Emergent Urbanism

April 14, 2010

Dan Hill explores why genuinely democratic urban development will require a fundamental change in the way we engage with our cities.

Given the iSnack 2.0 debacle, it’s not been the best of times for the idea of ‘crowd-sourcing’ things of national value. Yet the potential for direct citizen engagement in the development of our cities continues to inspire discussion and activity nonetheless, with the ‘bottom-up’ processes enabled by the internet’s platforms increasingly seen as the vehicle for such engagement.

Yet when asked to write this article about ‘bottom-up planning’, I was directed towards the recent intervention by the City of Sydney into the planning of various parts of St. Vincent’s Hospital’s extension in Paddington, apparently enabled by the simple transmission of a few renders.

In an article on the matter, Chris Johnson asks whether “the free access to web-based information on planning projects [is] leading to a new democracy in planning?” The answer is of course ‘a qualified yes’, but perhaps more importantly the question should be, “What kind of democracy, and what kind of planning?” In terms of the first question, much of the debate here focuses on the promise of transparency in such processes, on tools that enable free access to information that was previously hard to come by. Yet, I’d argue that this aspect of access is the least interesting of all the possibilities in internet-enabled bottom-up planning, just as the professional planners of the City of Sydney cannot really be portrayed as the aggregate coalescence of distributed communities of interest that the name implies.

It’s not that citizens don’t need access to information about urban development. We certainly do need more transparency in government, although even that comes with a caveat as to its assumed value. Largely addressing the various government 2.0 programmes around, Lawrence Lessig wrote that, “We are not thinking critically enough about where and when transparency works… The ‘naked transparency movement,’ as I will call it here, is not going to inspire change. It will simply push any faith in our political system over the cliff.”

We would do well to consider what this means for urban development, which is often teetering on its own cliffs of public opinion. While the St. Vincent’s incident does not appear to be representative of the more shadowy aspects of Australia’s urban development, which have often numbed the populace into despairing disinterest, it is already clear that holding back or obfuscating details about urban development, deliberately or otherwise, is not going to work. Trying to get away with it is no longer a plausible strategy. We can look to the winner of the recent GovHack competition in Canberra for an example of the new kinds of application that will deal with this. As one of the event’s organisers, John Allsopp, describes: “LobbyClue is an in-depth visualisation of lobbying groups’ relations to government agencies, including tenders awarded, links between the various agencies, and physical office locations.”

You can imagine the shiver down certain spines when that application emerged, and that’s only the start. But while we have to get on the front foot about using such technology to help drive a change in culture, on their own they’re not enough – technology will not directly drive genuine change in attitude, nor should it.

The attitude required for healthy urban development is angled towards positive contributions to the city, not mere exposés of existing bad practice, and here we come to the second question of “What kind of planning?”

Bottom-up implies a more sophisticated engagement with citizens, and from citizens. Genuine engagement in urban development is beyond manipulating dynamic viewsheds, browsing local census data, and poring over a developer’s financial projections. It means opening up the question of what the city is for to its citizens. It means putting many of the tools for design into the hands of citizens, to construct their own everyday city.

One might even argue for the removal of all planning guidelines and structures. After all, most of the world’s great cities are not the product of planning, no matter how enlightened. Certainly some have been well-formed by benevolent dictators or patrons, yet their personality has come from the slow accretion of individual citizens adopting and adapting those spaces, like ficus thriving on béton brut monuments.

While the history of urbanism is essentially one of creative tension between the grands projets of master-planning and the everyday adaptation of citizens, the behaviour of the latter has parallels in other areas, particularly when seen as a system. In his book Emergence, Steven Johnson describes the processes of the adaptive self-organising systems of ants, brains and cities in similar fashion, and although his metaphors are sometimes stretched beyond breaking point, it still might be more productive to describe these ‘bottom-up processes’ as a form of ‘emergent urbanism’. And in this phrase we would seem to have the promise of open-source operating systems such as Linux, or the distributed knowledge production of Wikipedia.

How might this apply to an Australian city?

Sydney in particular is full of holes – tiny pockets of possibility that usually lie fallow. A cursory paw around with Google Earth will reveal gaps in terraces like missing teeth, or small underused car parks, or a disused warehouse, or a well-located but overgrown rail siding, and so on. Every suburb has hundreds of them. Moreover, there are those potential subtractions and adaptations that could reveal yet more space – defunct electricity substations (some of them very beautiful), for instance. The Renew Newcastle program is a supreme example of creative re-use of such places.

Planning – a fairly cumbersome bureaucratic process – cannot scale down to this level, yet perhaps these are the very places that make a difference to everyday people. The likes of Darling Harbour do not make that difference, for all the millions spent on them. They’re something for the weekend, but not for the week.

Even the world-class re-developments of Carriageworks, Paddington Reservoir and Ballast Point Park fall into this category. No, emergent urbanism is more about knitting together the everyday loose ends in urban fabric, the parts where individuals can coalesce into small groups and make a difference right away, outside of traditional planning processes that are choked by what coders call ‘cruft’ – the extraneous code that creates friction around otherwise elegant structures.

This is where emergent urbanism could be best realised. There are numerous examples of websites and services popping up now that approach this possibility. Some focus on everyday maintenance of the city – such as FixMyStreet or CitySourced. Yet there is potential here for a service which is not simply an advanced way of complaining or reporting to the city, but instead facilitates positive interventions; that would enable people to highlight these small spaces as possibilities for reinvention, suggest some new use cases, even sketch out possible structures using Google’s new Building Maker tool, say. The process might be initiated and enhanced by enabling access to ‘everyday data’ – the kind of pervasive layer of real-time sensor-driven public data that promises to reveal the truly emergent behaviour of many aspects of the city. Citizens will inevitably end up with more data available to them than planners have ever dreamt of, just as they will tend to have a more in-depth understanding of their neighbourhoods, if often unarticulated.

