Can the green, 'hairy' city work with our existing, 'mineral' cities?

| 19th April 2010
city made of child's wooden blocks
Cities are at a crossroads - 'eco urbanists' want efficiency and artificial ecosystems; conventional designers want to maintain the best bits of our current urban spaces. Can they co-exist?

Views of the west's cities seem to be developing in two very different directions, the first environmental, the second conventional.

On one side are gathering supporters of a new 'hairy' city, engineered and/or handmade, in which energy efficiency and ecological systems dominate the urban design, if not the results. On the other are the defenders of the 'mineral' city, the extraordinarily rich artificial environment that is one of the greatest achievements of human culture.

With so many cities suffering from environmental pathologies – pollution, dwindling water supplies, rapid urbanisation – the environmental approach is certainly necessary. At the urban scale, the environmental goal now is to create ‘artificial ecosystems’: cities that, in their consumption of resources and production of wastes, achieve the same interdependent efficiencies as natural ecosystems. The emphasis is not on recovering some lost past, but in assessing and exploiting the natural resources available on site (sunlight, rainfall etc) and reducing the environmental impact of any intervention.

Environmental design is unashamedly engineering-driven, constantly looking for improvements in 'performance'. But conventional urban design concentrates on the economic, the social and the aesthetic, and conventional urban designers resist not only having to learn new techniques, but also losing what they value about cities: density, urbanity, variety and a certain amount of dirt and disorder.

A tale of two cities

This is too simple a picture, however. Within the hairy city supporters there are at least two groups approaching urban change in very different ways.

First, there is a top-down corporatist way, driven by central government and calling for 'sustainable cities' and 'sustainable development', which often happens at an infrastructural scale, and goes in for social engineering to accompany the environmental engineering - to get us to do what 'They' think we should be doing.

Second, there is the bottom-up co-operative version that seeks to change the city by instigating a 'green revolution' anywhere and everywhere it can, through smaller and/or ephemeral co-operative interventions – organic markets, climate protests, tree planting.

Neither the top-down nor the bottom-up ecological approach has yet brought with it new ways of organising space in the city, or of reclaiming the city for its citizens, but then a movement that contains such different actors with such different ideas of what cities should be – if they're allowed to be at all – is probably going to have to wait for those to emerge, rather than trying to come up with a formula. Meanwhile developers continue to develop with a bit of parsley thrown in, and guerrilla gardeners continue to fill in the blanks.

Working together

New syntheses of built and grown urban environments will emerge, however. Apart from anything else, turning cities into artificial ecosystems requires the corporate and the co-operative. Large-scale environmental planning and intervention often requires the state to make a space within the market economy for such re-formation to take place – you can't build here or you can't build that here. Where there isn't the political will to do this, then eco warriors try to force/convince the state to clear that space.

Even when such persuasion isn't needed, environmental change in democracies requires bottom-up acceptance to succeed – something rather different from social engineering in that the ends may be imposed, but 'we the people' have much more input as far as means. Popular - as opposed to radical - participation in this environmental change through user initiatives is a good indicator of that kind of acceptance.

And just perhaps, as we move at present through cities whose public spaces are under surveillance and hostile to democratic expression, these new 'hairy' interventions may be a boost to old views of the city as a place of open debate and dissent. Perhaps the urban eco-parks and urban agriculture etc are new ways of assembling and of demonstrating popular will, a new chance at participatory citizenship. The new common ground of our living together in cities may turn out to be literally the ground and how it is treated, not only economically (development, regeneration), but environmentally, by all of us in our different ways.

That said, introducing nature into cities doesn't in and of itself give many cues for the redesign of those cities, or indeed for the design of new ones. Very soon, in order to avoid an increase in green window dressing (the uncovering of streams under streets, the smothering of every available horizontal surface in greenery, etc.) - which has very little to do with the re-formation of the city as artificial ecosystem - planners and urban designers will need to start integrating the new model of the hairy city with the older model of the mineral city, and integrating new places of democratic participation (gardens, allotments) with the old squares and avenues that now simply promote buying and selling. And if we're not to lose the urbanity of cities, this will need to be done by 'urbanising' nature within cities, not by trying to turn the city into the countryside.

Susannah Hagan is professor of urban studies, School of Architecture and Design, at the University of Brighton. She is director of the Office for Spatial Research there, and of the independent research consultancy R_E_D (Research into Environment+Design). She will be giving a talk entitled 'True Love? Architecture and Nature' at one of the RIBA Climate Change Lecture Series 2010 at the University of Brighton's Watts building on Lewes Road, Brighton, starting at 2pm on 21st April

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