Instant places as adaptive responses
Convergence is the essence of a city that continues to throb life as people, information, technology and capital are drawn to a constantly intensifying urban ecology.
This network of interrelated parts accounts for the city’s efficiency and productivity, which become incentives for being in this center of gravity.
But while the existence of cities may be rationalized by the metrics for the so-called good life, many events in the past have also revealed how these centers become perfect settings for disasters. The confluence of extreme events and the basic city features defined by age, density, the oftentimes coastal or riverside location result in increased risk levels.
In the middle of this global health crisis, we are compelled to adapt with the growing realization that we will be in this for the long haul.
Cities are visible expressions of adaptation and survival strategies. The built form reconfigures as its underlying social and economic systems are continually challenged.
Hence, over the course of human history, we have seen how settlements have evolved as new building and development typologies emerged.
We have seen in this evolutionary process the translations of the decision to either stand up to or flee from the disaster situation. And with the health crisis that we are now in, the same weighing of options manifests as alternative locations for residence, work and recreation are developed.
At this juncture of our collective existence when physical and social distancing have become key to managing the effects of the pandemic, the arguments for urban de-concentration are once more gaining support. There have been moves towards this direction since the late 19th to early 20th century when suburban developments responded to the issues and opportunities that came with industrialization (Rothblatt and Garr, 1986).
The trend went on in the mid-20th century when the newtown development concept redefined the industrial cities in Europe (Osborn and Whittick, Ortolano, 2011).
The lure of bigger lots, green open areas, quiet neighborhoods and ease of mobility seems stronger because these features are logically seen as the elements of healthy spaces. The technology-enabled work-from-home and remote learning set-ups add to the perceived viability of being away from the big cities.
Moreover, it is easy to imbibe the idea of masterplanned communities as counter offers to the seemingly chaotic city center.
While there is reason to believe that a significant chunk of the urban population would prefer to be in the living environments that were planned from the ground, it is important to also note the pull factors of the original city centers.
For masterplanned and relatively instant developments to work, it is essential that they replicate to some extent the old city features that were borne out of the melding of a variety of small or large-scale initiatives coming from many directions over long periods of time.
People will always consider the trade-offs for the traffic congestion, air and noise pollution, health risks and may end up choosing to be where the action is in terms of economic opportunities, access to information and technology and social encounters. The totality of city living is attributed not only to the hardware component defined by physical infrastructure, which is relatively easier to integrate in masterplanned developments.
The intangible components defined by the culture and history of a place will take time to develop and, therefore, cannot be easily replicated in new and contrived developments.
From small residential condominium units to house and lot packages and all the way up to large-scale planned developments, spaces for flexibility, spontaneity and serendipity will account for eventual expressions of character and identity.
With these features, the process of co-creating spaces that are underlain by social networks will be accommodated. The ability of the built environment to transform reflects the much-needed agility in light of the unexpected disturbances in the status quo.
The effective functioning of neighborhood networks resulting from co-created spaces will also aid in the integration of the planned development with the regional level networks.
The edges of masterplanned developments are easily seen from the air because they initially become superimposed areas that are physically and functionally disconnected from the larger context wherein they are set.
The formation of socio-economic linkages within the new development will eventually crawl out to connect with the surrounding areas. With planned new centers, therefore, it is necessary to identify which elements may be provided instantly and which features must be allowed to develop over time.
The author is a Professor of the University of the Philippines College of Architecture, an architect and environmental planner
References: Rothblatt, Donald N., and Daniel J. Garr. 1986. Suburbia an International Assessment . New York: St. Martin’s Press; Ortolano, Guy. 2011. Planning the Urban Future in the 1960s Britain. The Historical Journal 54(02); Osborn, Frederic J. and Arnold Whittick. 1977. The New Towns – Their Origins, Achievements and Progress, third edition. Leonard Hill London and Routledge & Kegan Paul Boston