Unpeeling the city

Posted in cities, culture, digital by thenextwavefutures on 3 October, 2016

Starting out

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.


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Making the regenerative city

Posted in cities, design, sustainability by thenextwavefutures on 30 August, 2016
Screenshot 2016-08-29 00.24.17

Visualising the regenerative city. Source, Herbert Girardet, “Towards the regenerative city”, World Future Council, 2013.

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.

And more:

Urban resource demands and outputs define human impacts on our home planet more than any other factor.

Managing flows

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.

And so, looking back at 19th century London, Bazalgette’s vast sewer project followed the “Great Stink“, caused when raw sewage from a growing city had overloaded the Thames. London’s repeated cholera outbreaks in the 19th century followed the city’s expansion, pre-Bazalgette, to a point where the night-soil men could no longer cart (literally) the sewage away overnight.

The 19th century solution to these problems of flows was to build new networks, or grids, which engineered scale and speed into the system. The sewage project is only the most spectacular example of this; rail and roads, electricity grids, and reservoir-based water systems did the same thing for other flows, moving from municipal to regional and national scale.

‘We move more stuff’

In case you’re thinking that digital and ICT changes this, think again. It might, but not any time soon. As John Thackara reminds us memorably in a fine passage about the Barcelona-Marseille motorway in In The Bubble,

The traffic is a solid line of sixteen-wheeled trucks, nose to tail, a couple of meters apart. In front of me is a Croatian truck: ‘‘Engine parts from Zagreb.’’ Behind me is a Spanish truck full of tomatoes. The lines of trucks stretch as far ahead, and as far behind, as the eye can see. From the crest of a hill, I can see hundreds of trucks flowing in each direction… That torrent of trucks was a reminder that thanks to all the design we do, man-made flows of matter and energy all around us are growing in volume. We buy more hardware than ever. We print more paper. We package more goods. We move more stuff, and ourselves, around at ever-increasing rates.

Trucks, motorways, trains, power lines: these engineering solutions, and the mental models that sit behind them,  are why the ecological footprint of cities is so large. (London’s is larger than the whole of the UK). They mean that cities can export the costs of scale–usually ecological costs–to other locations. Indeed, if you look at the geography of the Thames Estuary, whole chunks of the Essex coast are there to process London’s waste, downstream both literally and metaphorically.

The urban metabolism

I’m writing about London because I know it, but most cities are built on the same intensive, ecologically expensive principles. As Girardet put it:

The urban metabolism currently operates as an inefficient and wasteful linear input-output system. It needs to be transformed into a resource-efficient circular system instead. The only way to overcome notions of ever-greater scarcity is for cities to continually regeherate the living systems on which they rely for their sustenance.

That’s where the idea of the regenerative city comes in. It is the reconnection of the city to ecology. Girardet quotes Barry Commoner’s “four laws” of ecology, summarised like this:

  1. Everything is connected to everything else
  2. Everything must go somewhere
  3. Nature knows best
  4. There is no such thing as a free lunch

Cities and nature

To make the regenerative city, therefore, it’s necessary to reimagine these flows of production and consumption, of transport and construction, through an ecological lens, and then to re-engineer them. This involves remaking the links that once existed between cities and nature (think of the orchards and market gardens that once ringed London), between urban systems and ecosystems.

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London’s orchards in the 1890s. Map by The Urban Orchards Project.

The regenerative city is more than just being “sustainable.” Ecological debt has already degraded the soils, forests and watercourses that cities depend on. “Sustaining” implies no improvement on this degraded state, just as “carbon neutral” makes no inroads into our carbon debt.

Regenerative and regeneration

One of the questions that all of this raises is the relationship between regenerative and regeneration. I’m not a fan of much urban regeneration: it’s often based on an economic model that depends on creating clusters of work, leisure and retail that usually also enriches developers, privatises public space, and prices out local communities. It often increases flows.

It seems clear that the regenerative city should be an attractive place to live. If cities are “magnets and glue“, to use Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s resonant phrase, there’s quite a lot of quality of life “glue” in there.

It feels, for example, more like a “happy city” than a “smart city,” for example, drawing on some of the thinking of Lancaster’s Institute of Social Futures. This is probably worth a post in its own right another time, but the discourse around the happy city emphasises the small scale and the local, whereas the smart city emphasises connection, “always-on”, and notions of global connectness and competitiveness.

Happy city

A paper by the late John Urry for the ISF, which I can’t find online, noted some of the features of the “happy city.”

  • “Happy cities thus involve a smaller scale system of neighbourhoods, indeed with cities fragmented into more self-sufficient neighbourhoods without rigid zoning.”
  • “Collective ownership would also be key. Car-[and bike-] sharing schemes are an example of a new ‘access’ economy incorporating wider systems of mobility.”
  • “A liveable city would involve much less energy use through enabling social practices on a smaller scale.”
  • “Happy cities involve re-designing places to foster higher density living and shifting towards practices that are just much smaller in scale….There should be a systemic reduction in distances travelled by people, objects, goods and money.”
  • Finally, and this is an important point: “Such a city would be one with reasonable levels of wellbeing although in terms of normal economic measures most people would be ‘poorer’.”

Of course, most of the examples of such urban innovation are from the richer world–Copenhagen always gets a namecheck here–although the largest bike-sharing scheme in the world is in China and there has been significant public transport innovation in Latin America. Girardet expresses the hope that in emerging markets cities can be “smart from the start”, and there’s some evidence elsewhere that in places like Vietnam the energy model is more likely to be based on the distributed production of renewables.

Being smart from the start requires more than just being persuaded of the industrial, social, and ecological logic of the regenerative city. It also requires that this model of the future city is seen by politicians and policy makers as a desirable vision of the future. As Sohail Inayatullah reminds us, the last time Asian cities made a choice about the future, in the ’60s and the ’70s, they opted for the “used future” of cars and highways. That model is discredited now. But getting to the future, especially to a large-scale complex urban future that involves long-term planning and investment decisions, still requires making choices.

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Resurgence is available now from the publishers.  There’s a good short introduction online to the regenerative city in the shape of a report (opens pdf) written by Herbert Girardet for the World Future Council. I have written before about Girardet’s work, here and here.






Designing for sociability

Posted in cities, design by thenextwavefutures on 26 August, 2015

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.


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From urban paradox to Ecopolis [2/2]

Posted in cities, sustainability by thenextwavefutures on 2 March, 2015
Christie Walk in Adelaide. Source:

Christie Walk in Adelaide. Source:

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.


The trouble with Petropolis [1/2]

Posted in cities, environment, sustainability by thenextwavefutures on 1 March, 2015
WP_20150225_002 Girardet

Herbert Girardet at the LSE (Source: Andrew Curry)

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.


The coming decline of London

Posted in cities, economics, housing, politics by thenextwavefutures on 21 October, 2013

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.

Public spaces, public places

Posted in cities, design, politics by thenextwavefutures on 8 August, 2013

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.

The hollow city

Posted in advertising, cities by thenextwavefutures on 22 March, 2013

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…)

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The plug-out city

Posted in cities, design, emerging issues by thenextwavefutures on 31 August, 2012

The future of urbanisation is a future of shrinking cities. It will need a new kind of architecture whose future has already been foretold.

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.


Playing the development game

Posted in cities, environment, housing, land, politics by thenextwavefutures on 3 December, 2011

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.