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How can we re-discover this lost art of city making and adapt it to 21st century and future needs? Anthony Hudson FRSA argues that the internet is demonstrating how we can begin to understand, predict and apply the complex patterns that exist in nature to the development of towns and cities.

Ever since George Osborne announced plans for a new ‘garden city’ at Ebbsfleet earlier this year, events have run a predictable course. What could have become a radical response to Britain’s housing crisis is, instead, shaping out to be a missed opportunity to create well-planned communities with people at the heart of the process. The biggest development in Britain in the 21st century is going the same way as the worst excesses of 20th century top-down planning.

Ebenezer Howard, the father of the garden city movement, had a vision of co-operative development in which residents had a real stake in communities designed around their needs. This vision was picked up by the winners of the 2014 Wolfson Prize, who considered how to create new garden cities that were sustainable, economically viable and popular. The instant response from Planning Minister Brandon Lewis was to dismiss their thoughtful response as a ‘top down’ solution. The irony of the outcome – that an undemocratic Urban Development Corporation is preparing to impose its will at Ebbsfleet – appears to have been lost by the decision makers. The Government’s concept represents the antithesis of the original garden city movement; it is more about rebranding planned development than a real change of approach.

Top-down planning is unable to adapt to changing times and has been misguided by behavioural theories begetting unviable, unloved and dreary places. The devastation wrought by planners and highways engineers through cities such as Birmingham, Newcastle and Norwich, and the failure of New Towns such as Harlow to adapt to economic and social change, is well documented. We have forgotten how to make successful cities, and the dominance of top-down planning since the 17th century has eroded the collective memory of a more organic, self-regulating way of doing things. Historical cities, such as medieval cities, show an alternative, more human approach to place-making. Here simple human interactions led to complex physical and governance structures allowing thriving settlements to emerge that adapt and evolve, consequently fit for the purposes of the day.

In the great critique of simplistic top-down planning The Death and Life of Great American Cities Jane Jacobs observed: “Cities happen to be problems in organised complexity, like the life sciences. They present situations in which half a dozen or several dozen quantities are all varying simultaneously and in subtly interconnected ways… the variables are many but they are not helter-skelter: they are interrelated into an organic whole.”

As Jacobs suggested, similar processes occur under our noses in self-organising biological systems where complexity is generated not by executive top-down control but from the bottom up. An example would be the process by which ants build a termite mound: a complex structure without blueprint or plan, formed instead by the random distribution of dirt particles by ants until a critical number coincides to trigger more building. This pattern continues until another trigger stops them. In Emergence Steven Johnson describes how simple rules can use relatively simple data to create highly sophisticated organisms and structures, capable of resolving problems and inherently fit for purpose. If these processes are being applied in nature, can we not harness them ourselves to rediscover bottom-up, organic place-making?

The internet can help; the web connects thousands if not millions of individuals together who, though working alone, co-operate on ventures and push the boundaries of knowledge forward. Millions also create virtual worlds by playing games such as The Sims or Minecraft. Playing games has extraordinary possibilities for harnessing, in a bottom-up self-organising way, the desires and knowledge of many people to grow and develop new towns and cities. It turns on its head the current practice of professionally led design and community consultation. The contrast with Ebbsfleet Urban Development Corporation could hardly be greater.

Cities can be designed through role-playing, mimicking real life situations using methods of tried and tested commercial ‘open ended’ games such as Minecraft. Through their initial virtual existence, ideas for cities and neighbourhoods can be tested, rejected or adopted before a brick or drain has been laid. Minecraft has already been developed in collaboration with the United Nations to help redesign real-world places around the world. Carl Manneh, managing director of the game developer Mojang writes: “It has proven to be a great way to visualise urban planning ideas without necessarily having architectural training. The ideas presented by the citizens lay as a ground floor for political decisions… It has also been recognised as a new way to do urban development planning.”

Why cannot similar software be developed to allow virtual communities to collectively design and organise their own city, before the outcome takes form on the ground? Only a few years ago the collaboration between built environment professions offered by BIM was a distant dream. It is now one of the dominant building design mechanisms, allowing people to agree designs and reject unworkable or inappropriate ideas. It doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to apply that process to the larger scale, and to open up its mysteries to ordinary people and communities.

As players compete and collaborate, good solutions will develop while others are abandoned as patterns emerge. Infrastructure can be tried and tested, neighbourhoods formed with schools and shops, decisions made on where participants can afford to live, and the kinds of houses and amenities they can achieve. Governance and finance could be structured in the virtual world too, using the mutual model (like the original garden city movement) to offer participants a stake in the development of their new community and rewards for their commitment as it takes shape on the ground. By encouraging a long-term collaborative approach, the city would respond to the needs of its citizens, rather than being offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis depending on the short-term financial interests of volume housebuilders.

Take this approach one step further, and technology could capture the wisdom of crowds to determine the location of a new city. This will emerge from participants’ role-playing, informed by the economic, geographic, topographic, infrastructure, environmental and physical context. It would be presumptuous to predict where it would be but it is even conceivable that a scruffy patch of north Kent floodplain may be just the place for it.


Anthony Hudson FRSA is Director of Hudson Architects and Visiting Professor of Architecture at Norwich University of the Arts.

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