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Polycentric polymath: An interview with Alfonso Vegara

Words: Simon Wicks

Architect, planner, sociologist, economist, political scientist… Alfonso Vegara brings the full scope of his knowledge to bear on the creation of ‘polycentric’ city clusters that can compete with the world’s megacities. He tells Simon Wicks why the future lies in ‘intelligent territories’

For someone who didn’t grow up in a city, Alfonso Vegara is more than making up for lost time. A child of rural Alicante in southern Spain, he didn’t get a proper taste of urban life until heading north, to Navarra in the Basque Country, to study architecture in his late teens.

“From the moment I began studying [in Pamplona], I immediately discovered that the scale of the city was fascinating for me,” he recalls. “But I saw the architectural school as a very isolated approach to the city, and at that time a lot of the universities in Spain were beginning a programme of urban
economics, so I decided to combine my education there with the university of Valencia [some 500km away], where this programme was beginning.”

He continues: “By combining these two things I tried to discover a key point, which is the competitiveness of cities, territorial and economic. I did my [city and regional planning] PhD on this relationship between territory and economics, and what the key components of competitiveness are at the scale of cities.

“Traditionally economists were discussing competitiveness in relation to countries, but not to cities – and this fascinated me.”

“Reinventing the city is a permanent task, and planners need to have a very important role in the future of cities. Our profession runs the risk of becoming irrelevant if we are not providing solutions to this challenge, as economists and politicians are”

It’s a full answer to a simple question (“Why do you study cities?”) and one that winds across a varied terrain. We’ve quickly established that Vegara is an enthusiast for cities, a polymath [he also has a sociology degree], and a man of considerable scope.

The modern term for his approach to urban planning might be ‘holistic’, a word that peppers his conversation. And it’s not just in his work that he’s so variegated. When I ask which city he lives in, Vegara names four: Madrid, Bogota, Singapore and Mexico City. “I try to enjoy being mobile,” he smiles.

Mobility is essential to Vegara’s approach to city planning. He thinks in terms of ‘territorios inteligentes’ – smart territories – wrapped around ‘polycentric’ city clusters. These are places with clear identities of their own that nevertheless collaborate financially,
technically, commercially, educationally and politically to compete with the world’s ‘megacities’ – London, New York, Beijing. It’s a way of enabling medium-sized cities to become more than the sum of their parts. Given that it’s these cities that are predicted to see the greatest growth in coming decades, it makes sense to focus resources here, says Vegara.

Megacities, he observes, “have a lot of disadvantages in terms of transportation and pollution, and they are losing competitiveness. Medium-sized cities, when they are connected, when they have the opportunity to define their own urban profile, they can really be relevant at a global scale.”

He urges planners to see beyond traditional city boundaries and into broader territories of shared geography, culture and commercial interest. “When you think of the scale of the city, the municipal boundary, or at the scale of the traditional region, sometimes the opportunities and challenges are outside of these boundaries," he says. "So we need a new kind of leadership, where vision and creativity will be fundamental to understand these new areas that are becoming the economic powers of the world.”

At this point it sounds extremely theoretical. But Vegara has form as a practical planner, having won awards for schemes enacted in the Basque Country, Singapore and Colombia. He’ll be sharing his experiences at the RTPI convention, addressing the challenges to planners of the globe’s growing urban population.

falsePlanning as rehabilitation


Vegara’s first significant exploration of the city cluster model – and its potential to ‘rehabilitate’ regions – occurred in the Basque Country where he studied and taught. His Basque Regional strategy envisaged Bilbao, San Sebastian and Vittoria-Gasteiz as nodes within a single territory, connected physically and strategically.

“For years we were working with different political sensitivities to create this first diamond with three capitals,” he explains. “Connecting the three cities was a challenge. But the time distance between Bilbao and San Sebastian (100km apart) will now be only 22 minutes. This was the first example of creating a super-city, but now we are promoting this worldwide.”

What aided the venture (part of a long-term regeneration post-Franco) was a shared sense of identity. “It was a very interesting case of the Basque country trying to recapture their identity, and using their territory as a main factor of identity and feeling of belonging,” says Vegara, adding: “Territory is a main component of identity.”

He immediately goes on to talk about his work in Singapore where, again, new transport links have knitted cities within wider regions. Here, the ‘rehabilitation’ has involved criss-crossing civic and political boundaries between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur – cities with a history of poor relations. High-speed rail between the two opens up an enormous area to tens of millions of people; connectivity reduces discord and promotes collaboration.

But Colombia is where Vegara’s polycentic city is seeing its fullest expression. The ‘Caribbean diamond’ is a network of 10 cities in a territory of 14 million people. High-speed rail, regional transit systems and digital infrastructure are all being used to connect inland and coastal areas in a way that enables all to benefit from ports that offer a trading gateway to the “Grand Caribbean and the rest of the world”.

