16 Abril 2015

Ecological Urbanism


Architects have been steadily pushed out of urban design but through embracing Ecological Urbanism may reclaim their authority and create cities in symbiotic harmony with nature
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Ecological Urbanism
Ecological Urbanism
Artículo publicado en Architectural Review.

‘Ecological Urbanism’ – the term does not exactly trip off the tongue. On the contrary, it is an active disincentive, promising the worthy and the dull: buildings lost in generic greenery and garnished with wind turbines. At its worst, ecological urbanism trails these in its wake. At its best, it challenges the way we conceive of urban and non-urban, and the way we privilege the city as cultural construct over the city as metabolism – literal metabolism, taking in energy and resources and evacuating wastes. What is most dispiriting in the general refusal to engage with these processes is the inability of too many to perceive the indivisibility of the environmental and the social, and both with the economic. Urban flooding, for example, isn’t just a headline-grabbing aspect of climate volatility, it ruins lives and urban fabric and costs money to put right.

The goal of Ecological Urbanism is to create ‘artificial ecosystem’ cities that achieve the same interdependent efficiencies and life-preserving redundancies as natural ecosystems, turning the current linear pattern of energy-in-one-end/wastes-out-the-other into a loop: wastes become energy. The emphasis on environmental systems is a very different way of thinking about the city: urban sites are seen as locations of, not only demand for but supply of, resources. It is an engineering model, vitally important, but isolated from conventional urban design theory and practice. Its cultural (including design) implications remain largely unexplored, and even fragments of its complex provenance rarely appear in publications addressing ‘the sustainable city’.


The importance of design

Ecological Urbanism has the potential to be a new bridgehead between urban design and ecology; one that projects and defends design as a vital element in the necessary physical transformation of our cities. Theories about the urban condition are useless without the ability to deploy them, and design incorporates both the framing of an intention to intervene, and the guiding of the intervention itself. A design-centred Ecological Urbanism is essential to integrate necessary environmental engineering with the city-as-culture. This isn’t new. The brilliant 19th-century engineer Joseph Bazalgette achieved just such a synthesis with London’s Embankment, which is both sewer infrastructure (below) and urban promenade (above).

In the copious analysis of the unsustainability of cities from the UN’s Brundtland Report (1987) onwards, the vital importance of design is neither understood nor acknowledged. It may well be ‘the failure of effective governance within cities that explains the poor environmental performance of so many cities’ (Mitlin & Sattherthwaite 1996), but it is without a doubt also the absence of an environmentally literate urban design, that is, urban design hand-in-glove with environmental engineering. Governance can create the opportunity, but cannot deliver more sustainable urban fabric, fabric that needs to be not only (re)engineered but (re)designed.


The engineer Joseph Bazalgette’s 1862 Thames Embankment is both sewer infrastructure below and road and promenade above

Despised though the definition may be, an architect is indeed someone who ‘gives form’, regardless of the overtones of divinity that have clouded the description. Remove these absurd accretions and we still need an agent to give form to new requirements and desires in the built world, in this case, to translate environmental performance into urban form. This assumes that the architect/urban designer is able not only to converse with the environmental engineer, but to see the design possibilities within performative environmental targets, to make the urban lead and the ecological follow. The urban project of the 21st century needs to be couched, not in terms of what the city can do for ‘nature’, but what nature can do for the city on the city’s own terms, and architects have to be able to negotiate a difficult path between ecosystem and urbanity.

If design is so important, then why not call this theory and practice ‘ecological urban design’? Simply because ‘urban design’ doesn’t suggest to designers that they ought to be thinking more comprehensively and more critically beyond the norm – that is, beyond ‘giving form’ and its history. Architects/urban designers and the schools that train them can no longer indulge in the dominant myopia if they want to remain of the slightest relevance in the future. There are practices, great and small, that engage in Ecological Urbanism, whether they call it that or not, from the august Arup Associates to the tyro Relational Urbanism, but their preparedness has not thus far catalysed a global outbreak of same. If it transpires that climate change is less of a catastrophe and more of a manageable metamorphosis, Ecological Urbanism would nevertheless remain an essential model for the future production of cities, as cities become increasingly our species’ only habitat.


