ULI Belgium: Urban Planning and Mobility Infrastructure Workshop

On 2 June 2015, ULI Belgium hosted over 20 of Europe’s leading urban planners, directors of public transport companies and real estate advisers for a workshop in Brussels on how urban planning and mobility infrastructure can improve the future development of major cities. The workshop featured case studies of three of Europe’s most significant transport-related initiatives: Crossrail in London, RATP in Paris and Rotterdam Central Station.

Investment in public transport holds the promise of far-reaching economic and social benefits, according to workshop participants. However, the challenge remains in turning such a widely accepted theory into reality. The positive regenerative impact of infrastructure investment is compelling, based on the evidence of three transport-related initiatives presented to the workshop – Crossrail in London, RATP’s mixed-use transformation of industrial assets across Paris and the redevelopment of Rotterdam Central Station.

But some participants argued that these examples are far from universal. “People are looking at transportation as an economic development tool, which is not the case in Belgium because most of the time public transport is viewed as transport for the poor and it is viewed as big spending,” said one attendee.

Low land values also serve as barriers to investing in transport infrastructure in Brussels. “Land values are relatively modest in Brussels,” said one participant. “In Paris you have to spend €60m putting a bus garage underground but that can be paid for by 100 apartments; whereas in Brussels, the margin is not there on the apartments.”

One of the messages from the workshop is not to expect a smooth ride once a project secures approval, even for Crossrail in a buoyant property market such as London. The spin-off real estate opportunities for Crossrail are huge in scale, which Land and Property Director Ian Lindsay said “make us, for the next few years at least, a top 10 European property developer”. As he pointed out, though, the lack of a development track record has been a major hurdle to overcome in negotiating Crossrail’s property deals. Among the lessons learned at Crossrail is the need to approach the compulsory purchase of railway land in a more pro-active way. “We could have acquired larger plots that would have made more sense for development as part of the overall process from the start,” said Lindsay. “On that basis, we could have funded a much larger proportion of the overall build for Crossrail from value capture and property development type opportunities.”

But workshop participants agreed that one key advantage Crossrail has over some European transport projects has been broad political support from the outset. “That is not the case here in Brussels, where the interests of the Brussels region are different from the interests of the Flemish region in the suburbs,” said one attendee. “In brutal terms, the Brussels region’s economic interest is to make it very difficult to get in and out of Brussels because they want more people to live there because the tax revenues are based on where people live.”

Another participant pointed out that many infrastructure projects “try and improve what we already have to get more people into the same place”. By contrast, Crossrail will alter commuting patterns in and around London. “Crossrail is going to change the shape of London. It will actually stretch London and therefore give more opportunities to move employment locations, living locations, and probably create the equivalent of five or six new termini in London.”

Though the London, Paris and Rotterdam projects are radically different in scale and scope, it was acknowledged that all three have faced the multi-faceted challenge represented by density of development in urban settings.

“Density would be something else we’d need to change,” said Lindsay. “The biggest development that we’ve been able to get near to a Crossrail station is 17 storeys. The vast majority of our schemes will be four or six storeys maximum. That’s another thing we’d want to change in [the forthcoming] Crossrail 2. If the city is going to get the investment it needs and help with the housing crisis then these problems needs to be solved.”

Indeed, the workshop discussion foreshadowed a new ULI Europe report on density. Published later in June, it included a member survey showing that 78 percent of respondents cited “liveability” as a key outcome of successful density. The survey also underscored the importance of sound infrastructure: 80 percent of respondents highlighted good infrastructure as a priority for creating successful density.

At the workshop it was suggested that regeneration based around greater public transportation is likely to improve liveability through major health and social benefits for cities, not least through a decline in car usage and corresponding fall in pollution.

As one delegate said, car usage among younger people in cities such as London and New York is falling anyway. “There is a change from the need to manage car transport in quite the way we had to the need to start managing public transport expectations and the capacity because demand is always going to be ahead of capacity. I think that’s going to be the big challenge of the next 25 years.”

It was pointed out, too, that there is pressure from the World Health Organisation for cities to put greater weight behind public transportation and the shared economy. There is a good case to say that health would be enhanced, but can the resulting health benefits be measured or monetized accurately?

Rémi Feredj, Director of Assets and Urban Planning at the leading French transport operator RATP was confident about the health benefits from the group’s corporate social responsibility policy, specifically around the provision of social housing for employees. “We have 12,000 apartments which are dedicated to early shift workers,” he said. “We can prove that the number of days out of work because of physical tiredness or health is lower among those people who live close to their place of work compared with other people who live far away.”

On the issue of density generally, however, Feredj acknowledged that there is “the added pressure on public spaces in cities [given that] people will live longer in smaller apartments”.

As a major landowner in Paris with long-standing expertise in combining urban and industrial planning, Feredj suggested that RATP is in a strong position to influence the City of Paris on large-scale developments and housing delivery. However, that is an unusual situation and some delegates were sceptical that all city authorities would independently adopt an enlightened policy on density. “We all agree that we are today in a world where we are going into increasing density but density is still very low in Paris compared with a city such as Tokyo,” said one delegate. “We could go much higher. It takes political will.”

The power of political will was demonstrated in the Netherlands over a decade ago when the Municipality of Rotterdam became the prime mover behind the redevelopment of the city’s Central Station. The station has acted as a catalyst for the long-term redevelopment of the Rotterdam Central District, and the municipal authority’s continuing involvement there is pivotal to its success.

“If you have a strong [political] leader, anything is possible,” concluded one delegate. “The real issue, especially in large cities but also here in Brussels, is that we need to invest in public transportation. It’s about much more than transport.”

The above has been adapted from ULI Belgium: Improving mobility to and in Brusselsa workshop summary written by Doug Morrison. The full summary, including case studies, is available to ULI members.  To join ULI, please click here. If you are already a member and would like a copy of the summary, please e-mail europe@uli.org.