Urban Challenges, Resilient Solutions
There is no doubt about it: humanity’s future is urban. More than half of the world’s population already lives in cities – cities that will not stop growing for a long time: in just over three decades, two-thirds of the world’s inhabitants will be urbanites. In the West, a whopping 85 per cent of the population will be living in cities by that time. This is, in fact, good news. Cities make us ‘richer, cleverer, greener, healthier and happier’, to quote economist Edward Glaeser.
This glorious future will not unfold by itself, however, far from it. Growth is accompanied by serious issues that are added to the avalanche of problems we already face. In modern jargon, they are called challenges, but that term veils the seriousness of problems such as climate change, social inequality, large-scale migration, depletion of resources, terrorism, rising sea levels, declining biodiversity, segregation, shrinkage and adverse development, to name but a few.
Cities play an important part in addressing these problems. Naturally, cities cannot be understood as isolated systems: they are closely connected to both each other and to the rural areas that surround them. After all, even taigas, rainforests and oceans are inextricable bound up with our world-wide urban system. Biofueled power plants that produce clean energy for our electric cars, for example, may cause the destruction of rainforests on the other side of the globe. The digital world is also closely interwoven with the physical one: energy-guzzling servers keep our data in the cloud, and without conflict minerals such as coltan, there would be no smart phones and laptops.
We live in the Anthropocene, the age in which the climate and atmosphere are strongly influenced by human activity. This ‘Human Age’ has been going on for quite some time – there are paleo-climatologists who date the Early Anthropocene to about 8,000 years ago, when humans took up intensive arable and cattle farming – and started the deforestation of the planet.
In any event, we live in a world that we increasingly design ourselves, whether deliberately or unwittingly. Our activities are part of a global metabolism, a continuous exchange of resources, water, energy, food, biomass, and so on. The boundaries between culture and nature and between cities and ecological systems are fading. We are creating conditions that provide us with livelihood opportunities: conditions that may at the same time herald our end.
The chains of cause and effect are widespread and connected at many levels. The linear approach, in which issues are isolated and subsequently unravelled into bite-sized problems to solve, no longer works. It leads to increasingly complex and therefore fragile systems and the combating of unexpected side effects takes more and more energy and money. In the low-lying Netherlands, for example, we have to keep the pumps running to keep our feet dry; but the pumping causes subsidence and therefore simultaneously aggravates the problem.
Dynamic systems that move in sync with nature offer more solace than the isolated combating of undesirable consequences. Some cases require a small-scale approach, others a large-scale one, for example building grids to store and distribute solar or wind energy. Or the construction of the Great Green Wall, a 15-km-wide strip of forest to the south of the Sahara that is meant to put a stop to the encroaching desert, creating local employment at the same time. After all, local embeddedment and bottom-up influence are indispensable in large-scale projects.
The call for the construction of a robust, dynamic system does not equal a plea to simply ‘live in harmony with nature’. The idea that ‘primitive peoples’ have a small ecological footprint is a romantic misconception: the inhabitants of North America managed to extinguish the majority of the large mammals that lived there many millennia ago, dis-afforesting the entire continent as they went along. It is the city – the apex of human inventiveness – that provides opportunities for solving the problems that face the ever-growing population of the world.
Under the flag of ecomodernism, a group of 19 leading green thinkers and scientists even makes out a case for human beings to withdraw into the cities to give nature free rein: ‘Urbanization, the intensification of agriculture, nuclear energy, aquaculture and desalination are all processes with a proven potential to reduce human pressure on the environment and create more space for non-human species.’
American-Lebanese philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb even carries things one step further: though he believes robustness and resilience will improve the systems in question, they remain focused on the absorption of shocks. Instead, he advocates ‘anti-fragile’ systems, systems that take advantage of chaos, unpredictability and disorder because it makes them stronger. Like evolution itself.