The confusion of terms

These terms – ‘habitat’, ‘ecosystem’, ‘ecology’ – need defining. The term ‘ecosystem’ was first used in 1935 by the English botanist and ecologist Arthur Tansley. Tansley coined the term ‘ecosystem’ to describe this relationship between an organism and its environment. Ecology is the study of ecosystems, and is endlessly misused as a synonym for the term ‘ecosystem’. In urban terms, Tansley’s definition of ecology allows for the study of the human organism in relation to the urban habitat.

There are other important contributors to the discipline of ecology, of course. Eugene Odum’s seminal textbook Fundamentals of Ecology (1953) deals with the structure and function of levels of organisation beyond that of the individual and species (Odum et al 2005). This differed from earlier approaches by taking a holistic approach that encompassed entire ecosystems, and relationships between ecosystems.

‘Despised though the definition may be, an architect is indeed someone who ‘gives form’, regardless of the overtones of divinity that have clouded the description.’

Odum also introduced the highly influential idea of ‘feedback’ into ecology. Homeostasis within ecosystems at all scales is maintained through feedback loops, embedded mechanisms that react if there is an excess or a deficiency in one part of the system, ensuring that the system as a whole is continually rebalanced and survives. The word ‘continually’ is important. Ecosystems aren’t fixed, but dynamic: external and internal forces – climate, humans, disease – force change on them, and they must continually rebalance or die. Ecological Urbanism is predicated on an understanding of these natural ecosystems and the way that cities both interfere with their functioning and create new biotic/abiotic hybrids.

Philosophers have of course posited for centuries an interrelationship, but understandably, viewed it in cultural terms: humans are influenced by their environments; environments are influenced by humans. The city is the most extreme example of human influence on our physical environment, often leading to the erasure of that to which it was adapting. Manhattan, for example, may have bugs, birds and weather, but its biophysical environment is entirely subsumed under the dominion of one species. Ecological Urbanism seeks to establish a more balanced relationship between obliterator and obliterated. It is about the restoration, not of ‘nature in the city’, which is hopelessly simplistic, but of the adaptive process itself, adaptation rather than domination, ‘living with’ rather than ‘living over’.



Humans are influenced by their environments, and environments are influenced by humans. The ‘ecology of cities’ recognises that as the dominant species, humans cannot be excluded from natural systems. We are both part of nature and something apart, a truth encapsulated in Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’

Xuemei Bai and Heinz Schandl (2012) make a useful distinction between ‘ecology in cities’, which concentrates on non-human living systems (flora and fauna), and ‘ecology of cities’, which includes humans, and views cities as ‘coupled social-ecological systems’. The ‘ecology of cities’ is stronger, recognising that as the dominant species, humans cannot be excluded from natural systems: ‘… urban ecosystems are a hybrid of natural and man-made elements whose interactions are affected not only by the natural environment, but also by human culture, personal behaviour, politics, economics and social organisation’ (Douglas et al. 2012).

At present, most urban ecosystems are dysfunctional, in which feedback – pollution, slums, blackouts, overheating – is ignored and controls overridden to maintain unsustainable levels of consumption. In a healthy ecosystem in nature, each biotic member of the system gives as well as takes. If cities are to be physically reformed, they can no longer parasitically consume more than they produce, and architects need enough understanding of the ecosystem model to be able to help close the metabolic loop. The upgrading of urban infrastructure may be the province of the environmental engineer directed by the planner, but architects must be able to configure form and space to create synergies between environmental function and urbanity. Although the precise infrastructural implantations in the 19th-century city of street lighting, sewerage and drainage systems, water supply and underground transport were the province of municipal engineers, the configuration of built form was equally important to the salubriousness of a city, and its design was the province of the architect. The same pertains in the 21st-century city.


The exemplar of HafenCity Hamburg

HafenCity Hamburg is ecosystemically observant and truly urban, a perfect storm of good governance, citizen participation, money and architects fully equipped for the 21st century. It is a 157-hectare, 2 million square-metre redevelopment of Hamburg docks as a new mixed-use waterfront city centre on city-owned land, phased over 20+ years, from 2003 to 2025. One fifth of the 10+billion Euro price tag comes from the public sector and four fifths from the private sector. The body set up to deliver this, HafenCity Hamburg GmbH, is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg, which retains a high degree of public control.

