Links to the 'choice' and 'creativity' components of the seven Cs (Urban Design Protocol).

What is adaptability?

Adaptability is the capacity of urban buildings, neighbourhoods and spaces to adapt to changing needs.

Key findings

Urban design that addresses adaptability can:

  • extend the useful economic life of buildings and public spaces
  • increase the diversity of uses and users in a public space, and the length of time it is used for
  • encourage the conservation of non-renewable resources
  • contribute to economic success over time.

Overview of the research

Adaptability - The former BNZ buildings restored and converted into the Old Bank Shopping Arcade in Wellington.Adaptable urban public spaces that offer people choices about how and when to use them are found to be better used than those designed for more limited purposes.

Individual buildings, designed at the outset to be more flexible are shown to be more sustainable. The cost of changing buildings to suit new uses, technology or fashions can be high, particularly when they have not been designed with change in mind.

Mixed use areas demonstrate the value of adaptability at the neighbourhood level. By combining many activities and functions, such areas encourage different uses and users at different times, and represent one of the distinctive features of vital cities. An adaptable neighbourhood can be characterised by buildings and houses of different densities, designs, uses, sizes and tenures. Research shows that such neighbourhoods adapt better to changing demand - whether driven by shifts in population, demographics, lifestyles, technology or the market - than those with single purposes and uses. Adaptable neighbourhoods and buildings are considered by property developers to have significant advantages.

"Good [urba]n design in itself does not guarantee sustainability within an urban context unless over time, adaptability is inherent within the design and matched in the surrounding environmental and social fabric."

Loe, 2000


"Adaptable public space is used by more people in more diverse ways over a longer period of time (day and night, as well as enduring time), than spaces designed for specified (limited) functions.

Shehayeb, 1995


Jane Jacobs - regarded by many as the 'matriarch' of urban planning and design - wrote in her seminal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, that there are four conditions for vital cities. The first is that districts serve more than one primary function, and preferably at least three.

Jacobs, 1961


Case studies of high quality urban design projects by the Property Council of Australia in 1999 included as one of seven assessment criteria "the ability to change over time".