BOOK 2 - Manifesto of Mistakes

Urban Solutions for the New World

Neville Mars

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Ten years ago the first draft of the human genome was mapped out. The most striking thing about the sequence revealed was that it was, for the most part, completely unexpected.
According to “classical gene theory”, genes were in effect a series of blueprints for the construction of proteins — themselves the building blocks of cells and in turn of human beings. If you were to set out to design a genome, it would be a roll of architectural drawings for proteins. However, it turned out that less than 3% of the actual human genome is concerned with protein-building. As to what the other 97% does, much remains mysterious. But importantly, the one-gene-one-protein theory, like the aether, or the sun going round the earth before it, was shown to represent a profound misunderstanding of how the nature works. The lesson was this: evolution, in this case of the human genome, does not favor the “designed” solution.
This of course is not to say that evolution doesn’t achieve spectacular pieces of design. Crucially though, its approach is radically different from that of artificial design. Human designers and engineers like to strip systems down to their core elements, identify the simplest response, associate it with elegance, and then build it with a mind to minimizing cost and materials. Designs arrived at through evolution, and human genomes par excellence, pay no heed to such principles. On the contrary, they appear to be 97% junk — 97% the kinds of things that human designers would seek to “engineer out”. But in amongst all that seemingly extraneous material lurks the thing that gives the design life.
The design of cities takes place in a curious in between ground. Cities are at once the product of the artificial designs of urban planners, but equally, they are subject to evolutionary forces which shape and remold them through time. 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 characterize natural systems. And as cities become older and more evolved, they tend to become more adaptive. Ironically, the newest cities are frequently the ones which deal worst with modernity.
Thinking on cities has similarly 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. A further iteration upon this starts to imagine 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 in part be designed and engineered, 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 which rapidly become old cities, and then obsolete cities. Too often the new city is conceived of as a static one-step product: something like a toothbrush, which is made to be used and then thrown away. This is rapidly problematic on two fronts. Firstly, city-building implies very considerable investor lock-in, by which the demand for financial returns (e.g. on infrastructure) requires that the city be used — at least until the investment is paid off — in something close to the specific way in which it was initially built. Cities conceived of as one-step products do not easily turn into something else. Secondly, from the sustainability perspective, cities-building is a terrifically environmentally-heavy process, in terms both of resources consumed and emissions released. Constructing and then throwing away entire cities is clearly disastrous.
But a subtler and more damning problem still is that of contemporary new cities building themselves precipitously on the wrong side of a yawning aspiration gap. The immediate demands of the hundreds of millions of China’s new urbanites are basic. For many coming into the city from poor rural environments, paved roads and tiled bathrooms represent substantial progress along the development curve. The curve however runs on, and it would be grotesquely naive to expect urban desires to stop here, or basic environments to remain satisfactory for long. The aspirations driving China’s current construction furore leap well beyond the finished products of today. There is a considerable risk that within as little as ten years, millions of new developments will be seen to be failing to deliver on the dreams which first called them into being.
Caofeidian Genetic City applies 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 current developments projects. It comprises a US$50bn combined deep water port and industrial zone (set to become one of China’s largest sites of steel production and oil refining), and a nearby ecocity to be built from scratch for over a million people. These apparent contradictions are taken as the starting point for an “evolutionary masterplan” for the Caofeidian ecocity.
Ten architecture offices (five Dutch and five Chinese) were invited to design the ecocity in relay. The first team drew a masterplan for the 2010-2013 period; the second planned on top of that for 2013-2016; the third for 2016-2019; and so on through to the final masterplan for 2040 (stage ten). This evolutionary model ensured the city developed via a process of organic emergence rather than direct design, thus allowing the city to grow toward complexity through interactions, and through a nascent 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.
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. Accordingly, the true challenge of building a sustainable city comes less from specific technologies and points of environmental engineering than from the values attributed by societies. Green hardware will come in regardless, but the ideas that have to be dealt with are those relating to how people want and will want to use the city. For this, planning which envisages and allows for evolution — for the progression toward complexity through time — is critical. An evolved city we felt would simply that much more likely to be interesting, enjoyable, and wanted by people.

Adrian Hornsby 2010

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