Metabolically, the approach has been like an EU directive, that can be followed in a number of ways, as long as they are followed. A CO2 baseline limit of 175g per kilowatt hour was a condition for any energy supply contract, with the choice of technical solution for achieving that target left up to bidders, successful firms delivering up to a 27 per cent reduction in emissions. CO2 emission limits continue to be tightened. After tenders had been invited from all over Europe for phase two of the development, Dalkia Energie won the contract in 2009, undercutting the new 125g/kWh emission limit threshold set for the tender. Dalkia’s concept is for a local energy supply network, fed by various sources both inside and outside HafenCity, and combining biomass-fired combustors, biomethane fuel cells and heat pumps. Because of its decentralised structure, the system can grow with the new development as its needs become clearer.

Topographically, the development is even more interesting. The money available for HafenCity allowed the city to require private developers to construct a new datum 8 metres above sea level, and above the most extreme flooding levels. These plinths are made of compacted fill, and ensure HafenCity is connected with the existing city. The alternative would have been to surround the entire development with high dyke walls, an intensely anti-urban solution that would have permanently isolated it. The new datum dispensed with the need for premature financing of flood-protection measures years, or even decades, ahead of the sale of the sites.
Nor has such a leap in datum height cut people off from the water. There are 10.5 kilometres of waterside walks, squares and parks, many of which, like EMBT’s floodable Marco Polo Terraces (2002) slope or step from the water’s edge to the new 8-metre datum level, allowing public access to the water.


HafenCity Hamburg is ecosystemically observant and truly urban, a perfect storm of good governance, citizen participation, money and architects fully equipped for the 21st century

There is mixed-income, mixed-tenure housing (2,000 homes have been completed out of a target total of 6,000); there are public and recreational spaces, and all are welcome, not just the besuited drones of Mammon. Germany pays much more than lip service to user participation in design development, and unusually for a nation in the developed world, widely supports self-build initiatives. Nevertheless, a decision to redevelop on this scale is necessarily taken by city government not citizens, and the ways and means and beneficiaries have been largely determined by the city. The language of the official publication describing the genesis and objectives of the project – Hamburg der Masterplan (2006) – makes it very clear that this is a top-down undertaking.

HafenCity Hamburg’s scale and complexity required careful planning and design, as did its environmental agenda. In this last respect, however, it remains a rare example. Post-industrial cities are not, for the most part, effectively rethinking their metabolic systems, their topographies, or their global impact. Though the Brundtland Report speaks optimistically of the post-industrial world being able to afford to address its social and environmental problems, it doesn’t take into account the boom and bust patterns of the ‘free’ market. What might be affordable during a boom is not during a bust, and in neither condition is there very often enough political will to adequately address environmental as well as social problems, both those associated with resource consumption, and those associated with climate change.


The given?

The need for climate change resilience, particularly in cities, has reintroduced the need for an urban design strategy that has been submerged for centuries. In his Ten Books on Architecture, Vitruvius instructed the makers of cities on the importance of a site’s physical attributes. However abstract the Roman grid laid on top of it, the datum had properties it was imperative to understand for the hygiene of the city and the wellbeing of its citizens.
Gradually, too gradually, the conventional imposition of an organising idea, uninformed and unformed by the conditions it sits in, is becoming untenable. The will to impose sits deep within our psyche, at least in the West, and the abstract figure on the datum – the grid on the plain – has been celebrated as a higher form of making than that which evolves out of place. Although urban designers juggle a large number of data sets when developing a design, the metabolism of context as a deciding factor in design is rarely one of them.

Two Scots, the regional planner Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) and the landscape architect Ian McHarg (1920-2001), promoted an approach to development that refused to privilege the city-as-culture. In Cities in Evolution (1913), itself something of a revolutionary title at the time, Geddes called for the ‘systematic planning of entire regions’, and insisted on the importance of ‘survey before plan’, that is, a survey of local and regional conditions – social, historical and physical – before proposing any interventions. This was important not only in geographical terms, but in temporal ones: the past informs the present informs strategies for the future – or should. Such conceptual continuity was ground-breaking in 1913, and is still outside the norm today.