The problems outlined above require a break with deductive modernism; we need to find sustainable solutions, circular and resilient, renewable and efficient, socially inclusive and diverse. A one-sidedly technological approach that improves efficiency is not enough, we need smart urban planning that contributes to pleasant habitats, safe and tasty food, fast Internet, lively streets, inexpensive and reliable transport, clean water, meaningful employment, mixed neighbourhoods, and another thing or two. This smart urbanism goes beyond the smart cities many people have pinned their hopes on.
The difference? A smart city will dynamically coordinate the provision of public transport, rental bicycles and parking spots, whereas smart urbanism focuses on the underlying system. In this example, it would require not only the construction of offices and shops near stations to ensure that people could get about on foot or by bike, but also a mix of uses, densification and a fine-meshed structure.
Many books have been written about the desired new direction, using ever-changing terms. These include Cradle to Cradle, but also Circular Economy, Transport Oriented Development, Efficient and Renewable Energy Systems, Closed-Loop Ecosystems and the by now widely established triplet People, Planet, Profit. It is easy to add to this list, but the approach is essentially one that simultaneously sets its hopes on the physical and on the social system, one that has an eye for both the metabolism of the urban regions and for the way the people use these urban regions. Hans Bruyninckx, director of the European Environment Agency in Copenhagen, recently summed it up concisely: ‘The debate about a sustainable society is also about the flow of Syrian refugees.’
What’s the what?
This book presents the results of the research group Future Urban Regions (FUR), a collaboration of the six Dutch Academies of Architecture, in three parts, addressing the ‘what’, the ‘how’ and the ‘who’. FUR chose the umbrella term ‘healthy urbanity’ and makes it concrete by distinguishing six themes: three physical and three social ones. Like any classification, this senary division is somewhat arbitrary: there could also be eight themes, or five, or seven. Their cohesion and interdependence make splitting hairs over the classification uninteresting: improvements in one area help in other areas, the cogs of the machine interlock.
Part 1 focuses on the idea of healthy urbanity and its six themes: What is healthy urbanity? The first three themes are derived from the physical domain: Resilient Infrastructure, Renewable Energy and Material Cycles.
1. Resilient Infrastructure. Like a head of lettuce or a human being, you can describe a city or a region as a metabolism, with inlet and outlet flows, transformation processes and by-products, rhythms and feedback processes. It is only possible to make a city function under extreme circumstances if you understand how the flows of water, waste, energy, traffic and food work. After hurricane Sandy, the city of New York decided not to ensconce itself behind a high dike, but to work with a combination of ‘resistance, delay, storage and drainage’
2. Renewable Energy. Coal and oil made the industrial revolution possible, but even now, when we have long been in the grip of the next revolution, the digital one, we are still largely dependent on the use of finite energy sources. The realization of sustainability goals – both in terms of renewability and in terms of limiting greenhouse gas emissions – is essential. The German municipality of Saerbeck, which produces renewable energy bottom-up, demonstrates one way to achieve this.
3. Material Cycles. The earth may be an open system in terms of energy, but it is not in terms of resources: they are ‘only available until they run out’. A circular economy, in which chains are closed and resources reused is therefore necessary. Difficult? Tropical swimming pool Tropicana in Rotterdam stood empty for years, until some entrepreneurs with an anti-squatting contract moved in and began cultivating mushrooms in its abandoned, damp basements. It proved the starting point for a completely circular enterprise.
As was mentioned above, FUR also distinguishes three aspects of healthy urbanity’s social component: Vital Economy, Healthy Living and Sociocultural Solidarity.
4. Vital Economy. Modern urban planning is based on the separation of functions: just before the Second World War, the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) prescribed that dwelling, work, leisure and circulation each needed its own domain. That was perhaps a logical response to the polluted, overcrowded cities of the industrial revolution, but unfortunately the solution turned out to have serious side-effects, such as the disappearance of production from the city. Now that both production techniques and traffic have become much cleaner, the path to more mixed cities lies open. The example of the London High Streets shows the vitality that hides in organically grown, ‘old-fashioned’ city streets.
