Network, to name a few.

Many cities, in other words, are locked in. Both in terms of environmental responsibilities, and in terms of issues of equity. For such cities to hold the real estate sector to a higher level of responsibilities and accountabilities—this is not a choice. It is a contractual obligation.

This is the unusual circumstance we find ourselves in. The dominant urban development model has tended to have a singular focus, specifically from the 1970s onwards—how to craft real estate in a manner that appeals to the high-end market. Now, in the stretch of just a few years, it is being pushed to achieve a high level of fluency with regard to inclusivity and sustainability. Forget luxury, it is being told.

The mold of the traditional urban developer does not seem to be capable of dealing with these relatively-rapid changes. Its financial model seems unable to incorporate parameters of equity and environment, let alone forgo the high-end market as the core basis of profit.

And yet, cities are locked in. Contractual obligations are set in motion.

The circumstances seem to be calling for new mutations of the urban development model to enter into the game. For novel innovative approaches to vie for the dominant positions within the domain of real estate. For more robust financial models, incorporating issues of equity and environment into their calculations, to challenge established frameworks.

Cities are locked in; change is here and on the horizon; and current sectors of real estate are recoiling in paralysis. Time for a change seems to be at hand. If the inclusive and sustainable city is the target, what is missing is the urban development model to match.

Cem S. Kayatekin is a professor at the IE School of Architecture and Design in Madrid. He holds a Bachelor of Architecture from Auburn University, a Master of Architecture from Cornell University, and a Ph.D. in Architecture from the University of Oregon, completed under the tutelage of Howard Davis. He is the co-founder of DICE group, an architecture and urbanism firm anchored primarily in Sri Lanka. He also hosts a podcast titled “A Pinch of Doubt,” focused on framing interdisciplinary discussions.

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