top of page

Alice Charles

Alice is a Director in Arup. Her work focuses on sustainability, climate change, resilience, mobility and progressive transformations in the built environment of cities across the world.

Caitlin Morrissey

In your mind, Alice, what is the DNA of cities? Is it more useful as a literal concept or is it a metaphor?


Alice Charles

So first of all, I think what is the DNA of cities? I think it's what makes it unique. And in that sense, it's the architecture of a city. It's the how the space is laid out in the city. It's the cultural attributes of the city. Right? So I think it is a metaphor in one sense, but it's a way of ensuring that we understand what is unique about a city, so we don't seek to lose that unique character in redeveloping the city.


So I often use this expression about Little Britain high streets, and how you see these high streets that have all become the same, and they don't necessarily reflect the unique character of that place. And for me, that's a shame, because the unique characters of that time, village or city, are what makes that place unique and actually made its function over hundreds of years. And if it's recognized and followed through in terms of architecture, I think that it makes a more prosperous place.


And for example, if I give an example, this weekend I happened to be in Lyon, in France, a wonderful city, France's second city. What is the DNA of a city like Lyon? And it has this wonderful square, Bellecour, which is part of its DNA. It's a wonderful public space. It has grand buildings that are three, four stories high, that have commercial facilities on the ground floor level and have residential facilities above. And it has all of these little squares that are scattered throughout the city. And then, of course, it has a magnificent river that goes through the city. And, you know, the development has been looking on to that river. It has been respecting that river. So in that sense, using the example of Lyon, that's what makes it unique as a place. Its wonderful squares, its wonderful architecture. And we're hearing a lot about the 15-minute city coming out of Paris. In essence, it's got a variety of little 15-minute cities within it already. So it's just rejuvenating that and bringing it back to life.


Greg Clark

Alice, let me ask you just to expound a little bit on a very fundamental point that you've made, which is that you think it's important for cities to express their uniqueness. Why is that important?


Alice Charles

So I'll use another example, where I come from in Ireland, Dublin, a Georgian city. So in the way that city has been designed, you have a lot of Georgian architecture. That architecture is not only beautiful, but also it's a very good use of space. The most dense development in Dublin is actually Georgian Dublin. So they managed to create buildings that respected the unique context of that city with the River Liffey, but also made the best use of land.


So in thinking about developing space in the city, if you reflect that context, it's good in terms of density, it's good in terms of layout. And those buildings, they've provided wonderful room sizes, wonderful accommodation sizes and actually buildings that are resilient in that they can be converted into a variety of uses, whether it's offices or residential and so on and so forth. And so I think if you are to be unique to Dublin, you recognize why the buildings were designed the way they were to give regard to the unique characteristics of that city, but also to make the best use of space.


And I think one of the debates in that city is about height versus density. Right? So it's assumed that height equals density, but height does not equal density. And one of the things where they went wrong has been where they haven't sought to develop in a way that respects that context. And I'm not saying replicate Georgian Dublin. I'm saying recognize the built form, recognize the materials, recognise the layout, recognize the way they use land and seek to follow that through. So I think that if we look at history, the way we develop cities, you know, related to the geography of the place and related to the constraints of that place, we can learn a lot from that in terms of the way we develop the city, whatever city it is, wherever it is in the world.


Greg Clark

Wonderful. One more little bit, can you say something about the social benefits of pursuing the uniqueness and the economic and perhaps the environmental benefit – just to put it in some boxes – what is the social benefit of a city pursuing its own uniqueness?


Alice Charles

And so if a city – again, let's use examples, right, because I started with examples, I might as well continue. If you think about going back to maybe a Lyons, so what's the social benefit of it retaining that unique character? It's got wonderful squares that allow people of all ages to utilise that space, whether it's for play, whether it's for conversation. So it allows people to come together as a community and interact and use that space. It also allows a variety of different unique types of businesses to spring up to cater for that community. So there's a lot of living above the shop. So there's businesses close to where you live. You can walk to work very easily. You can walk to seek pleasure very, very easily. And because of this aspect of having all of these spaces, you're naturally going to interact with them and bump into people from your community and get to know them. You're going to have local schools. You're going to have local creches. So you have a lot of local facilities that allow you to get to know your community and interact with your community.


So I think that certainly breaks down the loneliness barrier and helps people to integrate. And we are social animals, and that's what we want to do from an environmental perspective. That kind of model is obviously good, and that we can avail of the facilities that we need by walking, by cycling, by using public transit, if need be, but largely the majority of what we require is within a short distance of where we live. So it's definitely good from an environmental perspective. And of course, going back to the economic side, it's creating vibrancy. There's a positive economic impact as well. Did I miss something? I think I'm going to miss one of your points.


