We need the artists
In this final Rebalance Dialogue, Andrea Ricci moderated the dialogue between Alain L’Hostis and Cristina Marolda about how living, working and shopping patterns are changing in Europe and transforming our urban context. As ICT-based technology permeates our life, the so-called “smart” solutions become the default option for many people as they supposedly bring time savings and overall efficiency gains. Pandemics have certainly accelerated this change, but a more structural trend was visible even before, which technological innovation alone cannot explain. The implications are far-reaching, they affect urban form, infrastructure requirements, and most importantly basic values such as equality of opportunities.

REBALANCE wants to know to which of the following four “models” are the aspirations of the majority of citizens – and specifically what the younger generations. First, Suburban dwelling, quiet, more indoor and outdoor space; second, Inner city dwelling, “where the action is”; third, Rural escape, return to nature and fourth the 15-minute city, multi-nodal city

One way to predict which of these will be favoured in the long term is to identify robust change factors that support them. The participants identified a surge in rural escape from the city centre, where the real estate market has grown exponentially. Millennials wanted to settle in the inner city but couldn’t afford it. Cities should be balanced between density and green spaces. The 15 min-city model was debated along with it’s multinodal, multicentre characteristics: The Dutch model was also proposed and suggested for further exploration: connected small cities. Currently, there is the question of whether polycentric cities reduce transport injustice or just increase efficiency. Services must be guaranteed for the majority and not just for the elite. The future might offer denser cities because the human population continues to grow. Although digitalisation and gentrification define the city models, these concepts are also defined by the models.

Awareness of mobility injustice is spreading, especially in regard to the density vs sprawl debate. Long commuting times, in particular, reflect differently on different-economic groups, and attention is growing on “kinetic elites” and other inequality risks. Urban density has been systematically equated with efficiency and quicker accessibility, which leads to a disregard towards urban sprawl. The revision of this dogma could put polycentric cities in the spotlight in the matter of reducing mobility injustice.

In societal terms, there could be a possible divide in society between commuters and non-commuters. Also possible a combination of both, with occasional commuting (with longer travel times). There are differences in needs and wishes between generations. Social networks are omnipresent, but is meeting people a driver? For instance, teens in France reduced their mobility for leisure (even before COVID-19). Young people are thought to be more conscious of the environment and sustainability, but this needs to be linked with the awareness of the common good, not as a synonym of freedom reduction.

Regarding the debate “comfort vs convenience“, efficiency, in the guise of “individual convenience”, appears to be the main driver of changing patterns. The level of the extent to which efficiency is pursued at the expense of other fundamental values and aspirations, both at the individual level (comfort) and more importantly at the overall community level (equity, conviviality) needs to be explored. Optimisation is not an individual choice and the value of travel time might mean less commuting time (VTT reduces when using ICT), but the value of time is rooted in efficiency. People will travel more when commuting.

The discussants stressed that millennials do not put effort into owning the car and that their convenience (efficiency instead of comfort) affects other values such as social sustainability, economic sustainability, and environmental sustainability. And the long term impact of COVID might be the revaluation of the value of personal time and rethinking our priorities.

The massive shift towards remote activities (work, learn, shop, etc.) entails that the availability of individual space becomes a prominent concern. The following two extreme alternatives fight to prevail:

  1. Alternative 1: the shift towards remote, virtual life is here to stay. Therefore, it is necessary to redesign our space and the logistics available to ensure comfort and efficiency in the medium/long term. The real estate market undergoes a major structural change, with residential space in higher demand while office space loses value.

  2. Alternative 2: confinements and lockdowns have shown that the social/convivial dimensions of most our activities are essential to ensure an acceptable quality of life. Remote work and education are limited to the essentials and most people/families are content with marginal readjusting of their available space.

In this case, the participants raised points such as:

“Smart does not equal digital” and the need to be aware of technology, ingrained in society. Things are changing, also the assumptions. Technology must be steered because it is not fair per se.

Will urban expansion drive the evolution of transport infrastructure and mobility services or the other way around?

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Andrea Ricci is a recognised foresight expert who is highly regarded for his knowledge on sustainability policy analysis, impact assessment and forward-looking analyses, with particular emphasis on public policy.

Learn more about Andrea Ricci

Cristina Marolda has been Policy Officer in charge of Research and Innovation in EC Directorate General for Mobility and Transport in charge of designing the innovation strategy for European transport infrastructure and logistics.

Learn more about Cristina Marolda

Dr Alain L’Hostis (M) is research director at Université Gustave Eiffel. Holding a PhD (U Tours) and a habilitation (U Paris-Est Marne la Vallée) in spatial planning. He develops a research programme on geographical distances.

Learn more about Alan L’Hostis

Watch the full explorative conversation