‘On the Ground with CRTKL’ is a three-part series capturing perspectives from across CallisonRTKL’s global offices and exploring how we are responding to COVID-19 locally, tactically and personally. In this final chapter, leaders from our EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) teams share their path to recovery and resiliency. Rendering: Saadiyat Grove – The inclusive community located in the heart of Abu Dhabi’s Cultural District on Saadiyat Island, developed by Aldar Properties and designed by CallisonRTKL.
Todd Lundgren: EMEA Regional Leader, based in London
Matthew Tribe: Middle East Office Director, smart cities advocate and leader of the firm’s resiliency initiative – based in Dubai.
How are you managing the transition between lockdown and the new normal?
TL: We’ve felt the disruption as others have and have been working particularly hard to minimise the fallout for our hospitality, retail and entertainment projects. Thankfully, we have been able to lean on the in-house expertise of our healthcare, workplace, residential and urban design practice groups, which have helped us pivot and adapt our projects to better cope with the current crisis and prepare for the new normal we’re about to enter into.
From a practical and logistics perspective, the transition has been easier as we’re already accustomed to conducting business remotely. We often find ourselves working on projects in different countries, so we already had the mechanisms in place to sustain projects of varying scales online and across borders. For instance, in the hospitality group are currently working with Swiss consultants on a project in Switzerland for a Russian client, so would rarely find ourselves all in the same room anyway. In that sense, our ‘normal’ was closer than others to the remote working environments we all found ourselves in.
On the flip side, we were more accustomed than most to frequent international travel – as many of our clients are in Europe. It was normal for us to be in a different country from one day to the next, to take a meeting in Berlin or Paris and be back for dinner. I think a lot of us took that for granted and lockdown certainly brought that into perspective, so as we regain the ability to live and work as we were, I plan to bring a little more awareness to business travel. There will always be value in having boots on the ground, just as there is still merit in offices, but with the advent of technology like seamless video conferencing and live, collaborative drawing tools, we can afford to be more selective with how and when it is necessary to travel.
MT: The experience of the Dubai office has been very similar. Our increasing involvement in projects throughout the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and Egypt means much of our activity extends beyond the United Arab Emirates (UAE), so we were likewise travelling to a different country on a weekly basis, but largely sustaining the delivery of projects remotely.
Lockdown really put these capabilities to the test, especially as we had just begun working on one of the most prominent integrated economic ecosystems in KSA for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The virtual delivery of a trans-disciplinary design solution of this scale and complexity was beyond what any of the project’s many consultants had attempted before, so we have been really pleased to see how our technological infrastructure and robust processes have withstood the pressure of an ambitious and challenging schedule.
For us, the physical distance and implications of lockdown have been felt more on an internal and inter-personal level. Made up of people from 32 countries speaking over 26 languages, ours is an office that has become more like a surrogate family. Many of us are expatriates who have permanently settled in Dubai and so look to one another not just as colleagues, but as friends. So, when it came to dispersing our office it felt a lot more like we were disbanding a support network rather than just moving to a work from home environment. Retaining that connection digitally has often been harder than the project and design work itself, so we’re all quite eager to return to the office. In fact, we have a roadmap for this already in the works thanks to our counterparts in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing, who have now successfully returned to work for the most part.
What opportunities are emerging in terms of market re-entry?
MT: Opportunity arrives through change—in this case, both in terms of policy and people.
From a policy perspective, there is a greater focus than ever on civic wellbeing and resiliency, with urban planning coming into focus in a big way. Pedestrianisation initiatives have been expedited, with Cork, Bristol and Manchester all leading the way and closing high-footfall streets like Deansgate. Earlier this month, the British transport minister, Grant Shapps, also devoted £2 billion to support the establishment of pop-up cycle lanes, pedestrianised spaces and the closure of roads to private vehicles.
Shapps isn’t alone either, with the Mayor of Athens, Kostas Bakoyannis, saying he will “liberate” public space from cars and allocate 50,000 square metres of space for cyclists and pedestrians. In Budapest, 12 miles of temporary bike lanes have been introduced on some of the city’s busiest roads over the past month – in Berlin, it’s 14 miles and in Paris, it’s 20 miles.
Meanwhile, smart city developments in the Middle East, like the Giga projects we are working on in Saudi Arabia or the ones under construction in Masdar in Abu Dhabi, are being looked at for technology-based solutions that reduce city running costs, cut resource consumption and improve service delivery.
The status quo is being universally challenged. Workplace tropes and traditions are finally being cracked. Unnecessary red tape and bureaucracy are no longer an issue. With the removal of barriers that have long stood in our way, we are able to unlock opportunities in markets, cities and asset classes once thought to be untouchable or immovable.
TL: I completely agree. The pandemic has also given us a common enemy to unite against and a common goal to work towards. This shared purpose has also necessitated crossover between traditional public and private sector siloes and borne new partnerships that align with social values.