‘Gradually, too gradually, the conventional imposition of an organising idea, uninformed and unformed by the conditions it sits in, is becoming untenable.’

In this way also appears the need of relating the given town not only to its immediate environs, but to the larger surrounding region. This idea, though as old as geographical science … is in our time only too apt to be forgotten, for town and country interests are commonly treated separately with injury to both (Geddes 1913).

It is not surprising that Geddes was trained as a biologist, and that it is in contemporary ecological discourse that this kind of holistic thinking is found again. Though spoken of by many today, it is implemented by few, as political boundaries, competing tiers of government, and ignorance conspire to keep the continuum fragmented and dysfunctional.

Ian McHarg, in his influential 1967 book Design with Nature, used this idea of ‘survey before plan’ to develop a regional assessment methodology for new development that places heavy emphasis on the preservation of existing natural systems. The idea is to direct development in such a way that the major natural processes going on in the same area aren’t compromised by uncomprehending development that might ultimately incur unanticipated costs to the community – in blood and/or treasure. Though he preceded the term, by adding layer after layer of information, McHarg created regional ‘datascapes’ that enabled him to identify those areas most appropriate for development within a region’s natural and social systems. The point is not that culture is excluded, but that the natural environment is included. Differentiation emerges from the ground up, as different regions have very different initial conditions, and require very different responses. These initial conditions are not only ecological, but social, historical and even medical (public health). It is in the integration of natural and cultural systems that the work – and interest – of Ecological Urbanism lie.


Provenance and models

Ecological Urbanism mutated out of Landscape Urbanism when it became clear that the latter was more about landscape than it was about urbanism. Most closely associated with the ecological at an urban scale, however, is the ubiquitous Garden City, too often a Garden Suburb, its size, homogeneity and order holding none of the aleatoric richness of the truly urban. But there are other models available: the Compact City, and the Continuum. If the Garden City is about centralised decentralisation – growth contained within predetermined boundaries – and the Compact City is about densification and intensification – sprawl redeveloped into further urban centres – then the Continuum stands out in its rejection not so much of the desirability of boundary and difference, but of the impossibility of such simplistic clarity. In an example of his breathtaking prescience, HG Wells at the start of the 20th century foresaw the spatial complexity that could exist by the end of it.

The same line of reasoning that leads to the expectation that the city will diffuse itself until it has taken up considerable areas and many of the characteristics, the greenness, the fresh air, of what is now country, leads us to suppose also that the country will take to itself many of the qualities of the city. The old antithesis will indeed cease, the boundary lines will altogether disappear; it will become, indeed, merely a question of more or less populace. There will be horticulture and agriculture going on within the ‘urban regions,’ and ‘urbanity’ [outside] them (HG Wells 1901).


If the Garden City (left) is about centralised decentralisation (growth contained within predetermined boundaries) and the Compact City centre is about densification and intensification (sprawl redeveloped into further urban centres) then the Continuum (right) stands out in its rejection of such simplistic clarity

The Continuum offers a conceptual alternative to the bounded Garden City and the bounded Compact City models for Ecological Urbanism. It not only allows us to stop thinking in terms of binary opposites – centre vs edge, brownfield vs greenfield, compact vs decentralised, good vs bad – but also to join environmental discourse with socio-political discourse to a much greater degree. It enables us to think of all types of settlement – urban, suburban, rural – as parts of a continuum. This has far-reaching implications for politicians, planners and urban designers, who, if they thought like this, would have to address all these conditions with equal attention, and not, as now, privilege one over the others.

The idea of the non-city, a city dissolved into a literal and metaphorical field with a continuum of urban and rural functions, emerged, ironically, in both the United States and Soviet Russia in the 1920s and ’30s. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City and Moisei Ginzburg’s Green City were both propositions predicated on the anti-city rather than the (bourgeois) city. Of the two, Wright’s was the most radical spatially. Where Ginzburg opted for a linear city model, unbounded in two directions but bounded in the other two, Wright went for a total dissolution of the city and its functions into a rural matrix, organised by a nationwide square-mile grid of highways. This is decentralised decentralisation, as opposed to the centralised decentralisation of Garden City polynucleation.

