The first modern theorist of the city, Henri Lefebvre, said a couple of things about the city that seem relevant here. I found these in the anthology Restless Cities. First, that to understand the city one must “situate oneself simultaneously inside and outside of it.” And second, that to understand the rhythms of the street, “it is necessary to get outside them, but not completely; be it through illness or a technique.”
A technique, perhaps, like Remote London, an experiential artwork that journeys through the city, and which sets out to unpeel layers of the city by making the familiar strange. It is the latest of a number of “Remote X” events held in different cities in Europe.
The regenerative city applies ecological principles to urban redevelopment to make the city environmentally viable. It should make the city socially viable as well.
The great urbanist Herbert Girardet introduced the idea of the ecological footprint of the city more than 20 years ago. In the current edition of Resurgence he has an article about “the regenerative city”, based on his most recent book, ahead of the next UN city summit, Habitat III, in October this year in Quito, Ecuador.
As the planet has urbanised, so the ecological footprints of the city have also grown. As Girardet notes:
Urban populations use the bulk of the world’s resources, and they are prime contributors to pollution. environmental damage, biodiversity loss, and climate change.
Urban resource demands and outputs define human impacts on our home planet more than any other factor.
Buried in this observation is a deeper observation about the history of the city: that their ability to manage the flows caused by density defines both their size and their impact. By flows, I mean flows of food and water and power (or energy), of sanitation and waste, and of people and goods.
British public space increasingly seems to be governed by the poetics of the Poor Law, with designers trying to find ways of preventing people stopping and socialising, at least unless they’re willing to pay Starbucks for the price of a coffee. The main – and unspoken – purpose, of course, is to prevent the poor (and perhaps the young) from stopping and socialising, lest they lower the tone of the place, and its asset value.
It can only be a matter of time in England’s unkind political culture before one of Theresa May’s Special Advisers proposes whipping vagrants and ne’er-do-wells to the parish boundary before then fulminating that the Human Rights Act prevents them from introducing this essential reform.
In the previous post on Herbert Girardet’s recent talk at the LSE, I described how he sees us as being on the verge of a transition to a “third age of the city” – from Agropolis to Petropolis to Ecopolis. That post spent more time on the first two – especially the Petropolis, the city’s current dominant incarnation, and its limitations. The chief limitation: the city, as currently designed, is dependent on huge flows of food, energy, and waste, an “urban metabolism” that extends across the planet and is largely powered by fossil fuels. In this post, I’m going to turn to the Ecopolis.
I first read the work of Herbert Girardet in Undercurrents in the early eighties, and his short book Creating Sustainable Cities – published in 2006 by Green Books – was fundamental in shaping my view of the planet’s urban boom. This was the book where he calculated that London’s ecological fooprint was 125 times larger than the city itself, and so larger than the UK. So when I found that he was talking at the LSE as a guest of the LSE Cities programme, I made sure I could go along.
The story he told, based on his book, Creating Regenerative Cities, published last October, is that we are on the cusp of a transition to the third age of the city – or at least we’d better be, if we are going to avert the worst effects of climate change. The first age he called Agropolis; the second Petropolis, and the third, Ecopolis. In this post, I’m going to talk about the first two; in the next post, I’ll look at Ecopolis.
So, by way of a thought experiment: what if London is about to peak? The reason would be the way housing provision and housing regulation had destroyed the economic balance of the city, and there are some serious warning signs. Recently, there’s also been a wave of commentary on this. But first, let’s just roll back to the ’70s.
One of the topics I’ve found myself writing on here more than I expected is that of public space – or, more precisely, its privatisation. I found it on my mind again on holiday in the Pyreneean village of Anso.
Anso was burnt to the ground during the Napoleonic wars and almost immediately rebuilt, this time in stone. It’s largely unchanged since then. One of the features of the village is that many of the houses have a seat built in to the outside wall, as in the photo at the top of this post.
