The Grand Challengers Podcast Episode #6

Citymaking in times of crisis, from yoghurt shops to plans of resistance

Guest: Arya Arabshahi

March 14th, 2023


“…the most successful planning exercises are the ones who resist planning…”

In the face of an unpredictable future, we are all called upon each and every day to think of out-of-the box ways to tackle challenges to our environment, wellbeing or what kinds of yoghurt to bring with you on your next journey to space.

My guest today is Arya Arabshahi, an architect and territorial strategist at 51N4E, an architecture and urban strategy studio based in Belgium. Through his diverse portfolio of projects across Europe and Asia, Arya has been challenging conventional notions of territorial planning in search of more adaptive solutions for the future.

Today on the show, we unpack the idea of citymaking with an appreciation for cultural connections and continuity as well as the persistence and care of nature in harsh urban environments. We also consider how a master plan may be better characterized as a palette of choices and where education in this rapidly evolving discipline should be heading.


Arya Arabshahi is a designer, planner and experienced leader at the intersection of strategic design, geospatial analysis and territorial governance. Arya has lived and worked in Iran, Belgium, Albania, UK, and Luxembourg, and developed and delivered city strategy and urban development projects for city governments in Brussels, Genk, Luxembourg City, Tehran, Lyon and London, as well as for Schiphol airport and Befimmo. Pooling together his expertise in scenario building, strategic design, storytelling, negotiation and communication, he develops narratives that are adopted as common ground in polarised socio-spatial conditions such as in Luxembourg in Transition, Ruderal Acts, and C-Mine’s Masterplan.

He is currently the program lead of Territories in Transition at 51N4E, where he is overseeing projects that push the boundaries of conventional spatial planning in light of the climate crisis. The domains of his work span across the fields of decarbonisation, stress-tolerant landscapes, planning,  innovation management, CSR and, meanwhile, use.

Previously Arya has worked at Arup Foresight, where he co-authored two publications on the future of workplaces and disruptive technologies, as well as co-facilitating workshops for business leaders and engineers across the building industry worldwide. In 2020, together with Love Di Marco, he created Ruderal Acts, an investigation into the ruderal species that could flourish without human care in cities, as part of a residency in Bozar Brussels and the Goethe Institute. In 2018 he co-founded Critical Practice, a platform dedicated to finding common ground among radical pedagogies and visionary practices in architecture.

Resources Related to the Episode

(Disclosure: Links on this page to “View on Amazon” are Affiliate links. This means that, at zero cost to you, I will earn an affiliate commission if you click through the link and finalize a purchase.)

  • The actual red corner shop: [Google Street View]
  • Follow the “Trail of Kebab” by looking at different kinds of Kebab across Central Asia and Eastern Europe [Wikipedia]
  • A brief guide to different types of yoghurt
  • Richard Dawkins. The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design (2015) [View on Amazon]
  • The Architectural Association (AA) School of Architecture [Official Page]
  • Foresight research and innovation:
    • ARUP Foresight website
    • Backcasting: Dreborg, K.H., 1996. Essence of backcasting. Futures28(9), pp.813-828. [Link]
    • Some recent research on the Morphological Box
      • Isenmann, R., Landwehr-Zloch, S. and Zinn, S., 2020. Morphological box for ESD–landmark for universities implementing education for sustainable development (ESD). The International Journal of Management Education18(1), p.100360. [Link]
      • Witt, T., Stahlecker, K. and Geldermann, J., 2018. Morphological analysis of energy scenarios. International Journal of Energy Sector Management12(4), pp.525-546. [Link]
    • Some research on adaptive planning pathways (from our colleagues in The Netherlands)
      • Haasnoot, M., Warren, A. and Kwakkel, J.H., 2019. Dynamic adaptive policy pathways (DAPP). Decision making under deep uncertainty: From theory to practice , pp.71-92. [Link] [View on Amazon]
      • Haasnoot, M., Kwakkel, J.H., Walker, W.E. and Ter Maat, J., 2013. Dynamic adaptive policy pathways: A method for crafting robust decisions for a deeply uncertain world. Global environmental change23(2), pp.485-498. [Link]
      • Kwakkel, J.H., Haasnoot, M. and Walker, W.E., 2015. Developing dynamic adaptive policy pathways: a computer-assisted approach for developing adaptive strategies for a deeply uncertain world. Climatic Change132, pp.373-386. [Link]
  • The Chicago Expos
    • How did the 1933-1934 Century of Progress Exposition impact Chicago and its architecture? [Link]
    • More about A Century of Progress Exposition [Wikipedia]
    • Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) [Official Website]
    • A photo of The Sky Ride leisure structure
  • Luxemburg in Transition
  • C-Mine Masterplan
  • Ruderal Acts Project – Gardening Beyond The Wall
    • In conjunction with Arya’s close collaborator and friend Love Di Marco
    • The Garden City Movement [Wikipedia]
      • Ebeneezer Howard. Garden Cities of To-morrow (originally published in 1898) [View on Amazon]
    • Other Inspirations:
      • Gilles Clément and the opportunity after the Coronavirus [Link]
      • Tuan, Y.F., 1979. The city: Its distance from nature. Ekistics, pp.313-319. [Link]
      • Maybe Modern Ruins Are Just the Kind of Failure We Need [Link]
      • Tredici, P. The Flora of the Future, Celebrating the botanical diversity of cities [Link]
      • Stoetzer, B., 2018. Ruderal ecologies: Rethinking nature, migration, and the urban landscape in Berlin. Cultural Anthropology33(2), pp.295-323. [Link]
      • Trevor, T. Lois Weinberger – The Three Ecologies [Link]
    • Background on Ruderal Species [Wikipedia] – especially C4 and Halophyte species in the context of this project
    • Visit the project’s website for more details
    • Also follow the project’s Instagram Profile
    • The art style of post-apocalyptic cities with thriving nature is known as Soft Apocalypse
  • A book recommendation from Arya that has shaped his time management and work-life balance: Lynda Gratton. 100-year Life: Living and working in an age of longevity (2021) [View on Amazon]

Connect with Arya Arabshahi