Which is not in any way to suggest that the Continuum is anti-urban. It is simply not anti-suburban or anti-rural either. We tend to think of buildings as objects in fields, or figures in grounds, with the object the culturally important piece of architecture either set off in space or set off against a more nondescript built fabric. In either case, whether generic landscape or generic fabric, the field is viewed as bland and homogeneous, an absence of events, non-architecture. But if one views the field as figure and ground, then the conventional privileging of object over field recedes: ‘we think of the figure not as a demarcated object but as an effect emerging from the field itself – as moments of intensity, as peaks or valleys within a continuous field’ (Allen 1997).


Moisei Ginzburg’s Green City: a proposition predicated on the anti-city

The ecological view allows Stan Allen’s ‘continuous field’ to encompass a greater number of conditions: if we are speaking culturally, then the city is an area of high intensity within a field, and the countryside an area of low intensity. If we are speaking of natural systems, however, then the countryside is the area of high intensity, and the city, at least at present, an area of low intensity. A field of greater and lesser intensities, in this case of settlement and ecosystem, describes the condition of both the city and non-city, with the city having a greater intensity of settlement, and the countryside a greater intensity of ecosystem, and the despised periphery potentially the place where settlement and ecosystem meet in new hybrids of mixed intensities. The ‘field’ or continuum is therefore a way of conceiving of built and unbuilt inclusively, which has obvious implications for the distribution of resources, as all forms of unsustainable settlement would have equal claim to remedy. They would also be equally free from particular condemnation of their unsustainability, as they would all be functioning parts of the same ecosystemic whole.



Wuppertal, Germany is one of many cities worldwide that are losing population. The city currently has a population of 360,000 but the estimated population for 2040 is 282,000. The city is one of the fastest shrinking places in the formerly industrialised heartland of west Germany. Unterbarmen in Wuppertal became a test case for Ecological Urbanism for the research consultancy R_E_D. It lies between the two centres of Wuppertal, formed in the mid-1920s when the two independent cities of Elberfeld and Barmen merged during their industrialisation linked by an adventurous suspended railway. Currently, large areas of Unterbarmen are derelict, with a population of around 4,000, approximately 13 per cent of whom are living on benefits. Because of these conditions, the area was part of a regional urban regeneration programme called ‘Social City’, focusing on the sustainable development of deprived inner-city areas, and taking the conventional approach of trying to build a way out of the problem. The city government of Wuppertal questioned the wisdom of this strategy, and R_E_D’s research was a way of advancing that questioning.

To the usual mapping of location of jobs/lack of jobs, location of demographic stability/instability and buildings that were full/empty was added environmental mapping: location of ecosystem resources and degradation, levels of energy demand and location of potential energy generation – for example, solar radiation falling on rooftops and agricultural land for biofuel. The maps were then laid over each other to reveal the locations in Unterbarmen succeeding or failing in the most categories. A catalogue of possible ‘vegetable’ interventions was then assembled, with elements deployed using a set of algorithmic rules that took into account initial social, economic and environmental conditions. These interventions were intended to grow over time until a productive green network had proliferated across the urban fabric, both within blocks and around them.

The results provided urban typologies at suburban densities, infiltrated and surrounded by many forms of productive spaces, whether recreational or environmental. A curious hybrid, half-town half-rural village, emerged that could offer those who’d fled to the suburbs many of the environmental qualities they had moved for, but also the benefits of mixed-use living and public amenities unavailable in the privatised landscape of the suburbs. Leaving land that would otherwise have to be kept up by the city government for use as neighbourhood-run allotments or playing fields meant the smaller tax base didn’t have to maintain all the ground plane that belonged to the city, freeing tax revenue to be applied to more urgent needs.

The model of the field or Continuum is as much about design as it is about planning. Designed well enough for people to want to engage with and take ownership of it. Without the designer, there is no Continuum.


Delivering ecological urbanism

During the 1980s and 1990s, architects lost much ground in their ability to ‘do something’. The scale of the loss is now acutely felt as architects are coming to understand the pressures brought on cities by the four horsemen of the urban apocalypse – urbanisation, environmental degradation, climate change and the unforgiveable concentration of global wealth in the hands of a few. They are also coming to understand the importance of design in helping to counter the first three of these, whether or not they understand the importance of Ecological Urbanism (or some terminological variant thereof). Such an undertaking is impossible if you view the architect as simply a service provider who keeps any heresies to him/herself. Too many designers’ attention is focused on conventional ‘placemaking’ (Breuste et al 2009), which, though essential, has too little connection with environmental adaptation or mitigation at present. As the architectural profession has traditionally claimed a leadership role in the formation of the built environment, it is fair to ask why it is not leading on urban resilience, and what it would mean both for urban design and for cities if it did.