5. Healthy Living. Now that the city has definitively become the habitat of humans, it is expected to offer not only employment and protection, but also a healthy habitat in both the physical and the psychological sense. Healthy for people, furthermore, as well as healthy for the animals and plants that increasingly take refuge in the city. A green city encourages movement and recreation, provides tranquillity and relaxation. In Roombeek, the Enschede neighbourhood that was destroyed by a fireworks disaster in 2000, this was a reason to restructure the local school’s kiss-andride area as a running track.
6. Sociocultural Solidarity. The anonymous metropolis – such as Franz Biberkopf’s Berlin – is as much a cliché as the working-class area where people share life’s joys and sorrows – ‘Sometimes you want to go / Where everybody knows your name / And they’re always glad you came / You want to be where you can see / Our troubles are all the same’. It is clear, however, that social contacts improve liveability and stimulate citizen participation. The example of the Baugruppen in Berlin shows that the creation of collective spaces can spontaneously contribute to the integration of refugees.
As the above examples show, the focus of FUR so far has been on the Western world, or rather on cities in developed countries that have a sizeable urban middle class. The problems of Third World countries and their slums proved so different that it was not useful to integrate them in the study. Still, there are plenty of ambitions left. What contribution can we expect research by design to make?
It is possible, however, to outline the contours of the design research using a small thought experiment: ‘If a building is the answer, what was the question?’ Designers are traditionally presented with clear questions: once a programme of requirements has been formulated, designers use their talent and experience to come up with an answer – a building, a park, a structural plan, a piece of furniture, a motorway.
However, the tough problems the world faces today do not come equipped with a programme of requirements. Worse still: there are often not even any commissioners involved, at least, not in the traditional sense of the word: people with the position and the means to realize promising solutions. Research by design is therefore primarily research; the design is merely the instrument used to carry out that research. The aim is to not only find the right solution and the accompanying programme of requirements, but to also find (coalitions of) commissioners. Whereas traditionally, designs come into play in a very late stage of the process, research by design can be used when many aspects are still diffuse and uncertain.
Research by design boasts a long tradition in the Netherlands. The exhibition ‘Nederland Nu Als Ontwerp’ (NNAO) is considered the kick-off of this approach. In the middle of the economic crisis of the 1980s, when spatial planning had deteriorated into a technocratic jigsaw puzzle, the foundation also named NNAO commissioned the creation of four scenarios for the development of the Netherlands towards 2050. Suddenly it became clear that there were options and that by using design, ordinary citizens could also form an image of that future. As it turned out, using research by design was the best possible way of showing people ‘what they could want’, a visualization of the future that could be used to mobilize people. According to Dirk Sijmons, former Government Advisor on Landscape and one of the designers that participated at the time, this exhibition ‘harshly reminded planning of its design background’.
It was the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam (IABR) that further developed and sharpened the design research instrument. From an exhibition that presented research, it grew into a continuously growing research by design process aimed at an ‘inclusive agenda’ that opposes unbridled liberalism and urban development that is dictated by the real estate market.
According to Maarten Hajer, head curator of the IABR 2016, designers are good at formulating ‘imaginaries’. The Dutch word for imaginaries fascinated him, because in this language they are called ‘mental images’: the images produced by mental processes, the images that colour our thought. Mental images allow a common view of reality, a framework within which to think, and they create a vision to pursue. In short, they create ‘meaning, longing and confidence’.
Mental images can be grand and comprehensive – the view that man was the radiant centre of the world marked the beginning of modernity, the earth photographed from the moon represented the realization that the earth is fragile and finite and paved the way for the environmental movement. But they can also be a lot smaller and more local: the second- hand houseboats that members of De Ceuvel, a breeding ground in Amsterdam, had towed onto a contaminated dock site immediately show that time and temporality are fundamental characteristics of their approach.
