Embracing urban evolution

China risks building a generation of rigid cities, unfit for the demands of a changing society, writes Adrian Hornsby. But there is an alternative approach – as an exercise this summer demonstrated.

The design of cities takes place in a curious middle ground between invention and evolution. They are the product of the artificial designs of urban planners and, at the same time, subject to forces that shape and remould them through time.

Human designers and engineers like to strip systems down to their core elements, identify the simplest response and then build it with a mind to minimising cost and materials. But the longer cities evolve, the less engineered they appear, and the more they incorporate the kinds of complexities and counter-intuitive patterns and uses which characterise natural systems. And as cities become older and more evolved, they tend to become more adaptive. Ironically, the newest cities are frequently the ones that deal worst with modernity.

Thinking on cities has itself undergone a form of evolution. In the 1930s when the discourse was young, it was dominated by Le Corbusian ideals of the city as a “machine for living”. The 1970s tended to prefer more organic metaphors, thinking of the city as something closer to a cellular structure, like a leaf, or indeed a human body. One of the core concepts of the 2010 Shanghai Expo, which bore the slogan “Better City Better Life”, is of the city as a being – less an organic structure than an organic entity, with a life force and an evolving will of its own. According to this logic, the city can be designed and engineered in part, but it may also fight back, and grow in directions counter to those proposed by planners.

The relevance of this thinking to China could not be more immediate. New city building is being pursued across the country at extraordinary levels of magnitude, yet an excessively engineered approach dominates, with little consideration of how the city may evolve. The clear risk is of building new cities that rapidly become old cities – and then obsolete cities. Too often, the new city is conceived as a static, one-step product: something like a toothbrush, which is made to be used and then thrown away.

This is problematic on two fronts. Firstly, city-building implies very considerable investor lock-in. Once built, the demand for financial returns (for example on infrastructure) requires that the city be used in the specific way it was built, at least until the investment is paid off. Cities conceived of as one-step products do not easily turn into something else. Secondly, from the sustainability perspective, building and then throwing away entire cities is clearly disastrous.

The Caofeidian Genetic City project, which formed part of the Dutch contribution to the Shanghai Expo, applied the concept of city evolution directly to the semi-paradox that is the brand new Chinese ecocity. Caofeidian itself is among China’s most ambitious development projects. It comprises a US$50 billion (334 billion yuan) combined deepwater port and industrial zone (set to become one of China’s largest sites of steel production and oil refining) and a nearby eco-city to be built from scratch for over a million people. These apparent contradictions are taken as the starting point for an “evolutionary master plan” for the Caofeidian eco-city.

The concept of the “genetic city” was inspired by the structure of the human genome. According to “classical gene theory”, genes were in effect a series of blueprints for the construction of proteins, the building blocks of cells and of human beings. But 10 years ago, the first draft of the sequence of the human genome revealed that less than 3% is concerned with protein-building. As to what the other 97% does, much remains mysterious. Importantly, the one-gene-one-protein theory was shown to represent a profound misunderstanding of how nature works and the lesson was this: evolution, in this case of the human genome, does not favour the “designed” solution.

The evolution of the Caofeidian Genetic City master plan took place between January and July this year. Ten architecture offices (five Dutch and five Chinese) were invited to design the ecocity in relay. The first team drew a master plan for the 2010 to 2013 period; the second planned on top of that for 2013 to 2016; the third for 2016 to 2019; and so on through to the final master plan for 2040 (stage 10). This evolutionary model ensured the city developed via a process of organic emergence rather than direct design, thus allowing the city to generate a complexity and inner logic of its own. Most importantly, it forced the plan to confront two things conspicuously lacking in contemporary Chinese planning: a long-term vision, and a changing future.

The results of the process were presented in Shanghai in August in the form of an exhibition and an all day forum. The forum drew together the teams involved and a host of leading practitioners and theorists to discuss the process, the findings, and the greater challenges facing sustainable cities in China.

Among forum panelists, the project was generally interpreted to originate from a high concept and essentially utopian position. None of the 10 stages was costed, nor were they held to critical account against defined sets of sustainability measures (for example embedded carbon costs, CO2 emissions and offsets). Nor, and perhaps more significantly, were the proposals thought-tested for palatability among the major developers who effectively represent the market, and they were drawn unilaterally without reference to the constraints of contemporary Chinese planning regulations. These were conscious choices on the part of the project, which explicitly sought to take a more abstract approach. The question was then: how could it be relevant? In particular, by what mechanisms could the ideas explored in the project be switched on in the China of today?

As was rapidly pointed out, much if not all of the proposed Genetic City was unbuildable under current regulations, contravening, for example, stipulated parking provision per residence, required building setbacks, road capacity and rigid zoning. It was further noted that these regulations often mirror the inclinations of developers, as befits the peculiar context of China where officials, the development of land and business interests are invariably melded.

However, it would be a mistake to interpret this regulatory situation as necessarily static, or to think that what market-orientated developers want to build is an appropriate expression of what people actually want to buy. Architecture and cities are supply-side dominated, especially in China, where demand for new built volume is such that “consumers” of architecture arriving in cities have little realistic opportunity to “shop around”. The strength of the urbanisation wave effectively protects developments from failure (at least at the low end). This in turn fuels the rapid production of low quality cities.

An “aspiration gap” was identified by forum panelists between the new cities China is currently building, and what a city could be. It was felt that while millions of new urbanites may find an apartment with a bathroom and a paved road satisfactory for now, there is a considerable risk that in 10 years’ time, millions of these new developments will be seen to be failing to deliver on urban desires and the promise of a modern, urban, comfortable life.

It was in this field that the Genetic City, with its greater focus on the dreams and desires of its users, scored an eminent success. The resulting city clearly was exciting and attractive to live in – even though, or perhaps because of, its abnegation of the contemporary regulatory environment and developer interests. The layering of plan upon plan created a complexity and variety unrivalled among new cities in China. Moreover, the green objectives of the designers led to a city which naturally encouraged its users to engage with and enjoy greenness in all senses of the word – leafy parks, public transport, teleworking, green food, green waste, green dreams …

A city is less an engineered space than a social construct. It is built by people for people to live in and interact with each other in. Accordingly, the true challenge of building a sustainable city comes less from specific technologies and points of environmental engineering than from points of social engineering. The green hardware will come in anyway, but the ideas that have to be dealt with are those relating to how people want and will want to use the city. And it is on this front that planning which envisages and allows for evolution – for the progression toward complexity through time – is critical. An evolved city is simply that much more likely to be interesting, enjoyable, and therefore successful than a static one.

Michelle Provoost of the International New Town Institute stated that, according to her research, often one of the best things that can happen to a new town is to undergo a period of failure. This necessarily forces the new town to re-evaluate the principles under which it is developing, and to evolve toward something more adaptive. There is perhaps some hope for the long-term success of China’s new cities in this success-in-failure. Only it does seem to be a heavy way to go about things – to allow the greatest mushrooming of cities in human history to go wrong before it can go right.

Adrian Hornsby is a writer on numerous subjects, including architecture and urbanism.

Homepage image from Neville Mars