Responsive planning architecture for sustainable development

By Finn Beckett-Hester, GLOBUS Correspondent

Creative destruction, derived by Joseph Scumpeter from the work of Karl Marx, refers to the idea that innovation by economic actors leads to constant elimination of outdated, less efficient, and less profitable older systems, to be replaced with new ideas. This thinking has become the rulebook of capitalist development, and thus has thrown humanity into a fleeting form of existence. Our contemporary form of globalised modernity has been characterised by an unprecedented dynamism in the economic, social and political spheres; constant change and innovation has become the norm. However, whilst the economic base and thus the socio-cultural institutions which underpin our society rapidly evolve – including the inhabitants, their activities, desires, and daily rhythms – our cities, thanks to their nature as permanent structures, are typically locked in a static temporality.

By this I mean that the urban fabric has been designed in a way which prioritises the monolithic, the segregated, the uninspired, the passive, and the inflexible – this is unsustainable and typified by the rise of the gated community, especially in the Western world. Urban planning and architecture, as I have argued in a previous article, play a foregrounded role in the rubric of sustainable development, and I propose a re-orientation towards a more responsive form of urban planning and architecture. To echo the words of Gordon Pask, it is the architects (and by extension urban planners and design systems) not buildings that are the corner stones in the formation of resilient and vibrant communities.

This article will briefly outline the current unsustainable nature of urban planning and architecture, and investigate the alternatives to the myopia in current urban design, with a strong focus on the importance of the cultural aspects of responsive planning. I will also account for the role that modern cybernetics can play in making our cities better places to live.  

A significant proportion of contemporary urban design is unsustainable. Buildings and cities are currently being designed as consumables with a limited service life. A pertinent example is the advent of the contemporary homogenised housing estate in the United Kingdom (erected by house building companies such as Persimmon and Taylor Wimpey). Made quickly with cheap materials, little attention is paid to effective urban planning such as connections to local services, the promotion of active communities, and architectural suitability for localised contexts. This means that not only are unrenewable resources utilised in the construction of these estates, but unsustainable communities are also created and borders are erected – between buildings, between areas with differences uses – a clear delineation of public and private space, with the democratic process elided in favour of rigid and universalised blueprints. 

This obscures the local identity of urban areas, as well as hindering relationship formation and dialogical exchange. Cities and buildings have developed alongside capitalistic, and more specifically neoliberal discourses of Ayn Randian individuality, which architects often perpetuate through selfish aspirations. Consequently, each building often signifies a further rupture in the urban fabric and reifies the boundaries between the functionality of and accessibility to spaces, including the elimination of public space and culturally-important features. Finally, the current structuring of buildings in cities such as London does not sufficiently address the urban heat island effect, whereby the temperature of urban areas is higher than that of surrounding areas through the modification of their own microclimates. This is harmful to the environment as well as organic life, through the creation of photochemical smog and other harmful pollutants. 

I propose a wholesale unsettling of such outmoded forms of urban planning and architecture, with an orientation towards an interdisciplinary responsive (and interactive) planning and architecture (henceforth referred to as responsive planning).

 The four central concepts to this are resilience, porosity, variety, and grassroots democracy. Achten provides the core understanding of what is meant by responsive planning as “the meaningful exchange of information and physical acts between building and person”. More broadly, responsive planning relies on cybernetics, an array of sensors which collect and analyse real-time data so that buildings and other urban structures become agnetic, in that they can respond automatically to external influences. This technology is part of the Internet of Things; this is a local or wide area network made up of devices connected together, producing data which can be gathered and analysed. This revises the passivity and reactive nature of older devices, moving instead towards dynamism and proactivity. Examples include the use of sensors to detect real-time changes in microclimatic conditions and making adjustments to the structure, such as the shutting of windows when pollution or noise levels increase, or deploying rain covers so that outdoor areas can still be utilised when there is precipitation.

Secondly, energy efficiency can be improved through the measuring of light intensity to adjust internal temperature modifiers. Human activity can also be monitored and longitudinal data collected so that structures know the peak times of when individuals are using buildings. Thirdly, road traffic information can become available real-time, enabling users to choose more efficient routes, with the consequences of less congestion, shortened journey times, and lower greenhouse gas emissions within urban areas. Finally, pertinent to areas susceptible to tectonic events, extreme weather events and other natural hazards, is the use of technology in disaster management. Buildings can utilise technology in order to build resilience and prepare for, or respond to natural hazards such as earthquakes in order to minimise impacts. Structures that utilise technology can become actively engaged with the needs of the users and wider society.  

