Poundbury in China

Thames Town in Songjiang New City, Shanghai.

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While creating a semblance of traditional European urbanism, Thames Town is only one enormous block of an entire new city of enormous developments, most in the Chinese style of giant aligned slabs. Far from creating a “new” urbanism, this development needs the enormous scale of modern Chinese urbanism to exist.

Down the canal from Thames Town’s lake, traditional Chinese organic urbanism persists, waiting to be rediscovered and adapted to the modern age and the enormous scale it requires.

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This great CBS News video report of the construction of Thames Town showed up in the WordPress automagically related links. (Thank you WordPress!) It shows the quality of the construction contrasted with the disappointment the Chinese feel about the social life of these environments. Sprawl alienation is truly a universal phenomenon.

Review of Radiant City

There is a scene early in the 2006 mockumentary Radiant City that provides the key explanation to the morphology of suburban sprawl. Our favorite writer James Howard Kunstler sits on a bench in a community bike trail that is enclosed in two rows of chain link fence in order to, I presume, secure it from the high-capacity arterial road that runs alongside it. The experience is vaguely what it must have been like to patrol the Berlin Wall, had it been encircled by an expressway. “Some clown in an office somewhere thought this would be a good idea, that’s why it’s here,” says Kunstler. “Not because anybody really tested whether or not it would feel good to be here.”

That’s all the film has to say about why sprawl is, and in fact there is nothing more to be said. The characteristic of a sprawl city is the absence of any intelligence in design. The rest of the movie is about how and why families cope with life in this intelligence-less environment. It does that with a narrative that is refreshingly honest and modern, despite not depicting a real family. It is shot on location in the outskirts of Calgary, a city that, thanks to a highly competent planning authority and an economic boom that has attracted large numbers of new citizens, has over the last decade built new developments at supernaturally huge scale.

The new neighborhoods are for the most part built of nice buildings, nothing to write UNESCO about but approaching genuine Victorian. Contrary to the suburban cliché, houses are built to a density that is comparable to city centers, which means there is adequate public transportation available. And in compliance with new planning regulations, developers have provided big clusters of condominium buildings to serve as “affordable housing”. With this setting, the directors have avoided the social exclusion issues that sometimes get bundled up with criticisms of the suburbs. In fact here the families explain that they left the center because it had become unaffordable for either their growing family or without shame-bearing subsidization (never mind affordable housing regulation being indirect subsidization), meaning the exclusion narrative is turned backwards. These people have been pushed out of the city.

What is there left to complain about then? Not very much, still there is a general awareness that there must be something missing, yet none of the characters can pinpoint it. They deal with boredom as best they can, the local teenagers finding, as all boys have ever done, that a muddy pit is all that’s needed for endless fun. Today’s boys turn this free space into a paintball game they call “escape to Mexico”, but it’s really just cowboys and indians for the postmodern age. Their fun is interrupted by a private security patrolmen hired by the builders to patrol the private streets, but these guards turn out to be benign bordering on benevolent. Incessant chauffeuring becomes the cause of a mini-crisis as poor husband Evan is forbidden from working on his car by his emasculating witch of a wife Anne, worried that such activities will send the car to the mechanic and leave her with the entire burden of chauffeuring the family on their maddening activities schedule.

If there is one recurring theme, it is that at every point the creative control of the environment has been taken away from individuals. The kids cannot play on empty lots, the father cannot risk working on his car, the space for any meaningful personal culture has been slashed to nearly nothing. The exception to this is Anne who gets to enjoy total control of the house itself, which she obviously takes great pleasure in when deciding how each room will be laid out.  At every point in the film where someone defends the choice of life in the suburbs it is either Anne or a female real estate agent involved.

As a form of passive-aggressive revenge, Evan signs up to be in a musical about suburban life where he and his male friends sing showtunes while dancing around with lawnmowers. (Lawnmowers having no utility in the postage-stamp sized lawns of the new suburbs, they are remembered in dance.) It is telling that Evan found out about the show by looking around the Internet. It is on the Internet that community and culture has exploded in the last years as the physical world has become more and more inaccessible. The Web 2.0 phenomenon has given the power to everyone to create something and express themselves, for better or worse. The Web has become a new city, and its different processes new forms of urbanism.

