One of the most controversial subjects of the latest political and social agenda, urban transformation, was indeed a major subject in the World Intelligent Cities Summit 2013. On its first day (November 27th, 2013) WICS hosted the Urban Transformation and Environment panel, which aimed to seek a common ground for the concepts “urban transformation” and “environment.”

The panel speakers were Zihni Aldırmaz (Mayor of Adana Metropolitan Municipality), Steve Lewis (Chief Executive Officer of Living PlanIT), Yücel Çelikbilek (Mayor of Beykoz Municipality), Andrew Comer (Partner at Buro Happold) and Christos Kontogeorgos (Head of Central & Southeastern Europe at European Investment Bank). Moderated by Özlem Gökçe (General Manager at Extensa & Vice Chair at GYODER), the panel started with some questions raised by her:

“Unlike European transformation projects focusing mostly on the transformation of idle areas such as former industrial sites, Turkey’s case is about making a radical change in urban texture, almost building from scratch. Will that make up for the last fifty years’ mistakes in urban planning?”

“What will we do for environmental protection through such a major endeavour?”

Adana, Turkey

The first speaker, Zihni Aldırmaz expressed his thoughts about what he considered crucial for urban transformation. According to his experiences, being responsible of a culturally significant city, like Adana, Aldırmaz believes that the original master plan of cities should be the base for any implementation on the city. Aldırmaz highlighted the importance of this especially in cities with historic value; no surprise that this point was the first thing brought up since transformation in Turkey has to mean being in harmony with the historic layers of the city. Historic layers of a city also guides the understanding of urban life, which could assist with the course of transformation.

The data derived from the historic layers should be integrated into the transforming city, which helps ensure the needs of the surrounding areas are fulfilled as well, instead of transformation on the unit-level.

Aldırmaz’s speech highlighted the importance of the ability to see the big picture before realizing any transformation project. His final comments upon audience’s questions about smart buildings definitely adds to that:

“Yes” to smart buildings, but only with their smartly planned surroundings, especially taking traffic issues into consideration.”

The other mayor, Yücel Çelikbilek approached the urban transformation issue from a more local level, Beykoz, his assigned district.

Anadolu Kavağı, Beykoz district of Istanbul

When it comes to transformation on particular areas, obviously Beykoz is a real challenge with its forested lands, shore and docks, which are connected to strict laws. Instead of taking them as challenges, Çelikbilek thinks they can be turned into opportunities, such as they did with 2B areas. (The term “2B” refers to the areas within Turkish Republic borders that have been lifted out of forested land category because of forest-quality loss and that cannot be reclaimed.) He stated that 80-85% of 2B areas in Beykoz are now under the responsibility of Beykoz Municipality, enabling the property owners to keep ownership.

Beykoz’s future transformation is claimed to be human-oriented and “on-site,” which means no one will be exiled to some other place. Çelikbilek also stated that the transformed Beykoz will be a place where residents are dominating the buildings and surroundings, and not the opposite.

Having witnessed many projects’ implementation (like Sulukule, maybe the most renowned among others) anyone living in Istanbul would wonder whether these optimistic insights are going to be realized that way. Let’s wait and see (and hope) that Beykoz will make a better example than its counterparts in Istanbul.

The “foreign” point of view from the conference were more about strategic aspects of rendering cities smart and conceptual.

Andrew Comer’s definition of the cities was from a much broader point of view: In the “third age of urbanization” as he defined, the cities we are living in belong to a larger concept: “the living city” which is future-proofed, sustainable and resilient – at the same time, otherwise they will not last. Future-proofed means the living city is being planned for the future and urbanization today needs to be horizontal growth – not vertical – which creates urban intelligence. What Comer explains about today’s cities applies to any technology as well: Considering today’s technologies will be outdated within five years, any urban infrastructure should be built with flexibility in order to serve the coming years.

Urbanization and urban transformation are not just about “building,” another important side to them is financial provisioning. Business planning in such cases should adopt a future-oriented strategy as well. What happens in many cases worldwide is private sector steps in whenever public sector stumbles over. Actually, in many of the world’s economies private sectors lead the sponsorship of urban transformation while public sector’s role decreases, but this does not change the fact that public sector still owns the majority of properties. This is why collaboration of two sectors is crucial and central, regional and municipal governments have the key roles in governance and leadership of urban transformation.

Speaking of business strategies, Christos Kontogeorgos had a more specific example for it: JESSICA. JESSICA stands for Joint European Support for Sustainable Investment in City Areas. JESSICA is basically a system where a holding fund is created with the contribution of several European countries in order to provide funds for sustainable city investments in other countries. The fund is controlled by European Investment Bank and is distributed to recipients through call of projects.

Regarding technical and governmental aspects, urban transformation and urbanization is all about “everything collaborating,” as Lewis expressed, in our new era of data sharing. It is now related to a wide range of elements, from an application on our smart phone (there are urban appstores showing the status of your street lamp) to how you deal with your government (e-governments, etc). It is now a fact that the proper use of technologies is now as important as transforming our cities – seeking common ground is crucial because these concepts are intertwined.

Do you know of urban transformation projects that adopted successful use of data sharing technologies? How advanced is your city in these terms? As a citizen, to what extent do you use applications that contribute to the management of your city?

Credits: Images and data linked to sources.