This piece was originally published on Apolitical.
“A city is more than a place in space, it is a drama in time.” - Patrick Geddes (1904)
While urban planning theory has been in constant flux for the last one hundred years, actual planning has been stuck in miasmatic limbo.
In the 21st century of tech and information theory, urban planning usually boils down to an obsolete set of unsubstantiated top-down verdicts with almost no correlation between decisions and desired outcomes. The growth of our cities cannot happen by decree — it is more important to understand the impact of small changes rather than complex comprehensive plans.
In actuality qualitative planning — urban design acupuncture, bike lanes, walkability — has had a much higher signal-to-noise ratio and quality of life impact in our cities in the past decade than any comprehensive planning effort. In reality, comprehensive large-scale plans have little to show for themselves, compared to more organic, smaller-scale strategies.
There is an immutable long-range element to planning. What we build tends to stick around for decades, if not hundreds of years. Typically for most cities however, by the time the urbanscape is supposed to look like the maps of freshly approved plans, newer plans have come and gone — often turning most of these expensive exercises into mostly fruitless efforts.
More focus devoted to matter-of-fact short-term decisions would help, but that would be a cop-out: it is clear to most professionals that there needs to be a radical change to the way we approach practical urban planning.
Like most bureaucratic enterprises planning is highly path dependent. The author Jared Diamond explains in Guns, Germs and Steel how “minor cultural features may arise for trivial, temporary local reasons, become fixed, and then predispose society toward more important cultural choices.” The choices of long-dead professionals have become ingrained not only in the patterns exhibited by our cities, but more crucially in the structures, processes and procedures of urban plans. The question is, how do we break free from the more or less coincidental choices of the urban planners and administrators that have gone before us without succumbing to yet more planning for planning’s sake?
Patterns in urban planning
Professionals have long argued for more sophisticated planning. The concept of “eyes on the street” is most often perceived as one of journalist Jane Jacobs’ anecdotal observations of life in New York’s Greenwich Village.
We relate Jacobs to social “bottom-up processes” but not to problems of “organised complexity” — despite her dealing with both topics in the chapter “The Kind of Problem a City Is” from her 1993 book, Death and Life of Great American Cities.
Her work seems qualitative in nature, but she is coarse-graining her experience in patterns, which we struggle to quantitatively describe more than 60 years after her writing. Diametrically, fellow author Alain Bertaud’s Order Without Design argues that planners should detect what citizens want and remove most hindering regulation that artificially and formally pretends to understand and judge from the centre.
Urban plans and city development more generally cannot be interpreted as finite processes: ones that begins with a vision, goes through a process made of rules and concludes with a physical deliverable leaving a mark on the urban fabric
In Bertaud’s view there should be no minimum apartment size, for example. Setting a minimum removes choice — and in truth a citizen should be able to freely choose how he allocates his income. In a sense a planner’s role should be citymaking by serving as a midwife to citizen decisions.
Cities are incremental: successful cities are able to informally digest and metabolise change; furthermore they often invite and welcome it.
In A Pattern Language, Christopher Alexander declares that neither towns, nor neighbourhoods ‘‘can be created by centralised authority, or by laws, or by master plans. We believe instead that they can emerge gradually and organically, almost of their own accord.’‘ He argues that, traditionally, there was little need for modern urban planning because the slow pace of change allowed sufficient time for adaptation.
He presents a network of 253 patterns — urban and architectural rules and concepts which can be combined to create urban form: think of them as words, that can be collated into sentences. Alexander’s vision is brilliant but, unfortunately, his 1977 masterpiece has been probably read more often by computer programmers than by urban planners.
Urban DNA: Regulated Expression Planning
“The totally planned city is… a myth. Therein lies the historic error of urban planners and designers and of architects: they fail to see, let alone analyse or capitalise upon, the informal aspects of urban life, because they lack a professional vocabulary for describing them”. — Brillembourg and Klumpner, quoted in Radical Cities by Justin McGuirk.
Urban plans and city development more generally cannot be interpreted as finite processes: ones that begins with a vision, goes through a process made of rules and concludes with a physical deliverable leaving a mark on the urban fabric.
Plans should not have an expiry date — they should be circular, continuous and responsive. Planners need to think of a city plan akin to a city’s DNA. Let me briefly digress in what I mean by this. DNA is not a top-down blueprint of the human body, but rather a multitude of bottom-up instructions and switches that express themselves when exposed to local signals and conditions.
In this sense DNA is less a formula to make a human body, and more a field of opportunities which expresses specific genes depending on the context. Flawless organisms emerge out of the multitude of singular decisions taken at the cell level.