The issue of power is crucial. In democracies or nations that purport to be, the state points to an electoral mandate for legitimacy. The client points to the market, currently so powerful a source of legitimacy that governments have now borrowed it. And the architect? What can architects point to in order to legitimate their infallible pronouncements? During the period of High Modernism, it was architecture’s partnership with the state. The paternalism of both was justified by three assumptions. First, that architects could decide what was good for others because they could arrive at it through reasoned reflection that allowed them to discern and negate their own bias and obtain an objective view valid for all cultures and all contexts. Second, that language was also transparent, enabling a society to rationally communicate with itself and arrive at a consensus. And third, that history was teleological, progressing inexorably towards a rational and emancipated condition through the efforts of an interventionist state efficiently served by its technocrats. None of these assumptions any longer pertain, and yet architects still make their pronouncements, albeit to drastically reduced audiences. This audience might increase if more architects were capable of designing in ways that safeguarded our cities environmentally as well as enhancing them culturally whether they called it Ecological Urbanism or not. I don’t hold a candle for the name, just the practice.


RiverCity Gothenburg

What do urban designs look like when they do consider the ‘ecology of cities’? The RiverCity Gothenburg redevelopment project in Sweden is a useful example, which may or may not be built as envisaged. Gothenburg is the largest port in Scandinavia, a vital distribution hub between the world and the region, and home to large Swedish corporations such as Volvo, Ericsson and Stena. The river Göta Älv was central in the city’s development, serving as a lucrative trade route and effective defence against attack by sea. As a port city, Gothenburg is acutely aware of rising sea levels, more severe storms, increased flooding and its own inadequate protection. Climate change resilience is therefore as important a goal as economic expansion and greater social cohesion, and the City’s official redevelopment brief was clear and unusual in its explicit commitment to environmental imperatives. ‘The three dimensions of sustainability have been translated into three objectives.’

As a regional hub, Gothenburg was awarded 34 billion Kroner by the national government to improve its infrastructure, and the city itself is investing in regenerating its centre. A competitive international workshop was held in June 2011 – RiverCity Gothenburg – in which 10 European architectural practices and their interdisciplinary teams participated. The idea is hardly new. The Dutch have been practising it for centuries, developing a system of water management that has produced distinctive transferable typologies: the canal, the singel, the terp.

Physical infrastructure is engineering-led, and often disrupts urban life rather than contributing to it. This is particularly true of Gothenburg’s road and rail networks, many of which are at regional rather than urban scale, and serve the port rather than the city. They create discontinuities in the urban fabric, and reinforce social barriers. The team suggested an expanded understanding of transport infrastructure as a generator of multi-layered urban spaces, social inclusion and environmental resilience. Their proposals therefore focused on infrastructural changes that would achieve this.

‘An environmentally led approach suggested a return to a more symbiotic relationship between built culture and natural systems, a return with far-reaching spatial implications.’

Existing opens spaces would be transformed into a new, linked, multi-purpose ‘Green Network’ while parts of the city would be reconfigured to cope with rising sea levels and increased rainfall by means of a ‘Blue Network’ of floodable areas and porous water storage areas. These interventions required a reassessment of the relationship between the city and its increasingly volatile river, a volatility that calls into question the conventional balance of power between the coloniser (the city), and the colonised (the river).

