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AA E+E Environment & Energy Studies Programme Architectural Association School of Architecture Graduate School MSc / MArch Sustainable

Environmental Design 2010-11

Term 1 Research Paper

Urban Design and Sustainable Development: Challenges and limits

Alexandre Hepner

December 2010


The focus of this paper is to discuss the role of urban design in promoting sustainable urban development and its relation to the realities of urban design in large cities across the world today, particularly in the context of globalization and the financial/informational capitalist economy. In this sense, we approach the concept of sustainable city as a flexible and metaphorical concept, rather than as a set of technical strategies towards improving the environmental conditions or energetic performance of cities and their buildings. Our aim is to draw attention to the wide gap existing between the schools of thought engaged in devising technical and architectural solutions for sustainable urban forms and spaces, and the social, economic and political processes that take place into transforming cities.

Table of contents

1.Introduction...................................................................................................................................2 2.Theideologicalroleoftheenvironmentaldiscourseinmodernurbantheory............................2 3.Theconvergencebetweenurbandesignandsustainabledevelopment......................................4 4.Theriseofnewsustainableurbandesignparadigms ...................................................................6 . 5.Urbandesignasaconflictiveprocessanditsthreatstosustainabledevelopment .....................7 . 7.References...................................................................................................................................10


I would like to acknowledge the contributions of my professors and colleagues from the Environmental & Energy Studies Programme at the Architectural Association School of Architecture. I would also like to thank the Architectural Association for the provision of a bursary to support my ongoing studies.

1. Introduction The idea of sustainable development as applied to architectural design is, today, much related to questions of good energetic performance, efficient management of materials and resources, and the provision of comfort conditions for occupants through economic means. However, when the debate is transferred to the realm of urban planning and urban design, the tenets of sustainable development cannot be automatically taken as the same. Cities are social constructs, and urban spaces can embody different social values and conflictive interests that are often taken for granted by many students and professionals in the field of sustainable urban design. For this reason, it is important to understand the underlying social conflicts that are related to the question of urban development, be it sustainable or not. As well see, the environmental discourse has long been used as a tool for directing urban change, much before the concept of sustainability was formulated. Depending on the way such discourse is handled, it can serve different, and, more often than, even conflicting agendas. 2. The ideological role of the environmental discourse in modern urban theory Arguably, the first organized efforts to drastically change an existing urban configuration apart from those made necessary by natural or accidental disasters such as the Great Fire of London in 1666 or the Lisbon earthquake in 1755, which enabled the complete remodelling of these cities were the works of Baron Haussmann in the Paris of the 1860s (Benevolo, 1980). The thorough restructuring of the city of Paris under the rule of Napoleon III was promoted under the banner of functional and sanitary concerns, mainly the provision of light and air, and the construction of drainage and sewer systems by opening new, broad avenues and boulevards, and tearing across the dark and convoluted medieval fabric of the old city. These were all issues mainly related to the living and environmental urban conditions of that day. However, Haussmanns works also carried the less explicit but probably as relevant objectives of, in one hand, aggrandizing the monarchical institutions through the visual emphasis of the boulevard system on monuments such as the Arc de Triomphe and the Grand Opera House; and, in the other hand, permitting easier military control over the unruly urban crowd that represented a constant revolutionary menace. This means that sanitary arguments, which might be considered the forefathers of the much broader environmental debate that would emerge a century later, were already at that time being used to justify urban spatial interventions with an undeniable underlying political and ideological content. We draw attention to this episode because, as we hope to demonstrate, it illustrates the close relationship that exists, at least in the sphere of urban planning, between sanitary/environmental concerns and the political/ideological agendas of the social agents that promote urban interventions based on such arguments. The intertwining between these two aspects is rather controversial; environmental arguments have been used for claiming factual change as much as for justifying solutions completely devoid of real environmental considerations.

Figure 1. The works of Baron Haussmann in Paris, circa 1860. Artistic depiction of that time.

Source: Wikimedia commons

In none other area of urban theory the strait relationship between environment and ideology has been as prominent as in the case of theoretical urban models. The history of modern urban planning is marked by a sequence of evocative urban models that illustrate sets of ideas and conceptions aimed at promoting changes to existing cities, or, in some cases, proposing the creation of completely new urban models altogether. As we will see, the relation between man and environment has always been a major recurring element in most of these models. One of the oldest urban models that clearly relates to the environmental discourse are the Garden Cities of Ebenezer Howard, which promote, for the first time, the idea of suburban living through the fusion of city and nature. His three magnets eloquently present the realities of city and country (urban and natural realms) as opposite and mutually excluding, but suggests the possibility of creating a new reality that is both and neither at the same time (Broadbent, 1990). In his view, however, city and environment could only be integrated outside the existing city, in the slumless and smokeless suburban garden city, which should be understood not only as a new kind of space but also as an alternative to the urban way of living. Howards proposals had enormous influence not only during his time, as the idea of dissolving the urban way of living in a suburban landscape has been revisited time and again. As a matter of fact, the suburban communities that became one of the most common landscapes in the United States during the post-war baby boom years, as well as the rich and privileged gated communities encroached in the suburbs of many large cities in the developing world, can all be understood as offshoots of the Garden City model.