The challenge is to enable the future growth of cities to emulate a similar procedure — have all the relevant rules, exemptions and regulations in place, and non-arbitrarily allow them to be used depending on the local conditions of the “urban cell” — be it a bench, building, or neighbourhood. This conditional expression of urban features enables constant planning flexibility based on changing circumstances. A great recent example of this might be London’s attempt to connect residential density with urban connectivity. In the 2017 London Plan highly connected places have no density cap.
Such an approach would change an urban plan from a static document to a tended set of conditional rules which would express themselves based on a series of local factors. It would enable bottom-up planning based on a true partnership with citizens rather than oft-engineered mock-up consultations. Furthermore it would drive sustainability and responsibility in planning. The local environmental context would drive the collaboration between inhabitants and planners. Decision making would be further enhanced by making the neighbouring urban cells an active part of the decision-making dialogue. Ultimately by taking all externalities into account the city-network of urban cells might be able to even eliminate NIMBY-like conduct at the urban-cell level.
Changing the paradigm of planning would have the added effect of making our cities more resilient. In comparing urban development with other processes of long and organic accretion (i.e. evolution), one notices that they are often characterised as operating in punctuated equilibrium: long periods of stability interrupted by sharp intervals of sudden environmental change and fast adaptability. This approach might allow us to progress from research by design, to growth by design — using the city as a machine learning laboratory. In this scenario each urban-cell would be a real-world test for action, with the success or failure of each intervention improving future regulated expression response.
Bounded Flexibility: object-oriented planning in Tirana
“To plan is human, to implement, divine”. — Jerold Kayden
TR030: The General Local Plan of Tirana, which I have worked on in my capacity as advisor to the Mayor, was drafted as a flexible planning document which tries to set a standard of order while absorbing the positive lessons learned from decades of informal organic growth; it also attempts to incorporate some basic versions of the aforementioned ideas.
The structure of TR030 was designed with three main elements in mind: an executive summary for citizens taking the form of a vision statement on the future growth of Tirana; a series of clear rules and regulations — aimed at standardising development procedures and; a number of strategic projects which selectively drive public capital expenditures.
The hybrid plan combines adaptable land use regulations with form-based building codes which produces a distinctive bottom-up land use mix for each neighbourhood-level masterplan — this allows developers to customise function depending on need. The plan weaves a tapestry of conditionally flexible yet bounded rules that enable creative architecture while mitigating the risks of corruption and arbitrary decision making.
One of the largest barriers to responsive development in fast-developing cities is land ownership
The ambition of TR030 was to function like a minimum viable product: it should work well enough from day one, but be designed like a planning framework which could change depending on context and adapt to the future needs of the city. The plan centrally fixes key variables of planning — think minimum distances or Floor Area Ratio (FAR - the maximum permitted construction density) — but allows contextual margins of flexibility when designing each of the 567 urban neighbourhood masterplans.
One of the most important form-based rules of the plan which illustrates bounded flexibility allows developers to partially waive height limits by decreasing a structure’s footprint. This means architects can operate free from limitations set by FAR objectives set by developers, while incentivising design that rewards public space generation where it’s most needed: on the ground floor. In practical terms each new private development project frees up a minimum of 55% of the land being managed; this can discretionarily be increased up to 73% with no loss of Gross Floor Area by employing the aforementioned regulations.
An image illustrating the strategic projects of the new plan — TR030: City of Tirana
One of the city’s strategic projects was the creation of dynamic urban polycenters (seen above). The plan tries to break the historical monocentric organisation of the city by outlining a set of well-connected focal areas within the urban core to serve as secondary centres.
FAR around these areas is higher providing an incentive for private capital to intervene. Furthermore the plan foresees important infrastructural as well as public services capital expenditures in these areas. The concept revolves around creating a critical mass of public and private investment empowering these areas to become focal points of their larger neighbourhoods. This is greatly enhanced by our urban mobility strategy: hundreds of small and medium scale interventions in urban acupuncture, sidewalk enlargements, protected bike lane networks and separated bus lanes
One of the largest barriers to responsive development in fast-developing cities is land ownership. In order to provide solutions to this problem Tirana uses an adaptable development toolkit. This is a set of self-explanatory tools that can be selectively used at the masterplan design stage including: transfer of development rights, density bonuses, city-backed development bonds, expropriation by physical compensation and compulsory shareholding in development corporations. Each of these tools provides solutions and expedience to developers if certain public-interest conditions are met.
No second chances
In Rebel Cities, David Harvey claims that any alternative to the dysfunctional contemporary form of globalisation “will have to come from within multiple local spaces — urban spaces in particular — conjoining into a broader movement.”
The breakdown of global supply chains caused by the ongoing pandemic illustrates the need to reimagine cities as the new distributed engines of the world. With impending climate disaster and exponential unsustainable growth approaching collapse shifting the way we plan our cities might be crucial to confront the one-off exams of our short-term future: if we fail, we do not get a second chance. — Joni Baboci