Perhaps more importantly, technology as part of responsive planning should augment physical space in ways that contribute to the fabric of everyday life. Spaces should be designed in ways which facilitate social interaction, including the creation of physical space for people to experience ideas, art, culture, and to form inter-personnel connections. Public space lies at the centre of this.

Public space is linked to a good quality of mental health principally through the promotion of exercise and community engagement, providing democratic opportunities for people to affect their environment in ways they see fit, adding another layer of meaning to space. Central to the effectiveness of urban structures and spaces is Richard Sennett’s concept of porosity and the creation of more complex urban forms, which move away from mono-functional urban structures to varied spaces sensitive to socio-historical contexts. Porosity seeks to breakdown the often classist and racialised divide which de facto segregate cities into spaces of mutual animosity, as well as addressing the challenges of globalisation which place an array of cultures side-by-side, often without any tools or conceptual understanding of how to engage in dialogue. This can be done through the creation of interesting physical public space, which is able to facilitate a vast multitude of people experiencing art and culturally significant events together.

 Alongside the plethora of benefits which arise from healthy social interaction, we can also appreciate what Jane Jacobs identifies in her book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities“;  a greater sense of security is offered by active public spaces due to “eyes on the street”, demonstrating the reciprocity between public space and community. False Western desires of isolation and excessive ‘privacy’ must be deconstructed – ultimately people should be drawn towards each other rather than turned away, and the boundaries between public and private blurred rather than enforced. 

Cedric Price’s proto-responsive architecture the Fun Palace, whilst never coming to fruition, continues to be read as seminal work by contemporary architects, such as those who built the Institut de Arabe in Paris. The Fun Palace is not a building in the conventional sense, but a temporary space frame, with no walls, and no roof which could be adjusted to fit the whims and demands of society. Through developments in technology, the purpose of the Fun Palace is to make architecture fun and interactive, bringing atomised individuals into proximity, and grounding the connection between people and space. The purpose is also to make architecture more democratic and accessible to the public who can immerse themselves in the array of facilities (including dance, music and drama) which the structure offers, all activities abstracted from the “productive life” of capitalism. The Fun Palace quintessentially redefines how buildings can and should be envisaged – as the loci of communities, work, and play, unbound to temporal and spatial restrictions.

The ‘Fun Palace’

An example of contemporary interactive architecture which utilises the fundamental ideas behind Price’s Fun Palace is PARTISANS’ Building Raincoat, in Toronto, Canada. The Building Raincoat’s main goal was to create usable and aesthetically-pleasing public space year-round in Toronto’s harsh and highly-variable climate. The Building Raincoat aims to be universal in its applicability (of course designs and structures will differ depending on geographical context) by being able to become an organic extension of any building, covering the pavement to provide shelter as well as providing interactive elements for public perusal. This structure is possible due to computer modelling and developments in polymer material science, specifically ethylene tetrafluoroethylene which is flexible, transparent, and durable, yet lightweight, this enables the amount of solar insolation to be regulated. Additionally, “the spaces between the two interior layers inflate and deflate automatically to shift the opacity of the surface in order to regulate temperature”. This ensures a comfortable operating temperature, as well as inspiring architecture to bring culture into a previously bland space. Whilst this is a small-scale experimental project it has a lot of potential to be implemented on a much wider scale to bring life to the side-walk as Jane Jacobs envisaged. 

The Building Raincoat

Technology and automated elements are the corner stone of responsive planning and architecture; they can be used to improve the efficiency of cities at the macro-scale as well as at the level of individual buildings. The main dilemma that Sennett outlines in his book “Building and Dwelling, Ethics for the City” is how planners and architects can be sensitive to the social and historical contexts of the areas in which they build. Architecture cannot be universalised (as it is in the monolithic out-of-town new housing estates of the UK) , nor can the city be turned into a museum, or as Sennett calls it “an illustration of life rather than life itself”. For this we must turn to Vernacular Urbanism, the idea that new forms should be developed, but that they should retain some connection to the past as part of a collective identity formation. For responsive architecture to be successfully implemented we cannot solely rely on technological determinism; there must be a paradigm shift away from individualistic approaches of planning and architecture which focus on the divide between public and private space, to planning and architecture focused on augmenting public space, creating streets which are sociable and alive throughout the year.With this approach, not only will we be able to address a plethora of social issues caused by alienation from other members of society, but environmental sustainability concerns as well. For example, urban heat islands can be tackled through improvements in energy efficiency of buildings, as they become proactive rather than merely reactive.

The current planning and architectural rubric is unsustainable and outmoded. However, through the guiding principles of responsive planning centring on resilience, porosity, and variety which are embedded in grassroots democratic principles, we can build cities which are better to live in for everyone.

Header Image by Kimon Maritz via Unsplash

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