Sorely missing from the film, which features the opinions of architects, professors of philosophy and other intellectuals, are the opinions of the planners, politicians and developers who make this product. The planning system is as remote to the narrative as it is to people’s lives. While the complaint of the loss of citizenship implied by mass motorization is rehashed by an intellectual, what about the loss of citizenship implied by the planning process itself? All decisions about the shape of their environment has been taken long in the past, in the colorful words of Mr. Kunstler, by some clown in an office somewhere. The only thing left for citizens to do is to enjoy or hate their environment. They have been dispossessed of any power to shape it. Somewhere democracy of place was substituted for bureaucracy, and the best the citizens have been offered since is the chance to collectively shackle the bureaucrats through public design charrettes. The citizens have no more rights to create their city than citizens of Stalin’s Moscow did. That is the only aspect sprawl still has in common with Le Corbusier’s original vision for the Radiant City.

Yet the film does not reach this conclusion. If there is any conclusion, it is that everyone is helpless in the face of this seemingly unstoppable monster. As Joseph Heath says at the beginning, the critique of suburbia is the same it was two generations ago, everyone who lives in suburbia knows backwards and forwards the critique of suburbia, yet they still live there. Andrès Duany appears proposing that what sprawl needs is a grid and denser housing, yet the setting already has a grid and obviously the last thing it needs is even more houses.

A young woman states at the end, out of character, that she sees kids playing alone in suburbia and remembers her youth building giant forts with everybody in the neighborhood. I remember my happiest time growing up at the edge of the suburbs was building a treehouse on some leftover tree with the neighborhood kids. The treehouse was demolished because it was unsafe and then the tree cut down to build another house. I never saw any of those kids again.

That’s all community is, people making things together. That’s what creates the spiritual aspect of a place. Once we lose the freedom to do that, we can’t be citizens. We are just consumers of cities. Radiant City, by looking at life in suburban sprawl in its purest, best realized form, defines the right problem but fails to ask the right question. Perhaps citizenship is so far in the past that we can’t even remember to ask the question.

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Radiant City

A film by Gary Burns and Jim Brown

Order it from Amazon.com.

RadiantCity

Decoding Sidi Bou Sa’id

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Besim S. Hakim has recently published a new edition of the study of the village of Sidi Bou Sa’id in Tunisia, the project that began his career decrypting the processes underlying the emergent morphology of Mediterranean towns.

In light of the major developments complexity science has made in the decades since, the preface of the new edition puts things in their updated context.

This preface was written in January 2009, thirty-one years after the first publication of this book in 1978. I have decided to re-publish it now due to its importance as an example of a built environment that came into being due to a generative system that is based on a sustainable framework of decision-making characterized by a bottom-up approach and guided by overarching generative proscriptive codes. The emergent result is a dynamic complex built environment that is not the brainchild of a master planner or architect. The exact configurations and form of the built environment is not known during the process of its formation and has a characteristic of unpredictability. This is one of the main features in natural systems that are associated with the phenomenon of emergence. What is known is that the result would fit well and in full balance within its immediate surroundings and will be a contribution that would maintain the integrity and quality of the village as a whole. The process is a result of small acts that in aggregate produces built form that is compatible with its immediate neighbors and that contributes to the high quality of the village’s character. I have researched and published in recent years numerous studies that explain how such an underlying generative system works. – Besim S. Hakim.

This kind of study is essential if we are to reinvent an urbanism that is truly traditional in nature and complex enough to achieve modern sustainability.

Michael Mehaffy’s review provides more context.

The subject of urban codes is now much-discussed in the fields of urban planning and architecture. But most codes are relatively static, specifying an end state to be achieved at one point in time. What Hakim describes here is a much more dynamic, rule-based process of shaping growth – more in line with the latest insights of complexity science about the growth of natural systems. It leads to the phenomenon of “emergence” – the appearance of unplanned and often unpredictable characteristics, that nonetheless have the characteristic of reinforcing and enriching what came before.

Hakim makes a comparison to the work of Christopher Alexander, who has focused on the way that settlements grow over time. Hakim notes a number of “patterns” that correspond to Alexander’s “pattern language” — a compendium of recurrent design solutions, together with the rules that govern how they go together, like the rules of grammar. Alexander argues that such patterned growth over time has produced the beautiful and complex places all around us, in contrast to our more “mechanical” methods today.

For Hakim, such places have achieved a form of sustainability that is well worth our study, since so many of them have, after all, “sustained” for centuries. The subject of urban sustainability is of course a much-discussed one, since buildings and urban environments are responsible for over one-third of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change, to say nothing of other ecological damage. But as many critics point out, sustainability is not just a bolt-on affair: it goes to the way people interact socially and economically, and the way, as Hakim points out, that small acts contribute (or don’t) to the quality and durability of their surroundings, and the built environment as a whole.

If you are interested in the contrasting principles of traditional urbanism as opposed to traditional architecture in a modern planning system, this book can be your guide.

Sidi Bou Sa’id, Tunisia: Structure and Form of a Mediterranean Village

edited by Besim S. Hakim

The rules for changing rules

Paul Romer presents his solution to the problem of underdevelopment in this TED video.

Stanford economist Paul Romer believes in the power of ideas. He first studied how to speed up the discovery and implementation of new technologies. But to address the big problems we’ll face this century — insecurity, harm to the environment, global poverty —  new technologies will not be enough. We must also speed up the discovery and implementation of new rules, of new ideas about how people interact.

Throughout human history, big improvements in systems of rules took place when new governments entered the scene. In today’s world, this process has been largely shut down. To bring it back to life, Romer proposes that we create new cities where people can go to escape from bad rules and opt in to new and better ones. With better rules, people can be safe, self-interest can protect the environment, and investment can bring families all the resources that the modern world has to offer.

Paul Romer profile

Another, much longer presentation was made at the Long Now foundation.

As he sees it the problem of urban and economic development is not the bad rules. Most people and leaders understand that they are bad rules. The problem is that the system of government, the application of the rules, traps us in them. And so for example, if the prime minister of some derelict African state attempts to fix rules on the electrical industry, he will have to fight opposition from the many different people whose interests are affected by this change. Unless he is an all-powerful man, he is set to fail. This is a well-known problem, and the British have even turned the practice of bureaucrats manipulating politicians into doing the opposite of what they wanted to do into high comedy.

Romer says that the solution to the problem of bad rules is not to go into government but to create new governments, implying that processes of government have their own life and result in good or bad rules. While some leaders and communities may not be able to beat the system of government, they can create new ones at the margins. Romer proposes to develop, in effect, city-states all over the world where there currently is nothing, and populate them with settlers looking to build a new life.

People criticize me for proposing changes that they believe to be impossible and unrealistic. This may be true if we consider preserving the planning system to be the most important objective. And perhaps some of these people simply consider anything but the established system to be inconceivable. Even in this otherwise positive article about slums, you find a quote such as this one:

There are reasonable objections to titling. Is it fair for those who seized government land—or, worse, someone else’s private property—to be rewarded with a property title? Nor is ownership easy to disentangle. “How do you allocate titles within the dense fabric of Rocinha or Kibera?” Neuwirth writes. “Who should get title to each parcel? The family that built the house? The woman who bought it from them? The tenants who rent there? The man who owns his two-story home but sold his roof rights to a friend, who built two stories and sold his roof rights to someone to build an additional two stories?”

After praising slums for their ability to generate economic opportunities, they are denounced for not fitting into the conventional model of property rights. Yet it is precisely the use of more natural methods of property allocation that gives slums their organic morphology. I observed the same narrow-sightedness when researching my thesis on La Défense. The one defining characteristic of the project was that it was exempt from the national planning system and its rules, creating a completely open-ended area. No one working on the project could tell me that this was the reason for its success, neither did the records they kept acknowledge it. The only man who had understood this and written about it was Rem Koolhaas.

Just like we can’t make the organic morphology of slums fit into the modern rules of property ownership, we can’t make traditionally emergent cities through the current planning system. (All efforts to produce traditional neighborhoods have so far produced only imitations of them.) Romer’s charter cities offer a way out of this system, but Romer’s proposal to try out new forms of government at the scale of the city does not recognize the fractality of urban scale. It is possible to build not simply a new city out in the open wild, but a city within an existing city, at the edge or some such, thus creating a fractal of nested cities all working on a different planning system, and in this way not just serving as a comparative experiment but also benefiting from each others’ existence into one global system. I wrote before about such a patchwork of planning systems solving problems at conflicting scales.

The most characteristic feature of an emergent urbanism is that it tries to solve problems at the smallest possible scale first (in opposition to sprawl which solves problems at the regional scale). This means that an emergent city can be created at the margin of an existing sprawling metropolis, or in any pocket available within it.

The challenge then is truly to figure out the rules for changing the rules. If a spontaneous community of people can be sufficiently organized to claim an available place and declare that it is run on a different system, then by democratic principle will it be accepted, or opposed? If the political leaders of a dying city are going to abandon a part of their territory, can they concede it to a new organization, with a form of ownership that defies conventional practice? In any case, the initiative for such a measure will have to come from outside the system.

Related posts

Lake country

In the outskirts of Miami, ill-thought subdivision development codes require developers to build on-site water reservoirs. The result is a patchwork of unconnected pools.

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When the Dutch ran into similar problems they built canals and then built their cities around them. Shirking their responsibilities, the planners in Florida only build the standard road grid as the integrator, and transfer all other burdens upon land subdividers, who build at a scale unsuited to the required structure.

Also noticeable is the housing density of Miami increasing outwards, where the newest subdivisions are much denser than the older ones, inverting the natural and historic fabric of cities, and wiping away all established stereotypes about suburban sprawl.

Fake complexity: traffic control

The University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies Intelligent Transportation Systems Institute has produced a handy little flash game where you can experience the life of a traffic planner in a series of increasingly complicated traffic challenges.

The game begins in the Stalinian Central Bureau of Traffic Control, where a wrinkly old man pulls you out of your job at the mail room to come save the traffic control system. You are brought to a space command-like control room and put to work setting traffic lights to stop and go. Meanwhile frustrated drivers stuck in the gridlock you create blare their car horns to get your attention, and if their “frustration level” rises too high you fail out of the level. As the road network gets as complicated as four intersections on a square grid, the traffic becomes completely overwhelming and failure is inevitable, but the old man reassures you that they too have failed anyway.

It’s hard to tell where the joke begins and where it ends with this app. According to the ITS news feed the game’s purpose is to let “high school students try their hand at working in the engineering and transportation field.” And, as if astonished by their own profession’s ridicule, the game’s description of the traffic control room reads “the traffic control center in the game is realistic: many large metropolitan areas (such as New York, Boston, and the Twin Cities) have traffic control centers that actually do look like that.”

You must play it and experience it for yourself.

Why was this made? Are traffic engineers passively crying out for someone to put them out of their misery? Traffic, after all, is the most complex pattern of all those that compose a city. While buildings move around over the span of years, traffic consists of thousands to millions of randomly moving parts in the span of a day. Despite all the efforts that have been invested in designing traffic control devices, the “frustration level” for drivers has only risen.

Some traffic engineers have learned that the problem was not traffic but central planning, the foremost of which was Hans Monderman. By running a driving school and studying how people related to their environment, Monderman discovered that the traffic control devices the profession employed were not only useless but counter-productive. He set out to remove traffic control and empower drivers to control themselves and make decisions based on their context. His model for traffic control is to design the context so that drivers will control themselves and each other, a scheme called shared space.

The basis of an emergent intelligent system is that individuals act and make choices based on a shared system of contextual rules. This decentralizes decision making and makes possible the optimal adaptation to chaotic environments. We can see this in the superior performance of the roundabout as compared to the traffic light for traffic flow. A roundabout is a rule that tells drivers to yield to other drivers coming from other directions. It is decentralized. A traffic light simply tells drivers when to stop and go, whatever the situation may be at the current time. When the traffic light status becomes completely alienated from reality, gridlock occurs and frustration boils. What frustrates drivers is their powerlessness to contribute to the intelligence of the system, and the utter waste of time being imposed on them because of traffic planners unfamiliar with the precise circumstances taking place.

It should be no wonder then that when the traffic control system fails, traffic flows better.

The Intelligent Transportation Systems Institutes of this world are trying to create intelligent traffic control tools, but those are another form of fake complexity. When all drivers, cyclists and pedestrians are optimizing their behavior based on simple traffic rules, that is when traffic becomes intelligent.

(The scoop on this was obtained from Streetsblog and TransitMiami.)

Related topics

Principles published

The full article conceptualizing the principles of emergent urbanism has been published by the International Journal of Architectural Research volume 3 issue 2. You can download the complete article or read the whole issue.