“Given Columbia’s turbulent history, a key thing to implement in a country severely lacking in road infrastructure and transport is digital technology, which is very inexpensive and you can implement immediately,” Vegara explains. “So you don’t need a generation to build a road or a train system. Digital technology and education will accelerate the process of connecting universities, individuals, cities, departments. It's helping a lot.”

“This idea of creating a polycentric structure will be crucial in the future for increasing the importance of medium-sized cities”

Considerable resources have been brought to bear on its creation – from Microsoft, experimenting with new technology via its Next Cities Lab, and from the Colombian national bank Findeter. But such complex ventures stand or fall on the strength of city leadership, Vegara suggests.

“Imagine working at the same time with 10 different political parties and trying to discover the singularities of each of the cities. The key is the quality of the people leading the institutions. We're seeing a new generation of leaders [in Colombia] without corruption, with commitment to their own objectives and the credibility to ask the private sector to contribute to public objectives." But, he adds, "With 10 cities you cannot hope that every city will run the same way, so you'll have an asymmetric process. Some will grow rapidly; for some, nothing will happen.”

Polycentricity in the UK


There is synchronicity here with the UK’s own shift towards city regions. In a hyper-connected world subject to intense population pressure and competition for resources, clustering is arguably a rational step. “Today for cities, it's not only important to understand your singularities," Vegara stresses. "You also need to understand the context of how cities are developing, and how other cities around the world are positioning themselves, to define your strategic position.”

His work also dovetails with October’s UN-Habitat III conference in Ecuador, which will set the direction of travel for sustainable urban planning for the next 20 years. His schemes are on point, but he has a warning for planners. “The cities that I know are more creative and more successful have two levels of organisation: A planning department that runs with daily activities, but they also have another department thinking for the future.

“This idea of reinventing the city is a permanent task, and planners need to have a very important role in the future of cities,” he concludes. “Our profession runs the risk of becoming irrelevant if we are not providing solutions to this challenge, as economists and politicians are.”

Dr Alfonso Vegara

Education: Degrees in: Architecture, University of Navarra, 1979; Regional and Urban Economy, University of Valencia 1979; Urbanism (City and Regional Planning), Navarra 1983 (PhD); Sociological Politics, University of Madrid 1988 Born: Jacarilla, Alicante, 1955


1979-88 - Professor, Department of Urbanism, University of Navarra, Pamplona

1983-92 - Professor, Department of Urbanism, Polytechnic University of Madrid

1994 - ECTP-CEU European Urban and Regional Planning Awards, Highly Commended for Basque Country Territorial Planning Guidelines

1997 - Visiting professor, City and Regional Planning Department, University of Pennsylvania

1997 - Founded Fundación Metrópoli, Madrid

2002 - Adviser to Urban Redevelopment Authority, Ministry of National Development, Singapore

2003-06 - President of ISOCARP (International Society of City and Regional Planners)

2006 - ECTP-CEU European Urban and Regional Planning Awards winner for Basque Regional Strategy

2008 - ECTP-CEU European Urban and Regional Planning Awards winner for EcoCity of Sarriguren

2015 - World Smart City Awards Innovative Idea Award winner for the Caribbean and Santanderes Diamond project in Colombia

falseSingapore: Four layers of a smart city


Vegara has close ties with Singapore, maintaining a home there, advising the Ministry of National Development and working with that ministry’s Centre for Liveable Cities to develop and execute ideas around ‘intelligent territories’ and city clusters.

“One of the places that is dealing in a more holistic way with this concept of the ‘smart city’ is Singapore. We’ve been helping Singapore for 15 years in different ways. They are a smart nation – a city-state – and there are four layers:

1) The physical layer – the physical structure of the city, the environmental system, etc. It is key. You can have a fantastic application for the efficiency of a transport system but if the physical structure is not appropriate, even if you have good technology, you don’t have a good chance.

2) Broadband connectivity – having a digital infrastructure that allows you to develop different institutions, etc.

3) The idea of open data – having access to data. Singapore now has 11,000 databases that are open to the public to accelerate innovation.

4) People, education, and application. This is a much more holistic approach. We need to go beyond smart. We need to discover the intelligence of the territory through leadership, participation, and how the technology can help.

A lot of technology will help with improving quality of life, but without serving that holistic vision of the city, technology will lack sense. In five years’ time people will not talk about smart as the panacea, they will talk about other things. They will talk about the values that the planning profession has been cultivating for centuries – this idea of having a vision of a city in their own context with a participatory process of sharing this nation. And then to identify how the technology can help to realise this vision in a much more humane approach.”

Photography credit | Ben Roberts