“Sustainability Means Building in the Right Places”

  Woman smiling at the camera Copyright: © RWTH Professor Christa Reicher heads the Chair of Urban Design and the Institute of Urban Design and European Urbanism at RWTH Aachen University.

RWTH urban planner Christa Reicher talks about green roofs, the courage to leave gaps, conquering the sky in Aachen, and having coffee in Florence

Nothing less than the question of how we will and want to live in the future drives Professor Christa Reichert. She heads the Chair of Urban Design and the Institute of Urban Design and European Urbanism at RWTH Aachen University - and is now the director of a UNESCO Chair. We recently had the pleasure of meeting up with her.

Professor Reicher, what does the perfect city of the future look like?

The perfect city does not exist. But the good and livable city is the one that has a lot of greenery and short distances, that is lively – and of course, it should also be beautiful.

Is the green city with short distances also the one most aligned with sustainability and climate justice?

It is always sustainable when social, ecological, and economic thinking is applied simultaneously. For urban planning, this means: In the right places, build as densely as possible, perhaps even high, and in other places, deliberately leave or create open spaces in the development. This is incredibly important in light of the challenges posed by climate change and overheating in the summer months. So: We can still build – I am not saying to stop building! But build sustainably and in the right place.

Does that mean a historically developed city with little or no open space cannot be sustainable?

Let’s look at Aachen, for example. We see that by demolishing a parking garage in the city center, we can create opportunities for new open spaces – but then you must have the courage to seize these opportunities. Sustainability also means having a healthy mix of uses in city centers. In light of retail problems and many vacant storefronts, sustainability also means bringing new uses to downtowns. With this in mind, we are looking some more at housing, but also at our roofscapes. With the help of our students, we are now implementing a project called “Conquering the Sky.” The students look at the city skyline and the rooftops of Aachen and show how new uses can be added in one place, how energy can be generated in another, and where green can be added to the fifth dimension of the roofscape. This is a great strategy when it comes to built structures.

So if there is housing on the one hand and green spaces on the other, is it always necessary to distinguish between social and environmental sustainability?

We must think of these different aspects in an integrated way. The ecological concern is, unfortunately, far too often played off against the social one. Building, yes; creating housing, yes – but we must do it in the right place, where structures are compatible with all the other conditions. This also entails not building at all in another space. Instead, we must keep existing fresh air corridors and valuable green spaces and make them accessible to everyone.

In light of all this, what contribution can the new UNESCO Chair make?

The new chair incorporates two topics in its title: Cultural heritage and urban planning. Cultural heritage is a very important component of a city’s or region’s identity. Unfortunately, it sometimes falls by the wayside when economic development is strongly favored. But identity – and the associated attractiveness of cities – can also be a driver for urban development. Thanks to its broad take on urban development, the UNESCO Chair does not just look at cities’ appearance or their culture of building but sees building culture, beauty, and aesthetics as an integrative component of urban development. This is an important aspect not only in metropolitan areas but also in many small towns because, ultimately, it is always about the quality of life for local people. The UNESCO Chair has the advantage of being in a position to promote international knowledge exchange through its worldwide network. We want to offer our support to help promote awareness of integrative urban development and sustainability. This is not only about innovative concepts or coordination of planning. The chair also has an educational mandate, i.e. to integrate the knowledge we have generated and will generate into teaching and research.

How has urban planning changed over time?

Urban planning has always pursued its own specific urban planning guiding principles. One of the most prominent is the Athens Charter, which followed the motto of separating different uses – housing, work, leisure, and transport. For many, this was the greatest disaster in urban planning because this separation of functions, especially in the post-war period, led to much destruction and gave rise, for example, to the industrial parks on the outskirts of the city and many other things that we no longer like today. But it was also this guiding principle that prioritized the quality of living and thus sharpened people’s focus on the issue of quality of life. We should not pursue guiding principles dogmatically but look at what constitutes quality of life. For us today, that means: We should neither only pursue the model of short distances or the 15-minute city nor be exclusively guided by that of the participatory city. We should consider all these important values and achievements in an integrated way.

Which brings us back to the beginning of the conversation – so the ideal city doesn’t exist?

To me, an ideal city is one that we all enjoy, where the quality of life is there for everyone. However, there is neither a blueprint nor a patent remedy for this. We need different answers and different concepts – in essence, different futures for different cities.

Where would you rather drink your coffee: In the climate-friendly, sustainable, and very green 15-minute city district or the historic center of Florence?

Sometimes in Florence and at other times in the nearby green spaces. This is an important question that shows there is no single right answer in urban planning.

Play Video
“Sustainability Means Building in the Right Places” – an Interwiew with an RWTH Urban Planner (de)