Architect and urban planner William Galloway recently wrote an op-ed piece at Archinet entitled “Big Bangs, Slums, and Suburbia” (via Planitizen) which sums up some of my discomfort with developments like the Griffintown project and the Quadrilatère Saint-Laurent.
Galloway criticizes architects and planners, a group in which he includes himself, as being:
“entranced with the possibility of using our arts to magically sweep aside – all at once – every wrong that we see before us; replacing entire cities and neighborhoods with little mini-novas of creative destruction. The Big Bang model of urban planning – where existing matter is rubbed out, the new stuff is all good, everything is pre-decided, and the outcome inexorable.“
While I question his view the traditional suburban form can become sustainable with a few technological tweaks, I wholeheartedly agree with his statement that, within the built environment, “Flexibility is not a luxury it is a necessity…”
Perhaps the opposite of “Big Bang planning,” would be “Emergent Ubanism,” a theory elaborated by local urban theorist Mathieu Hélie on his website by the same name.
His dense, academic tone can challenge a blogger’s attention span, but his articles have fascinating implications. Drawing on theories of emergence, complexity, and fractal geometry to explain the urban form, Hélie elaborates his theory in a series of 3 posts: The Journey to Emergence, The Fundamentals of Urban Complexity, and The Cultivation of a Spontaneous City. (Its also worth reading his definitions of these concepts).
In one post, Hélie nails down some of the problems with “Big Bang” planning:
To someone focused on a single large-scale goal, small-scale problems like a complicated permitting process or bad street design are irrelevant. Someone focused on a single large-scale goal does not see any drawbacks to using repression to realize the plan, like zoning and urban growth boundaries. The city they envision does not have a small scale, and this is now the reality of our landscape: urbanization at enormous scale, with no concern for details and no sustainability.
In contrast, complexity theory deals with problems that exist at different scales simultaneously. The science of complexity focuses on the process by which a system is generated rather than the final outcome, which, Hélie says, is generally too complicated to wrap one’s head around anyways.
In emergent systems, individuals’ actions are governed by simple rules determined by their present state and their immediate surroundings. Over time, a number of actors can generate a complex, yet ordered structure. One example of emergence in nature is a termite mound. Hélie proposes that older cities like Serafos, Greece (pictured above), and modern-day squatter settlements are also emergent systems.
Very attractive spontaneous cities have a specific pattern of the urban tissue. It consists of similar vernacular buildings that appear very simple when considered individually, but produce a visually fascinating landscape when considered as a whole. This is a form of fractal geometry.
In another post, Hélie describes single-developer, mixed-use developments as “fake complexity”
Mixed-used neighborhoods work because they provide a marketplace for mixed people. Each person brings along his own specialized economic know-how, and so knows how best to provide in details the building program for his specific economic activity. A neighborhood, in that sense, becomes mixed-used because it is the product of mixed users all contributing their part to its complexity. What speculative mixed-used development does is force the developer to control and predict every building program in the neighborhood, then finance the entire development as one investment…
Hélie’s proposition, which resonates well with my intuitive feelings about the city, is to have very few rules and to Make Little Plans. Millions of little plans.
What are your thoughts?
Image: urban form evolved over millenia in Serifos in Greece (from Emergent Urbanism blog) and mixed use development planned for Montreal.