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The organic city vs. the tidy-minded city

How might we restore vibrancy to cities and regions? An underlying assumption can be that we can design, maybe plan for vibrancy. Can we really? How to you design for vibrancy to emerge and grow? How can we nurture vibrancy?

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard
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When I was a kid, I was living in Paris and my parents and I moved to a residential complex in the suburbs of Paris - partly because we could get a bigger apartment but also partly because of the "political ideals" of my dad. It was a big building with about 500 / 520 apartments. The building was on a podium with a pedestrian route going around the building and linking the building to a park. It was like a street and I often met my friends there, people met and chatted on this “street”. It was supposed to be linked by a bridge to another big building (same number of apartments and same design). The idea that at the end all buildings will be connected above street level. It never happened, not even the bridge… and most of what was planned by the developers of the project never happened. We ended up leaving and going back to Paris.

When living in London 2 years ago, I went to the Barbican and there discovered the Barbican estate, which consists of 13 terrace blocks, grouped around the lake and green squares within the complex. The main buildings rise for up to seven floors above a podium level, which links all the facilities in the Barbican, providing a pedestrian route above street level. Yet to me, it seems  to me like a dead zone despite the incredible art program of the Barbican center. Yet, it seems that for residents it is a great experience "The Barbican is more than a collection of flats, it is a community. In its cloistered confines, the architects have created a self-contained urban village. ‘It’s very community-led – almost a university campus feel" (said one resident):

For this challenge, as I was searching articles about the Barbican, I found an article in the Guardian ( about another estate, the Heygate estate in South of London, nearby Elephant and Castle. Heygate is an estate of 1,260 dwellings (half a dozen huge, grey, monolithic blocks confronting the busy roads around the Elephant and, between them, groups of three- and four-bedroomed maisonettes) completed in 1974 and which is going through “regeneration”, understand destruction. Many residents and associations contest this decision of the Southwark council.

It also seemed to me an interesting counterpoint to the article I read about Starrett city:

One of the few residents still left noted:

"They're not very pretty and they have become unfashionable, but they're structurally sound and functional. Just because they're a bit grey doesn't mean people can't live here happily."

Another tenant added:

“There are a lot of bright, enthusiastic, imaginative architectural students who could do something amazing with it – a coat of paint, lighting. And there must be professional architects who would be interested in it as a social project. But it's not about that; it's all about the gentrification of the area. They've chosen to knock this estate down because it's in a prime location."

Reflections from the architect who designed the estate points to management / soft issues for the lack of success of the community: originally the community supposed to leave in the estate was supposed to represent a broad socioeconomical spectrum. Yet, the council ended up housing people only “ if they scored highly on an index of deprivation or social challenge and the council lacked the resources to deal with the attendant problems, did the "blight" begin. Software, not hardware; people, not buildings; politics, not aesthetics.”

Anne Power, professor of social policy at the London School of Economics, says creating mixed communities by planning is impossible. She suggests a more flexible approach:

“Instead of knocking down estates such as the Heygate, and replacing one form of utopianism with another, she favours adapting the infrastructure that already exists – bringing derelict and unused property back into use, converting empty commercial buildings for residential use, making sure every council property is occupied – and plugging the gaps with small-scale developments. Property developers like grand designs; people just want somewhere to live.”

Dickon Robinson, former development director at the Peabody Trust housing association) also suggests a flexible approach. "It's unsustainable to build such robust and structurally sound properties, and then take them away after 30 or 40 years. We have to build on a much longer cycle, and if necessary we have to be prepared to allow the people in those buildings to change. Let them evolve. If you have the right kind of buildings, uses can swill backwards and forwards. Supposing someone wanted to convert part of the Heygate estate into office suites; great, let's do it. It's the organic city, as opposed to the tidy-minded planned city that says, 'You were once social housing, so you will always be social housing.'"

What do I take from these different examples:

  1. the tension between deterministic urban planning and evolving / emergent / participatory design
  2. it echoes the tension between property developers and city councils which like grand designs and people who just want somewhere to live
  3. the importance of the software, the people, interactions and practices which cannot be separated, but also shape, interpret, make sense of the hardware and the buildings.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Meena Kadri

Lots to think about here – and we're loving the way you've woven together personal experiences with more abstract thinking.

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Thanks Meena. I realized that instead of posting 3 inspirations, it made more sense to write one connecting them.
I also thought that this tension between how much we can design and how much is emergent is something important to keep in mind in this challenge.

Photo of Vincent Cheng

Agreed with Meena, loving the complex delving into this issue through a combination of personal stories & abstract thinking!

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