The Future of Cities
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Cities are innovating, companies are pivoting, and start-ups are growing. Like you, every urban practitioner has a remarkable story of insight and challenge from the past year.
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A Schizophrenic Approach to Building Cities
Two currents — so far, irreconcilable and mutually exclusive — are shaping our cities. On the one hand, we have vast construction projects churning profits for multinationals, local firms, and indirectly for stockholders. The media is inundated with their exciting images, and the developing world appears as a testing-ground for the more ambitious (and pharaonic) among those schemes. But are they good for humankind?
The other design alternative is small-scale, and focuses on human responses to the built environment. It uses proven methods to elicit mental wellbeing and bodily healing responses. Its products look very old-fashioned, not because its practitioners blatantly copy traditional forms, but because the healing responses rely upon a specific complex geometry that is common to all historical buildings and cities.
The visual contradiction arises because, ever since the great schism of the 1920s, the architectural and planning professions pursued a narrow “industrial” set of rules and images. What is “approved” — gets built at great expense and proclaimed with great fanfare as the “image of the future” — is gigantic, and utilizes glass, steel, and sometimes raw concrete, and privileges the automobile in both spatial and temporal scales. Fast speed implies the elimination of detail, ornament, and all components of the pedestrian urban fabric.
My friends and I would instead like to see a world made for human beings, fit for children and older persons, where every place is healing and makes us well just to be there. Is this dream possible? Our only hope is through the marketplace: our cities could become human once again if and when industry realizes the immense commercial advantages of doing so.
Globalism’s Pretensions and Manipulations
I wish to slay a dragon before we can even begin to discuss these questions seriously. Extractive global imperialism, which runs the world’s economy, has very specific goals:
- Burn fossil fuels as rapidly as possible for the industry to gain peak profits.
- Make sure to design cities so that they consume maximum amounts of energy.
- Convince governments to replace human-scale sustainable built fabric with monstrous, unsustainable buildings.
- Utilize only expensive building materials to generate profits from their extraction and transportation over long distances.
- Fuel a massive propaganda campaign that makes popular heroes of opportunistic architectural mercenaries supporting these goals.
- Create a monopoly by eliminating local artisans and industries, except for a few that become agents of globalism.
- Erase local building and design cultures (which evolution made biophilic and human-scaled) by banning them as “backward.”
This “business-as-usual” gives us a skyscraper-per-minute, ignoring real-life data on the futility of continuing in this disastrous direction. Léon Krier and Henrik Schoenefeldt outline the situation clearly, as an antidote to the self-serving propaganda one usually hears.
Coupling inhuman design — obscenely expensive and energy-wasting architectural “images of modernity” — to exclusively automobile transport has led us into an unsustainable mess. “Throwaway” buildings are not meant to last for more than 20 years. The built fabric of recent decades cavalierly omits sound and thermal insulation and is turning into junk. Unloved structures are not worth repairing and are not even salvageable.
Bringing nature into cities is a major step in the right direction, but it’s only a palliative if the built geometry remains alien. Unfortunately, our world is largely shaped by typologies that are opposite to what human physiology and psychology require. This continues because the subservient, sycophantic media praise — instead of condemn — designs that assault our senses.
There exists an additional problem. To perpetuate its hegemony, dominant power co-opts the ideas presented by the humanist side. But the producers of glass skyscrapers don’t care to understand the elements of human-scale design, and only apply images superficially, to camouflage the standard monstrous and unsustainable typologies. Those highly-publicized attempts are classic scams.
The Path to Sustainability
There is only one way to sustainability: build towns and urban spaces that are loved, and then people will wish to preserve them. It’s time to invest in green city innovations — biophilic, instead of deceptive “green-washing.”
How do we guarantee that users will love a new project? It has to be beautiful! Even though notions of beauty are frequently twisted to serve an agenda, Richard Florida argues that the most beautiful places are also the most commercially successful on all counts.=
Looking ahead over the next 20-40 years, the possible (or likely) future of cities is uncertain. It could develop in one of three ways:
- Blissfully going along with the status quo towards a dystopian, industrial, inhuman world. The dominant power will continue to seek out and suppress vestiges of human-scale design.
- Transform our world into a humane, healing environment that is also sustainable; slowly at first, then gaining momentum to become the mainstream.
- Mainstream society continues in its destructive path, manipulated by global interests to destroy the environment and erect ugly buildings, while an isolated minority creates healing environments. Those few must continuously fight a culture war to protect the remnants of humanity from the onslaught of the majority power. Humankind is set up for a post-human split into two parts.
The most likely is the first option, following the historical principle that a tiny minority can never overturn totalitarian power. Only unforeseen large-scale, sometimes catastrophic events could trigger such a change.
Yet some optimism is indeed called for. We propose an economic solution that can still benefit developers while achieving human-scale urbanism. Legislators can re-write the scale-erasing codes enforced after World War II, because those make the living urban fabric we wish for illegal. Those of us who know the science now consult with architecture and building firms. We apply Alexandrian Patterns and supporting geometrical tools for adaptation. Neuroscience experiments are finally validating what we knew empirically all along. We are convincing stakeholders of the health and long-term advantages of biophilic design.
Resilience is Mathematically Related to Human-Scale Design
Resilience is the ability of a working system to withstand perturbations. The degree of resilience is how far a system can be displaced and still bounce back, maybe to a new stable state. The keys to achieving resilience are:
- Use the biological analogy of multi-scale interlinked systems.