The no-doubt rudimentary nature of the resulting sketches is not the point, at least not yet. When enough people have coalesced around an idea and made investments in emotion, finance and time – in a similar model to the crowd-sourced venture capital service Kickstarter, perhaps – then professionals of various hues can be engaged to more subtly aid the development process.

This is a highly simplistic overview, and crowdsourcing ideas isn’t a straightforward process, as any Kraft branding executive will tell you (assuming you can still find one to talk to). Equally, urban fabric is not the same as Linux code, just as the difference between a real city and SimCity is almost infinitely vast. Although operating systems can usefully be thought of as immersive environments, compared to the multi-sensory, multi-layered richness of our cities, they are vastly more simplistic.

Yet note the broad potential in tools like Kickstarter or the emerging augmented reality-enabled iPhone apps, and think how they could be applied to those everyday urban spaces where, again, only opportunistic and emergent urbanism can scale down to deliver results.

This even has something of the pre-internet flavours of the kind of Angeleno-led innovative ‘magical urbanism’ that Mike Davis has written about, or the typically mischievous ‘Non-Plan’ thesis of Banham, Barker, Hall and Price, or the engaged denizens of Jane Jacobs’s Greenwich Village.

But there are a few issues with a fully emergent urbanism, perhaps most vividly conveyed by observing its illogical conclusion. Hong Kong’s now-destroyed Kowloon Walled City is described in Thomas J Campanella’s book The Concrete Dragon as “the closest thing to a truly self-regulating, self-sufficient, self-determining modern city that has ever been built”. While the more romantic urbanists among us might love the idea of the Walled City, most of us wouldn’t have lasted more than a day in such an environment.

Another issue is that urban infrastructure has become an ever more important component of a sustainable future, and no such aggregation of individuals is likely to produce energy-efficient transit networks, energy production or land-use with the necessary scale and urgency. Here we will need the guiding hand of the professional and the elected representative, with a reach beyond Facebook, Ning and Twitter.

There is also something worrying in the rhetoric of bottom-up that eternally casts it in opposition to ‘top-down’. While the work of Jacobs was of course profoundly important, it can be argued that much of her legacy now resides not in the open systems of street life she so vividly wrote about, but in a kind of privileged NIMBYism that systematically resists structural change within gentrified neighbourhoods. In a recent ABC Radio National interview, Michael Sorkin followed a question about Jacobs by describing this “oppositional culture [in which] one of the only ways that citizens can engage planning and other public processes is by their power to say no”.

Sorkin continued, “There must be ways to activate a more positive relationship to planning the environment – rather than simply awaiting decisions by private owners or developers and simply responding to them with our powers to block projects, how much more beautiful it would be if the city were to more rigorously plan its own destiny?”

Indeed there must be ways. In emergent urbanism, we have the seeds of such a beautiful city, yet it can only be realised in constructive tension with its more directed equivalent. Despite the name, bottom-up cannot be seen as an alternative – in opposition – but as something more symbiotic and interdependent. Ironically, we might need professional planning and urban governance to be at the top of its game in order to enable the best in emergent urbanism. This is because both forms of urban behaviour need to be infused with a positive sense of the city. If either side becomes perceived as negative – as now, with the public perception of many official planning and development processes – the other side simply slips into an oppositional stance.

This might well describe our current position, and our cities are left with a million (not in my) backyards locked together in collective stasis, a stand-off of ‘progress versus heritage’, while the nation gets less and less agile in terms of social and economic mobility, and our cities cannot be prepared for the 21st century.

Recent trips to Beijing and Seoul confirmed the necessity for the existence of top-down planning. China and much of South-East Asia is able to move impressively on urban infrastructure in ways that we simply cannot. Yet amid calmer waters than those of the special economic zones of Shenzhen Shanghai and New Songdo City, other nations have developed well-considered planning processes, often predicated on well-run open competitions (working as part of the successful team on a recent urban development project in Helsinki, organised and run by the Finnish innovation fund SITRA with real verve, intelligence, and ambition, I was struck by the differences to similar scale projects back home).

While this is partly to do with the mechanics of such processes, more importantly it is to do with the nature of the conversation about cities.

In his book Risk, Dan Gardner discusses how narrative is far more influential than data within a culture. Despite our highly urbanised nation, what is clear is that there are only a few positive narratives around urbanism in Australian cities. For any kind of urbanism to work, emergent or otherwise, Australia needs to discover an affection for cities, and rapidly, such that it can then embrace everything that comes with that: social mobility, cultural progress, sustainable activity, economic resilience, diversity, open-mindedness; civilisation, in short.

Developing an active narrative around urbanism – meaning that the currently polarised camps of densification and suburbanisation can come to the table for a grown-up conversation, for instance – is imperative. Without that, the toxic atmosphere around both top-down and bottom-up planning will continue to bloom and billow like a Sydney dust storm, coating the city in a fine layer of inhibition. Our cities, and our civilisation, cannot afford to slow down at this point. This doesn’t mean they should necessarily continue to grow in raw numbers – although they no doubt will – but they must certainly continue to grow in terms of maturity.

Cities are constantly in tension, and inherently unbalanced systems. That is how they enable change. For successful cities to emerge unscathed from the wheels of creative destruction, an informed, engaged and enabled urbanism needs to inhabit both professional circles and everyday people. While we might be drawn to emergent systems as the other ones are filed in the too-hard basket, it’s in the interlocking totality of this top-down/bottom-up system, suffuse with a positive sense of what a city is, that the answer lies. We have to do nothing less than redesign our culture in order to successfully redesign our cities.

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