Greg Clark

No!


Alice Charles

No?


Greg Clark

Back to Caitlin.


Caitlin Morrissey

So Alice, how do cities acquire that DNA in terms of this built form? And how and when does this come about?


Alice Charles

History, I guess. You know, why were cities developed where they were? It was generally recognizing that, for example, it was in a location where the people who are going to occupy that place could defend themselves. And it was recognized that you could trade, you could avail of trade, it was beside a river, it was beside the sea. So history is what has determined where that city is going to be and how that city is going to develop and withstand itself.


So, you know, I think that if we throw that out, throw the baby out with the bathwater, I don't think it's a good idea. We need to understand how history drove us to create the city the way that it was created and learn from that, rather than replicate what's undertaken in other cities around the world. I think, first of all, there's ideas, and very good ideas, that are in cities that are capable of replication, but they must be replicated in the context of that particular city and not exactly how they were done in other cities.


Caitlin Morrissey

And I suppose a follow-up question to that is, what's the danger of a city kind of transplanting something from somewhere else that doesn't quite match their DNA or doesn't quite fit?


Alice Charles

Let's look at Dubai, or you could look at Manhattan, for that matter. So, yes, what is unique to Manhattan is that it's got high rise buildings, but because of the fact it's got high rise buildings, there's an effort for one building to out-design the other, be bigger than the other. But actually how that building relates to the building beside it is not taken into consideration. So actually, the DNA is not taken into consideration.


It's exactly the same in Dubai. The whole focus is on building a bigger and taller building. It's not thinking about what is unique to Arabic cities, what is unique to cities in the UAE. It's all about creating a bigger and better building because one developer wants to have a bigger building than the other. And many people do like living there, but there is nothing particularly unique about Dubai. And so in one sense, you could call it the Vegas of the Middle East because, again, there's nothing unique about Vegas.


Greg Clark

It's very interesting, isn't it, Alice? I mean, this is more of a comment, it invites you to make a counter-comment, but with quite a few places in the world where there's insufficient existing urban capacity, deciding to build new cities and new districts and to relocate capitals and to create these new megalopolises, it invites a question as to how do you build a new city that actually has some DNA? Is that something that you've thought about?


Alice Charles

Well, it's very interesting you should say that. I immediately think of a new city in India that I've been to visit, and I'm not going to say where it is. But, you know, when I arrived there, I was like, I've been transported to Portofino in India. So, you know, it was very jarring, it was so out of keeping with Indian architectural design, it was jarring, the architecture, the materials. Also, what was really interesting was how it didn't work climatically. So they had, for example, painted the buildings in the exact same way that the buildings in Portofino are painted. But you have a tropical climate, so it didn't actually work. So getting back to what I was saying earlier, that we built our cities the way we built our cities to respect their unique geography, they didn't build this city to respect the unique geography as a new city. And it didn't work.


The other thing in creating a new city, I think one of the really difficult things is to create economic activity in that city. So this new city was designed to be a counterbalance to Mumbai and Pune in the middle of the two cities. But it was struggling to have an economic function. So in essence, what it was was a weekend getaway for the rich and famous. So it hadn't established itself as a vibrant city. So creating economic activity is very difficult. And so in that sense, I think strengthening the cities that we have is an easier model to get right than creating cities from scratch.


Greg Clark

You know, I agree with every word you just said. There's not much to add, but in a way, you're also saying then that having a fundamental economic rationale is also, in a sense, part of the DNA.


Alice Charles

Absolutely.


Greg Clark

Yeah. And then you're talking about the geography, the history, and then you're talking about the built form, the heritage. If you like, you're giving us some insights about a kind of genetic code, to use the metaphor, of different elements. If you want to say any of that in a kind of pulling-it-together paragraph, please do.


Alice Charles

It's difficult to pull it all together, right? That is what represents the DNA, it's the architecture, the heritage, the history, the economic vitality of the place, the culture. So transporting Portofino into India, the Italian culture versus the Indian culture, so uniquely different. And it doesn't work is the reality. So respecting the culture of the people is hugely important as well.


Greg Clark

Great. 


Caitlin Morrissey

And how might cities go about understanding their DNA and who is responsible for doing that when it comes to new projects and developments?


Alice Charles

Yeah, so I think it generally lies with planning departments, with architecture departments, with heritage departments, conservation architects within cities. And I think that, you know, a lot of cities do actually find their oldest possible map when they're thinking about the future development of their city. And it's a really good place to start. So understanding the origins of your city, the unique development pattern of your city, the trade patterns of your city is super important to try and think about its future. And if you don't understand that, then you cannot think about its future.