- Understand how natural structures evolve in time, and enable the system to re-adjust its functions dynamically.
- Short-term fixes often create long-term fragility by masking deeper problems!
- A complex system’s resilient limit is fixed by its most fragile subsystem.
- Narrow efficiencies create fragility, so we need built-in redundancy.
- Human and urban systems work far from equilibrium; therefore, a neat appearance is misleading.
- A resilient living system has an infinite variety, and many more connections compared to 20th Century cities.
Ordered city geometry that is built today is meaningless for energy cycles. Resilient networks contain inherent diversity and redundancy, with optimal cooperation among their subsystems, yet they avoid optimization (maximum efficiency) for any single process. They require continuous input of energy in order to function, with energy cycles running simultaneously on many different scales.
Short-term urban fixes only wish to perpetuate the extractive model of cities, not to correct its underlying long-term fragility! Today’s power-driven culture of glass and steel skyscrapers typically focuses upon a single efficiency, and ignores everything else. 20th-Century architects and planners optimized city morphology strictly for fast automobile traffic.
Resilience comes from linked processes and structures working on many different scales. Solutions are found in self-built spontaneous settlements and in traditional cities. Historic evolution took place towards healthier environments through biophilia and design patterns, but city form as decided by design ideology linked to power cannot re-configure into a new system. By worshipping “images of the future,” society doesn’t re-use older successful solutions, and this limitation prevents resilient systems from forming.
Improving the Urban Realm
Rules for generating a living city go beyond biophilia. The following mathematical points define urban structure that supports wellbeing:
- Building façades that employ all the human scales encourage pedestrian occupation and movement alongside them.
- Beloved urban spaces are visually defined by being partially surrounded by human-scaled building façades.
- Configurational rules for space come from enclosing geometries (yet today’s planners ignore them).
- The city has to guarantee a “necklace of public spaces” that are connected by robust pedestrian access.
- Legislate mixed use — combining commercial, education, light industry, residential, etc. — and drop monofunctional zoning.
- Keep vehicular traffic from invading pedestrian space.
There is more interaction between architecture and urbanism than is commonly acknowledged. Fractals connect to us through their scaling, because our own body is fractal inside. A living city is itself a giant fractal, with the critical scales being the human dimensions from 1 cm to 2 m. Everything larger is anchored on these smaller scales, in a way that the complex whole is perceived and works coherently.
Living Places for Children and Aging Populations
Re-making post-war cities fit for children and the elderly accommodates everybody better. This necessitates a return to human-scale design prioritizing pedestrians. The tools are found in traditional cities built up to the 1920s, and their application has made neo-traditional urbanism commercially successful. But they are disdained by architecture and planning schools and ridiculed by an entrenched élite.
Public squares and plazas left in traditional city centers attract children, with or without their parents, and older persons with reduced mobility. Organized-complexity implies a blend of trees, bushes, and perhaps some lawn in a plaza. Neo-traditional places let pedestrians experience these configurations close-up, not as lifeless abstractions. Contrast this with “hard” contemporary plazas that are emotionally dead, used only by pedestrians taking a shortcut, if at all. Nobody lingers there, because they lack biophilic qualities.
Our society can only survive by abandoning mindless “design-as-image.” Ignoring human emotional responses, “professionals” have been erasing beauty from our environment for a century. Dominant architectural culture inflicts inhuman geometries on new urban spaces, guaranteeing that those are perceived as hostile, despite the presence of green.
To see what happens when cities blindly listen to trend-setters, look at the Piazza Verdi in La Spezia, Italy. Drastically reducing its biophilic index killed the life of this urban space. A thriving boulevard full of people, shaded by century-old trees, was destroyed when those trees were cut down and replaced with bizarre abstract “sculptures.” After “renovation,” the piazza is despised and sits empty.
Human-Scale Urbanism is Connected But Slow
The flows of a city occur on many networks, which compete on the same ground plane level (separating transportation modes on different heights having proved too problematic). All modes of transport need to connect, with the weaker ones protected from the stronger. This requires special adaptive design to create a safe environment for pedestrians — by not giving in to traffic engineers who gutted our downtowns in order to increase vehicular traffic speed. Again, we are fighting the old top-down approach to city building that ignores human sensibilities.
The public realm consists of pedestrian space. Loved, usable places pay attention to human dimensions. They are made as comfortable and safe as possible using Christopher Alexander’s Patterns and supporting work. Re-introducing old-fashioned bollards protects a pedestrian both physically and psychologically from adjoining traffic. Whenever possible, build arcades and colonnades that enhance the human scales.
While it is encouraging to offer guidelines for the future of cities, nobody really pays attention to such things. Our world is shaped by greed tempered by ideology that dominant power finds useful. Positive ideas about changing for the better — towards a more human built environment — invariably turn into empty slogans that are instrumentalized to continue global consumerism and cultural devastation. Even when we see that, surprisingly, a good idea is adopted by the mainstream, it is given over to be implemented by those who have been damaging the world all along.
We need the occurrence of a miracle: where new ideas are adopted; new faces not beholden to the old ideology replace guilty collaborators; users educate themselves and henceforth demand healing environments… That is highly unlikely, yet in this age of information, major world changes could occur on very short time scales. There is hope!
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