Mental images can produce change precisely because they connect the present and the future. ‘I am convinced that we will need the inspiration of the designer to loosen the nuts and bolts of the modernistic system,’ Hajer writes, and his words chafe all the more because he is the first IABR -curator who is a scientist rather than an artist. FUR not only examined healthy urbanity (What is it?), but emphatically also investigated the instrument of design research itself (How is it conducted?). The methods and techniques that are discussed in Part 2 have been tested in practice. What is special about FUR is that both the lecturer and the researchers, who each took an Academy of Architecture under their wing, work as architect/urbanists and have their own offices. And being fed by the field is essential to design research in which, after all, professionalism, experience and intuition play an important part.
As sociologist Richard Sennett shows in a comprehensive study, craftsmen are more capable of connecting the mind and the body – more specifically, the hand – than anybody else. They perfect their work for its own sake, not to earn money or prestige. Indeed, rather than complacently looking for solutions to the problems at hand they – intentionally or unintentionally – look for new, underlying problems to continue to unravel the essence of their work. You see the same enthusiasm at the Academies of Architecture, where architects and urban planners transfer their experiences with research by design to fellow professionals who want to develop their careers, after all, the students themselves are professionals.
This book shows both concrete designs for healthy urbanity and explains how design research works in the field. ‘Using new research methods, we can figure out how space is used, what performance we expect of it and which smart connections and alliances we need to achieve that performance,’ says lector Eric Frijters. ‘You don’t design a building, at least not to begin with, you design a better research question.’ Researcher Thijs van Spaandonk says it is the essence of design research: ‘To use the design to question, to investigate, to be surprised and to overcome your own aesthetical preferences.’
Design research implies that designers are involved in the process much sooner than is traditionally the case, long before there is an actual commission, which in some cases fails to materialize at all. Still, research by design is very much about the here and now. fur researcher Willemijn Lofvers: ‘Designing is traditionally about the future, about what could or should be. However, it is much more important to examine what there is now and what we need today. We need to bring the future closer.’ Colleague researcher Ady Steketee adds: ‘You imagine visions and use them to assess a possible future. That means it is a way to feed political decision making, because research by design is by definition local and political.’
Research by design is a way to unearth a commission and at the same time forge a coalition that can do something with it. It is not only a search for the hard, spatial side and for the metabolism of flows that are relevant to that side, but also for the way people use the space. And for the right scale to circle the problem before attacking it. It is dangerous to focus only on the problematic side. Not only because it deters potential partners – too difficult, too negative, too big – but also because it narrows the mind. A more positive outlook not only opens the mind, it also widens ones perspective of the system as a whole.
In addition to collecting data and analysing current problems, it is therefore necessary to identify opportunities and trace anecdotes – short stories that cannot yet be captured in hard data, but that promise change. And this process keeps repeating itself, for research by design is iterative: the output of step one is the input of step two.
This requires perseverance as well as humility. Steketee: ‘Even when they carry out research by design, designers will be designers – rather than researchers. There is no way we can say anything about the global economy, but you can expect us to document our sources properly, to explain what we base ourselves on.’
Coalition forming is one of the most elusive and complex aspects of design research. Who do you need to carry out research by design and subsequently transform its outcomes into action? Part 3 presents the ‘who’ question and is, precisely because it is a pre-eminently contextual question, unable to answer it univocally. Instead, the question is defined, the process explored.
The range of possible partners is wide and a thorough analysis of interests may yield unexpected ones. Such as insurance companies, which can combat obesity and other health problems by investing in residential environments and in the long term reduce their expenses that way. Or car rental companies with electric cars that make their batteries available for the storage of energy from the grid – a way to connect the transport and energy networks.
The reverse is also possible: architects can appropriate tasks such as project development and financing and act as their own commissioners to realize their designs, perhaps forming a collective private commissioning party in combination with other self-builders. Voilà: the architect/developer is born, or rather makes a comeback. Stakeholders are identified on the basis of both the subject of the research by design in question and the phase it is in. Over time, parties drop out and new ones join in. In the best-case scenario this selection process slowly produces an increasingly well-defined group that has sufficient enforcement power and the sense of urgency to tackle the problem.