I think one of the things that in many cities we fail to do is bring in the public into this conversation. So, you know, there isn't rational conversation about the future development of a city. It becomes very political rather than thinking about, OK, we actually want this city to survive for thousands of years more just like it has before. So how can we best develop it to ensure that it does survive and thrive?


There aren’t conversations about the materials that were used and why they were used. There aren’t conversations about how public space was thought about, how the environment was respected and how the city, for example, got access to food there is those kinds of conversations happening to a great extent, and that's a shame. And so I think that that wider conversation does need to be happening between citizens and city, so citizens start to understand the unique origins of their city and are vested in wanting to retain that. You know, we've seen so much of our heritage being lost, and our heritage is lost generally because people don't understand the importance of that heritage and respect its function. So that is something that we certainly need to try and develop because good isn't necessarily knocking down a building. Good is trying to restore that building.


One of the things, however, that I think could be positive in that respect is the whole movement towards net-zero-carbon buildings. So recognizing that there's embedded carbon in buildings and if that legislation is enacted, as in many countries, in many cities around the world, around delivering that zero-carbon building, that might actually make us retain a lot more of our heritage and start to have these conversations about how that building was designed to have the minimal environmental impact, but provides the best quality for the inhabitants within it.


Greg Clark

Alice, you're saying, I think, something very important about heritage, sense of belonging and sense of identity, and social capital, and environmental consciousness. There's a kind of thread in what you're saying of these four ideas. I wonder if you'd like to just expand that and make that connection more explicitly.


Alice Charles

Yeah, and I'm actually going to go to ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance investing), and this is the world that you know very well. It's something that's being promoted in the banking community and the investment community at the moment. So in terms of, you know, banking institutions, investment institutions are saying we are embracing ESG, which is going to inform our investment decisions of the future, and in fairness, before COVID, it was one of the three, and generally, the social pillar was completely neglected. And that's where much of the conversations around heritage would be happening, as well as inclusion, diversity, et cetera.


So in the same way, I think that our cities and our governments need to embrace ESG. So it's not just the investment community. And if they start to embrace ESG in informing their future decisions, I think they'll make much better decisions. So ensuring that they respect the environment, and that they recognize the social issues associated with future development and adhere to proper governance in the way that they run their cities and they deliver their future strategies.


Greg Clark

Brilliant. I'm going to be a little bit cheeky – I hope you'll forgive me – and ask you just to say some of this again from a kind of citizen perspective, because I thought what you were saying was: awareness of the heritage gives a sense of belonging. That sense of belonging creates a communal identity between people which spurs them to collective action. They're much more likely to behave in an environmentally conscious way if they have that sense of belonging. And I don't want me to say that. I want you to say your version of that because it's your voice that matters, not mine.


Alice Charles

So, you know, we're all fascinated about our ancestors, right? We're fascinated to know where they lived, how they lived, what they did. If we understand how they built the buildings that surround us every day and why they built the buildings that surround us every day, then I think we want to retain them and improve them and be the custodians of them. So we often attach that to land. So you'll hear people say this land has been in my family for X number of generations and we want to retain it in our family for X number of generations. It's the same with regard to building. We are custodians of our city. So if we understand our buildings' history and why they existed in the way they existed and how our ancestors occupied them, then I think we personally are more interested in wanting to retain this. That's the point I was trying to make.


Caitlin Morrissey

I think this kind of leads us onto the question about does the concept of the DNA of cities leave anything out about the way that we understand the built environment and the way that it evolves, and does it raise any questions for you that it doesn't quite answer?


Alice Charles

I suppose one of the things is the DNA can be disrupted, so how we deal with how the DNA has been disrupted. And there's certainly no city in the world that hasn't had disruption of its DNA. And so do you want to replicate that disruption too or do you just want to replicate what is the origins of the city? So certainly when you see when brutalist architecture comes into the equation, you often see that. Do we retain these Corbusier-like buildings or do we knock them down?


And that obviously relates back to what I was saying earlier in terms of we're striving towards net-zero-carbon building, so many cities are going to ban demolitions as a result and they're going to seek to retain these buildings. So I think from a city's perspective, there is your origins, there is what's unique about your city, but it's recognizing, yes, there has been disruptions within that and that disruptions is now part of your city, too. So that doesn't mean that you knock down the disruptions. What you want to do – many of those buildings may not be the most liveable. And I guess what you have to do in that instance is to try to bring them back to be functional buildings, be liveable buildings, be places where people strive to live. But it's not about knocking them down necessarily.


Caitlin Morrissey

And just to pick up on what you were just saying, do you think that cities can go so far as to lose part of their DNA, or do you think that that is so innate that actually the disruptions eventually might – one day we might be able to return to the original DNA of that city because it is just fixed in that place?