It has made space for innovation and invention. It has forced cross-sector collaboration and moved us further toward a multidisciplinary approach to urban planning, development and management. We are seeing that the quickest and most effective way to overcome these issues is together.
Our eyes have been opened to new possibilities, mine particularly to those that come when hospitality and healthcare overlap. When the pandemic first started to take hold, this took the form of short-term solutions that addressed capacity issues – hotel/hospital conversions and the repositioning of hotels from luxury to healing.
As the curve piqued, attention turned to the development of a ‘Safe Hotel Certification’ and since then, to the interim design solutions that can make market re-entry possible for owners and operators. We have been applying a healthcare lens to all our projects, not just in hospitality but across the board, to determine how we update current experiences to make them safer, yet still commercially viable.
We’re identifying the touchpoints, soft spots and pressure points. We’re redesigning the journey, integrating service design, interior design, technology and communications. Just as we always have, only now we’re inputting new considerations for this new social paradigm.
What does the future look like?
TL: While these interim solutions are exactly what is needed now, we must remember that the ‘new normal’ we find ourselves in isn’t permanent. Yes, some things will never be the same and that is a good thing. But we must remember that much of what we know, love and miss will seek to return to some new interpretation of its previous state, and that is what we must ultimately be planning for.
For all the talk, we aren’t going to see the complete demise of retail, the mall, the hotel, or the office. Each still has a place in our future – they may grow to look a little different from the traditional model, you may even find they move to new locations, but you won’t find them disappearing altogether.
Macro trends will prevail. We will travel again. We will wine, dine and gather with more than five people. Our stadiums will roar, our stages will light up and our music, shopping and entertainment venues will open their doors to the crowds once more.
It will take time, undoubtedly, but let’s not lose perspective. Many of the projects that are in development stages now won’t be completed for three years, by which time even cruise ships are tipped to have made a comeback.
Now might even be the perfect time to get creative and start a new project if you consider that the next 24 months could be used to plan, tender and begin construction – especially as construction costs are likely to fall further and governments are likely to take a more favourable view of planning applications that stimulate the local economy. That would then have you opening a hotel or starting residential sales at the beginning of a new real estate cycle in 2022-2023. A fairly advantageous position to be in considering many potential competitors will likely have sat this period out and will be forced to play catch up.
All this to say that we should be mindful that the decisions we are making now aren’t just knee-jerk reactions to the current climate. Instead, they should be setting us up to take advantage of the market when it does return because it will and we want to ensure our clients’ assets and portfolios are set up to capture the consumers, travellers and tenants that emerge from this with new motivations, spending habits and priorities.
MT: The future is going to be more about evolution than revolution. COVID-19 brought a lot of issues to the surface. In placing these under a magnifying glass and holding up a mirror to us all, it triggered in many of us this desire for a better world – a desire to do and be better.
Through this experience, we have developed a consciousness that isn’t likely to fade. We won’t be rushing back to join the rat race or embracing hedonism in the same way. Instead, we are returning to the world with more empathy. The consumer economy is being overtaken by the moral economy and if we are to keep up, we must bring that same level of care and awareness to our built environment.
Our cities and our buildings need health checks now. In planning for their future, we need to decide what ‘well’ looks like from an urban perspective and apply a course of treatment that reduces their exposure to risk and makes them stronger.
We’re not referring to short-term exercises in tactical urbanism here, we’re talking fundamental changes to planning. From the pandemic sprawl and suburban flex offices to the decentralisation of our cities and an overhaul of the way people move within them, we need to rethink the design and functionality of our urban environments. With the aim being to recreate the social strength that has been lost through rapid urbanisation and globalisation.
Two big factors to consider will be walkability and the distribution of amenities at a neighbourhood level. Local communities will need to be built around healthcare as much as they are commercial and retail. We need to foster the neighbourly support structure that we’ve become reacquainted with through lockdown, the one that isn’t prying or impacting of privacy, but that really cares.
In that sense, the future looks like a cultural-led regeneration approach that is facilitated by cross-sector collaboration to help nurture social connection between people and places.
Todd is EVP Client Development, with a strategic focus on Creating Winning Momentum and a regional focus on Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Building on three decades of experience, Todd is an industry force, having delivered iconic projects that blend hotel, retail, residential, and other uses to create viable, sustainable mixed-use communities. His widespread hotel experience in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and North America covers the full spectrum of commercial development.
Matthew Tribe serves as the Office Director for CallisonRTKL’s Dubai office and the Regional Practice Group Leader for the Middle East. He has been instrumental to the firm’s growth since he joined in 2014, and his unique approach to master planning and urban design has resonated with commercial clients and cities around the globe. With an eye toward delivering solutions borne out of detailed analysis of current market trends and demographics as well as an understanding of and appreciation for the evolving demands of modern life, Matthew is well-versed in creating spaces and cities that work for client and community.
To revisit the first two chapters of this series and hear the perspectives of CRTKL’s APAC and US leaders, visit: