How could urban design embrace change and uncertainty?

Guest author: Alessandra Feliciotti.

Urban Design Studies Unit – UDSU, Department of Architecture, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, Uk

 We know nothing: the end of the positivistic dream

If there is a couple of words that seems to fit perfectly our ever-changing urban times, these would be “speed” and “uncertainty”. Put together any UN-Habitat statistic and you shall be easily convinced that not only our world changes, but it does so much faster and much more unpredictably than we ever thought possible: roller-coaster economy, voluble society and life-changing technologies prevent us from any reliable long-term prediction as new variables not factored into the decision-making process unexpectedly arise.

And yet, for those involved in urban design and planning, this age of uncertainty can also be exciting: new paths and methods are constantly being tested, as new strategies for more diverse, transport and pedestrian oriented places, new forms of development and ownership of the built environment, and much more. What remains unclear, however is how can we hope to deliver quality urban environments able to meet needs and aspiration of present and future generations, attract investment and preserve unique identities if most of our prediction are, with all good chances, wrong? Future may well frustrate any attempt be determined by design through off-the-peg one-size-fits-all solutions and nevertheless we still need to deal with the impact of change on our livelihood. Probably, the question is not so much about how do we “deliver quality” but, rather, how do we make sure that in 10, 50 or 100 years, in a world so different from today, the “quality” of our cities survives, reinventing itself continuously and seamlessly, re-adjusting its physical structure without reaching the breaking point and without the need of “cataclysmic” actions.

In this context, the concept of resilience is a very appealing one. It has been already extensively applied to urban systems across several disciplines and, more recently, has started to be explored in urban design, both in academia and in practice. And when linked with urban design, resilience thinking could greatly benefit from looking at cities from their possibly less investigated but most tangible aspect: their form.

What does urban form have to do with resilience? Well, if resilience is that property of a system to adapt and respond to changing conditions without radically departing from its basic structure and relationship, than it has everything to do with it! Indeed, urban form has, over the centuries, kept changing – by demolitions, additions and alterations – as part of the everyday life of cities. After all, research in urban morphology and resilience theory share the same interest to for dynamics of change over time and the same systemic view on the interrelations between socio-economical, institutional, environmental and physical domains.

 Conzen and Holling: the unsuspected link between urban form and resilience

Indeed, buildings, plots, blocks and streets (the simple, universal, fundamental elements of urban form) are themselves nested sub-systems characterised by different spatial-temporal scales. They are governed by dynamics that are very similar to the models introduced by Holling and colleagues to explain – in ecosystem first and socio-ecological systems later – multi-scale interrelations and feedback loops between a system and its subsystems, as Adaptive Cycles and Panarchy. The reader would be surprised to learn that urban morphology has been looking exactly at how this relationship manifests itself in space over time since the seminal work of Conzen in the 1960s. In his work, Conzen came up with a model of change for the urban form, called the Burgage Cycle that precedes and mirrors the Adaptive Cycle presented by Holling and describes how a medieval urban plot (a burgage) goes through phases of exploitation, conservation, release and reorganisation in response to non-linear, highly contextualised, internal or external socio-economic triggers. Conzen in this case discusses how buildings change within their plots, but this argument is applicable to the different elements of the urban form in a hierarchy of embeddings. And, more interestingly, he does so pretty much in the same way that Holling will do few years later. Plenty of morphological studies would show you that, in any city, uses are extremely volatile and normally do not outlive buildings, buildings tend to change faster than the plots they sit in, and plots change faster than the blocks they make up; finally they would show you that streets are the most enduring and stable elements, the ones that help the whole fabric reorganise when going through change respecting the same fundamental structure.

Many of you will be suspicious: focusing on form might imply overlooking socio-economic, cultural and institutional dimensions. But the truth is that urban form can never be understood alone, as it does not change independently from institutions and society. Quite on the contrary it only makes sense in relation to social processes and within the framework of institutions. The fact that streets are so impervious to change is not due to the street as such, but to the fact that streets host a great deal of technical infrastructure whose ownership is shared by many public and private parties, that existing uses and places count on the links they establish to keep functioning, or again that they give access to individual properties, so that their owners will strongly oppose before seeing them change. Plots, in turn, are linked with ownership which is, by definition, a legal right, so that a longitudinal study of how an area’s plots pattern changes over time is simultaneously a study of changes in society and policy.

When form speaks about change: learning from Glasgow

One striking case is the city where I live: Glasgow. Compare successive plans of Glasgow over the last century and the changing urban form will literally speak to you about parallel changes in society. Glasgow is a city whose fabric used to be – and still, for the most part is – characterised by perimeter blocks and by a fine-grained plot pattern filled with tenement buildings, all fitted in a tight street-grid. In this fabric, plots could aggregate or split and, accordingly also buildings would change within them. In the same time, their blocks would have probably stayed the same: framed by streets, their edges would have maintained the same relationship with bounding streets, even if individual buildings were coming and going. But when you see streets changing, you can tell something not short of a revolution is happening – and, as all revolutions, it is extremely rare and it has a great deal of side-effects. And indeed, in Glasgow, the greatest revolution in the street network of the late 1950s is indelibly marked in the urban form at all scales: the shift away from the perimetral blocks, the alteration in scale in the size and number of plots in each block, in the distance between main streets, in the transition between public and private spaces and, finally, the wholesale demolition and replacement of the buildings of entire neighbourhoods.

These are tangible manifestations of the convergence of major turns in legislation (as The Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act of 1947, Abercrombie’s Clyde Valley Regional Plan in 1949 and finally the 1954’s Glasgow Development Plan), policy (the role of the welfare state and comprehensive planning), ownership structure (the shift from a predominantly privately owned/rented to a largely publicly owned/subsidized pattern), technology (the mass-scale diffusion of private vehicle) as well as reorientation of culture (the acceptance and diffusion of modernistic precepts in architecture and town planning).

In Glasgow – as everywhere else – not only changing form helps us to understand the repercussion of change in different domains, it also works the other way around: so that we can never look at one without also dealing with the other. And in the best resilience approach, to truly understand the relationship between them, the one think you need is time.

If we know nothing: What now?

Clearly we do not have the resources – financial, environmental and human – to keep clearing entire neighbourhoods because we got it wrong the first – or even the second – time and this will be increasingly so the more people will come to inhabit this planet of ours in the next decades. Understanding what makes some forms more resilient than others, may in fact be one of the single most important challenges of our century.

Oddly enough, even though resilience has been defined as the most promising trans-disciplinary arena in the built environment” , it is still poorly integrated with knowledge on the urban form of cities. But if we fail to include in our reasoning about resilience the most tangible aspect of cities – its form, how can we even begin to design for it?

As a concept particularly when applied to cities, resilience remains controversial. Partly this could be because it keeps borrowing its methods and objects of investigation from disciplines not originally meant to deal with urban systems. As it is now, it risks to be yet another fancy metaphor, a good face-lift for business-as-usual but with very little to contribute to as a way-forward for practice. However, resilience thinking could offer a fantastic opportunity to look at our cities with a time-conscious approach and in synergy with the goal of sustainability and a valuable analytical as well as normative model. I tried to explain why I believe that a morphological approach could work as a fundamental knowledge-interface between resilience thinking and urban design, but other important disciplinary links could – and should – be explored. Once the basis are out there, case studies and real-life pilot projects, involving different spatial (from the scale of individual dwelling up to the scale of entire neighbourhoods) as well as temporal (through longitudinal studies, monitoring and post occupancy assessment) scales could help testing, refining and corroborating it.

The challenge is: could we make the age of uncertainty really exciting for all of us?

 

Bio: Alessandra, started her Ph.D. At the Unviersity of Strathclyde in 2013 after completing her Postgraduate Degree in Architecture at the IUAV, Venice. She worked with the Prince’s Foundation for Building Communities, Architecture and Design Scotland and ESRI. Alessandra’s research explores the link between urban design, urban morphology and resilience. She is also interested in the role of masterplan as an urban design instrument and in how this could be approached so to help create places able to endure culturally, socially and environmentally as well as to dynamically adapt to contextual conditions and evolve.

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About Lorenzo Chelleri

Lorenzo Chelleri is a multidisciplinary Postdoctoral Fellow in urban studies at the Gran Sasso Science Institute, GSSI Cities. With a background in urban and regional planning, environmental policy and urban geography, his research addresses the critical overlaps among smart,sustainable and city resilience paradigms. Lorenzo co-founded the international networks UR-Net (Urban Resilience research Network) and OURS CITIES (Operationalization of User-driven Resilience for Sustainability transition in Cities).
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One Response to How could urban design embrace change and uncertainty?

  1. Pingback: Highlights from 2016 | AESOP Young Academics

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