Source: Wikimedia commons


Le Corbusiers Ville Radieuse also clearly demonstrates the central role conferred to the natural environment in one of the most influential ideal urban models ever devised. Although the FrenchSwiss architects view of the integration between city and nature through the concept of towers in the park might today be seen as a totalitarian simplification, it is also undeniable that it places nature (albeit in the form of broad and generic green spaces) at an utmost level of importance. However, differently from the Garden City model which intends to bring the urban element out of the city, the modernist city in its most radical form proposes to dissipate the city itself, through the denying of the most fundamental urban element, the street. If in one hand the modernist city is an attempt to live urbanely amidst the green, in the other hand it also is an evident testimony to the incompatibilities between the traditional city and the natural environment.

Figure 2. Le Corbusiers Ville Radieuse. Figure 3. Ebenezer Howardss three magnets: Town, Country, and Town-Country.

3. The convergence between urban design and sustainable development The decline of modernism during the 1960s also marked the decline of the bold, all-encompassing urban models. What came next was the myriad of fragmented theoretical formulations of Postmodernism, which concentrated mostly on the architectural discourse in the context of mass-production and shifting cultural and ideological values. In regards to urban theory, this period saw the emergence of the Urban Design discipline, first through the works of Gordon Cullens Townscape school (Cullen, 1961) and the typo-morphologic studies of the Italian school (Rossi, 1966), followed by the individual contributions of theorists such as Kevin Lynch (1960) and Christopher Alexander (1977). Although none of these formulations addressed particularly the issue of the relationship between city and natural environment, they propitiated new approaches to understanding cultural-environmental values of the existing historical city that were completely ignored by the modernists. The environmental question was first addressed by urban theory in Ian McHargs Design with Nature (1969), in which light is finally shed over the underlying natural processes that occur inside a city and ultimately sustain life in this particular human-dominated ecosystem. This work predates the rise of the broader ecological debate initiated by the United Nations first Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE), held in 1972. During the 1980s, other urban and landscape design scholars such as Spirn (1984) and Hough (1995) further integrated urban design to the nascent field of urban ecology. At the same time, the broader concept of sustainable development was being gradually dilapidated in parallel, notwithstanding its tenuous, if existent, dialogue with this particular school of thought. In 1987, the UN World Commission on Environment and Development published the document Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report, in which sustainable development received its widely accepted definition as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs. Chapter 9 of this milestone work represented a call for action towards the Urban Challenge of creating more sustainable urban communities in both the developed and developing worlds. Among many subjects, it addresses questions such as the effects of the exponential increase in energy consumption in many cities in both developed and developing countries, as well as the eminent and increasing pollution problems caused by the sudden urbanization boom of the former decades. Additional problems discussed in the document point to the pollution caused by unsustainable modes of transportation, and particularly to the worrying expansion rhythm of urban sprawl in large cities. In response to this situation, a growing academic literature has been increasingly devoted to facing problems such as limiting energy consumption and emission of pollutants in urban environments. Advances in the study of urban climatology, as well as more efficient construction techniques, have both informed architecture, urban design and urban planning literature with betterrefined performance and evaluation criteria. In regards to urban design, such studies have provided consistent and detailed guidance in dealing with urban form and structure in a varied gamut of different climates. Various studies have addressed typical urban problems such as those related to urban heat islands, wind distribution, heat

