Our cities must undergo radical change if they are to remain livable in the future and able to respond to challenges such as climate change. The ideas of young urban planners are particularly in demand. But what about their training? We asked Christina Simon-Philipp, Professor of Urban Planning and Development at the Stuttgart University of Applied Sciences.
Mrs Simon-Philipp, is urban planning a career field with a future?
With a great future, in fact. Our cities are facing immense challenges in terms of mobility, climate change and affordable housing. Finding answers to these and rethinking the city is immensely important. At the same time, a broad perspective is needed to consider all these aspects and challenges. That's exactly why we train urban planners. With success, by the way; our graduates are highly sought after on the job market and their skills are in demand in a wide variety of areas – from independent planning offices to municipal administrations.
What does the academic training of young urban planners look like?
At the Hochschule für Techni, we try to teach urban planning in a very broad and practice-oriented way. Our focus is on urban development, urban planning, urban design and renewal. In these areas, there are diverse study projects in which very different perspectives come together. In addition to traditional urban development, experts from sociology, mobility research or landscape architecture are also involved. This means that students not only receive theoretical input, but can also try their hand conceptually at developing their own urban planning projects. Through this close link with practice, they learn first-hand about the challenges, but also solutions, posed by climate change or the desire for different urban mobility.
What qualities should young people have who want to become urban planners?
They should be creative and communicative people. They learn the rest at university and, of course, in professional practice. By creativity, I don't just mean designing architecture, for example, but also finding creative processes and solutions that involve all the important players in the (re)design of the city. Communication is also immensely important, because urban planning is always a process of negotiating interests.
I also imagine urban planning to be frustrating sometimes, especially when you are looking for and need quick solutions.
In urban planning, great solutions are rarely developed spontaneously and in silence. Rather, urban design is a very complex and sometimes tough process. Accordingly, a certain frustration tolerance is already helpful in this profession. On the other hand, our graduates can make an extremely big difference, creatively solve urgent problems and design new model projects for other cities. But that's exactly what moderation and negotiation of interests and the ability to endure conflicts are essential for.
One topic with conflict potential is mobility. On the one hand, cities suffer from the large number of vehicles; on the other hand, mobility is a basic need and important for society and the economy. How is this area of tension discussed at the university?
Mobility is certainly one of the big issues in urban planning. It is a basic need of us humans and ensures participation. But the problem arises from the wrong focus on individual transport. It is not conducive to mobility if everyone uses their own car. We need attractive alternatives, for example through reliable local public transport, but also through seamless transport chains that enable commuters to park their cars on the outskirts of the city and make greater use of buses, trains or sharing models. Many cities are coming up with exciting ideas and projects for this very purpose, which we are of course also taking up in research and teaching and in some cases also supporting.
Does climate change also play a role in your course?
Absolutely. Climate change and its effects are a very urgent challenge for our cities and are closely linked to other issues such as mobility or social coexistence. That's why climate change plays a central role in all urban planning courses. We really have to rethink cities and actually completely rebuild them, and public space is particularly important in this context – which is why we need new and radical ideas from young urban planners. For example, we don't want to seal up urban areas any further, but create more green spaces and open spaces. This lowers temperatures, is good for the climate and helps to better deal with extreme weather events such as heavy rain. Fortunately, more and more cities are recognising the need for action and are looking for new ways.
Despite rising rents, cities are still attractive places to live. But how can living in cities remain affordable, especially for young people, families or seniors?
We need a rethink here, too. When it comes to housing construction, social issues should be at the forefront, not just economic profit. For example, urban land should not simply be sold to the highest bidder. Instead, socially oriented developers or cooperative housing projects and building communities should be promoted. This will also create more affordable housing. Fortunately, this is now increasingly being implemented in major cities such as Hamburg and Stuttgart. Of course, other issues such as demographics also play a major role. In many cities, there is a high proportion of single-family homes from the 1960s and 1970s, in which elderly people often live alone. This raises the very tricky question of how we can make new and more effective use of this stock. Incidentally, this is just as much a question for which our students are considering conceptual solutions together with experts from practice and research.
The article was published on September 23, 2022 in the Süddeutsche Zeitung publishing special under »Lernen: Schule, Hochschule & Weiterbildung«.
The interview was conducted by Birk Grüling.
With many thanks to Süddeutsche Zeitung for the use of the interview.
Portrait photo: © Achim Zweygarth