The two public water fountains in the village also still work (try finding that in London). The villagers obviously like this way of arranging things, since in the central square, shown below, there is a row of more recent wooden seats, complementing the cafe tables.
Designing in ‘security’
Of course, when you look at recent city design, it has been going in exactly the opposite direction. One of the main features of urban design has been about designing out spaces in which unmanaged public and social interaction might occur, and designing in “security”. The rationale for this is that if you create areas where people can stop and talk they become magnets for the indigent and the homeless. (Of course, whisper it not, this is something of a ‘downpipe’ response to this particular problem).
Certainly the last time I was looking for somewhere to sit for a few minutes in the City of London (I had to make a call and wanted to be able to take notes) the areas I could find where I should have been able to sit had been spiked to prevent anyone sitting down.
The paraphernalia of control
The partial exceptions, of course, are in the public areas that have been handed over to private management, such as More London on the south bank of the Thames. The reason they tolerate it? Because with private management comes the paraphernalia of control, with rules, security guards and the like. The other reason they tolerate it? People like it, so it’s good for business.
I know it’s easy to say that different rules need to apply in the city, in the soft space where our identities are not necessarily known, unlike the village. But that’s almost exactly the point. The old German saying was stadtluft macht frei – that city air makes us free. The same freedom to talk and mingle that creates social exchange, energy and innovation also creates dissent (after all, just a form of social innovation). You can’t have one without the other. If you try to choke off the parts you don’t like, you choke the life out of the city.
The photographs in this post were taken by Andrew Curry. They are published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.
I was doing some blog management, and found this post written but never posted. It seems to touch on some recurring themes of mine.
I developed a mild obsession when in Prague with the huge outdoor advertisement for Nivea at the top of this post. We were staying a short distance from the centre, and the sign was right by the hotel, attracting the attention of drivers as they joined one of the freeways out of the city. (more…)
In The Future of Futures, which I blogged about a few weeks ago, the architect and futurist Cindy Frewen has an essay called ‘The Temporary City’, which opens up the idea that as the global population starts to shrink, so our cities will start to shrink as well. Globally, this may not happen until the 2040s or 2050s, although others see it as happening sooner (Jorgen Randers, in 2052, projects it to the 2030s). But whatever the global picture some countries and some cities will experience depopulation and de-urbanisation sooner, as the case of Detroit shows us.
I liked the essay because it takes a familiar futures idea – the apparent inevitability of urbanisation – and points a bright light at it, challenging our assumptions. And we know from our recent history that de-urbanisation can be ugly; there is a quality in some of the pictures of Detroit’s abandoned public buildings which is reminiscent of the about-to-be abandoned Precinct 13 police station in John Carpenter’s film. Similarly, when New York shrank in the 1970s, the city’s collapsing tax base brought it close to bankruptcy.
London, too, shrank in the ’60s and ’70s, perhaps with more positive results; the empty housing in the city centre areas attracted activists and innovators to the city, I don’t want to stretch the point too far, but it as least arguable that London’s eminence now as a cultural hub is at least partly due to the wave of young people who found their way into the city through that cheap housing (see, for example, Joe Boyd’s account of the creation of the Notting Hill Carnival in White Bicycles.
In the early 1970s, the architect Theo Crosby wrote a book called How to Play the Environment Game in which – in the days before the ‘environment’ was associated with biosphere or sustainability – he picked apart the ways in which planning and development had become a ‘game’ in which developers and planners managed the system for their mutual benefit and excluded the public.
His book has been in my mind because I’ve been watching, close-up, the machinations of Hammersmith and Fulham Council as it appears to collude with developers in rebuilding large chunks of the borough as highrise while trampling on the requirements for affordable housing laid out in the Borough’s core strategy (opens pdf), “that 40% of all additional dwellings built between 2011-21 should be affordable”.
And while, of itself, this is only the subject of local grief, there are some wider lessons.