Alice Charles

What is the DNA of Dubai? I think in relation to Dubai, it doesn't know what its DNA. But would it make sense for it to revisit what was the original DNA of urban centres within the UAE? Yes, because actually they were designed in such a way that they could withstand the heat much better than taking a building from the United States or elsewhere and transporting that, if you like, into Dubai. I think that it's very difficult to get back to what was originally the makeup of a UAE urban centre. But there are certain attributes that you can bring back, recognizing that it will work better in the climatic conditions in which you're in than just transporting an American-style building into Dubai.


Greg Clark

Alice, you've sort of subconsciously or unconsciously added another element to the gene code, which is the climatic conditions and the appropriacy of different forms and different materials and all of that. I would love it if you just spoke about that a little bit more and talk about, you know, the use of locally sourced materials, the creation of buildings and shapes and walkways that are climate adjusted, because although you've said it in that last bit, you haven't really said that that's important yet. I don't mean to be coaching you. It's just that I want to get your voice very clear on these topics.


Alice Charles

Yeah, I think it's a super important point. So in climatic conditions where it's extremely hot, buildings were designed in such a way that they could provide shade. So when the sun was at its hottest that you could seek sanctuary within that building. Also, they were built in such a way that if there was a sandstorm in the desert, again, it could protect you. So they provided protection. And buildings that are in northern Europe, for example, extremely thick walls designed to try and keep the cold and keep them dry. So buildings have been designed and built in different ways to meet with different climatic conditions. And what we did see, particularly in the 60s, 70s, where we tried to have a more harmonized way of building, is that we actually built buildings that were not suitable for our climate.


So one of the things that we've seen recently is a lot of promotion of timber frame building. And I don't actually think the timber frame buildings are a good idea for the UK or Ireland because both are very damp climates. So it may work in certain parts of the United States where you don't have that level of humidity, but where you have the levels of humidity that you have in Ireland, in the UK, for example, does it make sense to build timber frame buildings? Our ancestors certainly didn't think it made sense. And so does it make sense for us right now? Perhaps not.


However, what I would preface is we need to design our buildings so they respond to the climatic conditions within each individual city. But in the construction sector, one of the things that has prevented it from getting greater efficiencies is the lack of harmonization. So if you're going to produce a car, for example, anywhere in the world, there's relatively similar standards for a car. If you're going to produce a house, it varies from every time village, city, country to country, et cetera. So in some way, we do need to try and harmonize construction to an extent in terms of what can we prefabricate, what can we deliver through modular construction? But that needs to be also prefaced with the fact that there are unique climatic conditions in different countries. There are unique styles of architecture, of heritage. So you can only do it to an extent, you know, in terms of the exterior of the building, in terms of the insulation use, et cetera. That needs to respond – or the heating and cooling mechanisms, that needs to respond to the local context. And I think that's going to be one of the difficulties of the construction industry in the next number of years is how do you deliver 3D printed building or how do you deliver modular construction that is unique to the individual context of a particular city or place?


Greg Clark

Again, I think you're saying something really interesting about the relationship between sort of rapid urbanisation, reorganisation, all of that technology and authenticity.


Alice Charles

Yeah.


Greg Clark

And again, you might want to put those ideas together. I mean, you did just say it, but the word authenticity comes through in what you're saying. So maybe you just want to give us a sentence where you combine those ideas.


Alice Charles

Yeah. If we think about the future of construction, then of what's been suggested is that we do something like what Lendlease is doing right now with Podium. And so we leverage digital twin technology to autonomously design buildings. We then have a permitting system that can look at that model and see does that proposal meet with our expectations? And then we literally leverage advanced manufacturing to manufacture that building. So we cut our design time, we cut our permitting time, we cut our manufacturing time, we cut our material use. We gain huge efficiencies within that system. And that's where we are going. Right? But we have to go there in such a way that we do not lose what is unique in terms of the buildings that we create, so they have got to respect the unique architectural heritage, the unique climatic conditions, the unique geography of that city. So in that context, I do see that there will be probably archetypes of buildings that are created. But the facades, the installations will have to vary according to the individual context in which the city or places in.


Greg Clark

Brilliant. Caitlin? 


Caitlin Morrissey

I think I have asked all of my questions, but this has been absolutely fascinating to hear your perspectives on this. Greg, I'm not sure if you had anything else to ask Alice? 


Greg Clark

Only if there's anything, Alice – is there anything you would like to say that you haven't yet said on this general topic?


Alice Charles

No, I think it's a great topic, actually, because there's so many architects out there that just want to knock everything down. I think it's a great topic that you picked, and wishing you all the best of luck with it. 


bottom of page