FUR researcher Sandra van Assen warns that designers tend to look for an inspiring, innovative solution to each problem, while this is often unnecessary. ‘If the stakeholders are not convinced of the need for change, you should focus your design activities on that level.’ She likens the process to Maslow’s hierarchy of need: first the necessity, then the functional demands, subsequently the spatial integration, next the adding of value and right at the top is innovation. ‘Good designers don’t need to be at the top of the ladder, they figure out what is needed.’ The ‘problem-looking-for-an-owner’ process does not necessarily lead to a commission for the designers involved: they can be superseded over time. FUR researcher Marco Broekman: ‘In our research project about the possibilities of small-scale vocational education in Amsterdam, we found that 80 per cent of the demand was actually not spatial at all. After the final discussion with the commissioner, I thought perhaps we should not get involved. Now the roles are reversed: if the client wants a festival and to that end needs to set up a couple of buildings, he calls us in to bat ideas around.’
Lofvers, too, emphasizes that designers are not necessarily pivotal in research by design: ‘The focal point is always changing, the hierarchy disappearing, is it increasingly about relating to society.’ That also means insecurity: ‘Architects lose their “artistic engineer” foothold.’
Sometimes design research emerges unprompted, without the intervention of a designer. In the Betuwe, an initiative for the production of renewable energy grew into a group of 120 involved entrepreneurs, citizens and governments active in the fields of wind cooperatives, private disability insurance funds, the reuse of an abandoned swimming pool and even large-scale area development. The group is called Dirk III, after the eleventh-century count Dirk the Third who gave his serfs land in exchange for a modest share in their crops – a kind of cooperative agriculture.
And research by design can also simply mean that you do not intervene, as French architecture office Lacaton & Vassal demonstrated in the mid-1990s after it had been commissioned to beautify the Place Léon Aucoc in Bordeaux. The firm’s research showed that the square was perfect. The architects’ advice was: do nothing, or rather, do nothing new, use the available budget for maintenance. They got their way, and Lacaton & Vassal presents the design on its website marked ‘completed’. So research by design does not have to result in a design.
Putting topics on the agenda, explaining, inspiring, representing, innovating, connecting, exploring, uniting – design research’s list of claims is a long one. But naturally it is not a universal remedy. Research by design comes with serious risks.
Finding the right scale, for example, is not an easy task to say the least. Collective provisions for renewable energy, for example, are much cheaper than individual solutions, but at the same time frustrate experimentation, innovation and commitment. Take district heating: to heat dwellings, the residual heat of companies is led through a separate network of underground pipes. This sounds ideal, but the network’s long cost recovery period and the mandatory participation create a monopoly and cause residents to lose interest. Interestingly, a group of self-building residents in Buiksloterham, a collective-private development in Amsterdam-Noord with a particularly sustainable agenda, managed to shirk the mandatory connection to the district heating system.
Mental images can also acquire a connotation that is very different from the one the designer had in mind. The MVRDV study into intensive cattle farming yielded valuable insights, for example that it is necessary to close production cycles. But even 15 years after its launch, the image of the more than 600-m-high ‘pig flats’ on the Maasvlakte is still the weapon of choice of factory farming opponents’.
Problems also arise if governments give commissions without actually planning to use the results. In such cases research by design can degenerate into a reason for endless studies and decision postponing and thus lead to stagnation. The deserved fame Dutch research by design has acquired contrasts sharply with the meagre results the country achieves in terms of liveability and sustainability.
But these criticisms and pitfalls do not negate the need to tackle the problems the world is facing, nor the options designers have to contribute to solutions. Strikingly, Robbert Dijkgraaf, one of the most renowned scientists in the Netherlands, even advocates the design approach for ‘hard’ scientific research. ‘The scientist becomes a kind of designer,’ he recently said in an interview, ‘you design using the building blocks of nature, and you go back to studying your design.’
URBAN CHALLENGES, RESILIENT SOLUTIONS
Design Thinking for the Future of Urban Regions
320 pages, 16 x 24 cm
ISBN 978 94 92095 33 6