Since the Middle Ages, the river Göta Älv has been narrowed again and again, and the flood plain sealed with concrete, diminishing its original purpose: to act as a sponge when the river flooded, releasing flood water back slowly into Göta Älv as water levels subsided. Unable to find room, the river floods the city regularly, and new development and existing property alike are endangered. An environmentally led approach suggested a return to a more symbiotic relationship between built culture and natural systems, a return with far-reaching spatial implications. For example, if Gothenburg were to follow Rotterdam’s lead and ‘go with the flow’, adapting to flooding rather than comprehensively resisting it, a different range of spatial strategies becomes available that would transform parts of the city. Adaptation in this context means simply living with water: letting floodwater in and allowing it to regain some of its lost territory when necessary. This requires buildings and external spaces to be amphibious: either raised on stilts, or provided with lower levels that can be flooded, or constructed on floating platforms, or built on an artificially raised ground level higher than predicted future water levels. In addition, areas have to be found where floodwater can be stored and released slowly back into the river after a flooding event. These can be grass depressions in parks, ‘water squares’ – hard paved concave public spaces – or, in a section of Team East/R_E_D’s plan, an artificial lake with floating mixed-use construction taking up a large area of obsolete rail infrastructure, half full so it could store more water in time of flooding.


Since the Middle Ages, the river Göta Älv has been narrowed again and again, and the flood plain sealed with concrete, diminishing its original purpose: to act as a sponge when the river flooded, releasing flood water back slowly into the river as water levels subsided. Unable to find room, the river regularly floods the city

Radical though this is, environmentally led design does not seek to supplant other narratives of the city. It recognises cultural givens just as it recognises physical givens, historical constraints as well as geographical ones. The materialist and the quantitative do not replace the conceptual and the qualitative; they are conceptual and qualitative. The environmental narrative, after all, is as much a ‘way of seeing’ as any other. It ‘sees’ material relationships between the built and the physical site, but it also ‘sees’ the socio-economic implications of those relationships. An analysis of the degree of energy autonomy on a site, for example, can lead to debates about control of and access to resources, unfair distribution of resources, and therefore of quality of life, democratic deficits and relations between social groups.

Water management was a large part of Team East/R_E_D’s strategy for Gothenburg. This applied to both managing flood and storm water, and water conservation and recycling measures, which often overlap. In the second phase of the workshop, the team adopted a ‘protection and adaptation’ strategy to encourage a more symbiotic relationship between citizens, site and water in one of the dockland areas of the city – Frihamnen.
‘Bounded but unlimited’

It should be clear from the example of Gothenburg that there are, or need to be, limits to certain forms of material exploitation, but within those parameters, we are in a condition described as ‘bounded but unlimited’ (Benton 1993) – constraint is the mother of invention. The degree to which the environmental will dominate future urban design practice will depend on the urgency of its doing so. Whatever the differences in approach and initial conditions, the advisability of reducing the environmental impact of urban settlements is universal, as more and more of us pile into them. This brings with it limits to certain forms of material exploitation. Architects complain about the constraints they already experience – legal, financial, cultural – but often use them as spurs to creativity. We should hope it is only a matter of time before more practitioners (and the schools that train them) perceive environmental constraints in the same way.

There are few models for urban design that address both the necessary ecological recalibration of cities, and the city-as-culture. The latter is so overwhelmingly rich in history, artefact and debate that ecological concerns and environmental practices appear very thin by comparison. What kind of practice – and discourse – might result if urban design became environmentally literate and environmental engineering became culturally literate remains to be seen, but the time has come when the two have to be suspended in the same solution. The city can no longer be contemplated exclusively as a cultural process/artefact. It never was this exclusively, and its increasingly problematic physical existence requires that we acknowledge that it never can be. Architects and urban designers are trained to think synthetically, and what is needed is not to replace one dominant narrative with another, but to view the two as equally important. Environmental engineering and urban design are, after all, both part of a larger ‘Culture’.

Few architects have even begun to explore the implications of ‘the new’ embedded within environmental limit, a limit that is material not intellectual, hampered as they are by the association of the new with the myth of the limitless. Perhaps this is one of the causes of resistance to environmentalism – a sometimes explicit, sometimes subliminal resistance to a perceived subordination of culture to nature, and of culture limited by nature. But if, as is increasingly the case, one views the two as folded into each other, then resistance becomes increasingly pointless, especially as this folding is itself a cultural construct as well as an ecological necessity. The physical configuration of cities has once again become as important as any of its non-material ‘flows’, for it houses these flows, facilitates or impedes them. The vision of cities that are artificial ecosystems, not just metaphorically but literally, surely holds ‘unlimited’ possibilities for invention and ambition in design?

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