conservation/dissipation, pollution dispersal, noise and solar control. Noteworthy contributions in many of these subjects are those of Oke (1982), Owens (1986), Givoni (1998), Yannas (2000), Santamouris et al. (2006) and Akbari (2007). However, though such contributions have informed many designers across the world and enabled significant interventions in a multitude of urban contexts, they do not share the same propositional and synthetic dispositions of the former urban models dominant during the Pre-war period. Although this stance can be clearly denoted from the fact that none of these works not even remotely intended to present a nave, Athens Charter-like recipe or solution to most the citys problems, in the other hand their use remains open to support different conceptions on urban design. This malleability can lend itself dangerously to support or legitimize urban intervention programmes that take into account only what is politically, economically or ideologically convenient to local urban agents in a given situation, maybe even excluding elements that could be considered more essential. In this sense, there still remained a need for a propositional theoretical framework on sustainable urban design that could fill the role of a catalytic example or discourse without falling in the same trap of the all-encompassing model of the idyllic suburban garden city or the modernist masterplan. In the absence of a new model, phenomena such as urban sprawl, suburbanization and urban fragmentation went unchecked in both developed and developing countries. However, there are significant differences in the environmental problems caused by these problems in the context of developed and developing nations. For example, suburbanization in the United States, Australia and in some European countries is responsible for rampaging increases in energy consumption and burning of fossil fuels for transportation purposes, as residents of the suburbs rely heavily on the car as their main means of transportation. In the other hand, in Latin America and some Asiatic cities, the communities that live in the periphery of big cities are usually destitute low-income populations that rely solely on public mass transportation. Their main environmental impact is a reflection of the precarious conditions of these settlements, many of which are built on flood plains or in steep and unstable terrain. The lack of sanitation, proper drinking water or other basic public services impacts not only the lives of those who live in such places, but also the whole city which depends on the same natural resources as the conditions of this communities endanger.





Figures 4-7. Top down: demographic densities in New York, London, Shanghai and So Paulo. Source: Urban Age, 2010.

Chart 1. Urban density versus annual gasoline use per capita in different cities / continents. Source: Newman and Kenworthy, 1989 5

4. The rise of new sustainable urban design paradigms

In the nineties, two main conceptual frameworks emerged. The first one, embodied in the New Urbanism movement, emphasizes the structuring of communities based on principles such as diversification of uses, the creation of mixed-use developments, pedestrianization of commercial centres, and the adoption of transitoriented development patterns (TOD). These values tend towards prioritizing pedestrian circulation in the city, thus minimizing need for vehicular travels. Its basic tenements, as ratified by its proponents in 1996, can be summed as follows: We advocate the restructuring of public policy and development practices to support the following principles: neighborhoods should be diverse in use and population; communities should be designed for the pedestrian and transit as well as the car; cities and towns should be shaped by physically defined and universally accessible public spaces and community institutions; urban places should be framed by architecture and landscape design that celebrate local history, climate, ecology, and building practice. (Congress for the New Urbanism, 1996) Despite its consistent set of proposals, New Urbanism has lent itself less as an agenda for intervention in existing cities, than as a set of guidelines for the design of new communities that follow different spatial patterns in comparison to the typical suburbanized community of developed countries. Thus, its main result has been the creation of new small towns that embody such values as functional variety and emphasis on the pedestrians, but that are themselves removed from the context of most major existing cities. Some of the most noteworthy communities designed following the tenements of New Urbanism are those designed by the north American architectural firm Duany Plater-Zyberk. (Lang, 2005)

Figure 8. Wolf Mountain community designed for Park City, Utah, USA, by the architectural firm Duany Plater-Zyberk according to the tenements of the Charter of the New Urbanism 6 Source: www.dpz.com

The second conceptual framework developed under the idea of sustainable urban development relates to the concept of compact cities. This approach is more flexible than the first and encompasses a broader set of values. In all, the compact city paradigm is less a set of well-defined guidelines or benchmarks for urban planning and design, and more an abstract idea or common goal that is shared by its proponents. Burgess (2000) offers a tentative definition on the contemporary approach to the idea of compact city: to increase built area and residential population densities; to intensify urban economic, social and cultural activities and to manipulate urban size, form and structure and settlement systems in pursuit of the environmental, social and global sustainability benefits derived from the concentration of urban functions.

5. Urban design as a conflictive process and its threats to sustainable development

The limitations that most of the above proposals have faced when transposed from theory to practice are intimately tied to the fact that the actual capacity of architects and planners to shape the contemporary city in concerted efforts is extremely limited. Beyond the immediate context of the punctual architectural intervention, the scope of the architects power over the magnitude of the city is overshadowed and restricted by the exchange value of real estate. In the omnipresent context of globalization and liberalized markets, dominion over urban form is fractured and dispersed among the myriad real estate developers, investors, financial institutions and governmental agencies that take part in the production of urban spaces. This undermines the very roots of urban design as professional field; what is the use of assessing the best performing and most sustainable urban forms if the shape of the city belongs to no one? It is not to say that control over urban form cannot represent an invaluable asset to those very few players in the urban game that can hold enough power to exact any degree of influence, however limited, on the actual shape of cities. Urban space is not merely a setting for social life within a city; it embodies symbolic codes and signs that can express different values and manifest both the virtues and faults of the society that produced it. The embodiment of social values on built form has always been the case since time immemorial; ancient cities were built to express the power of pharaohs, kings, priests and the gods that favoured them. The orderly and symmetrical renaissance city represents the control of man over nature, a sentiment that underlies the prominence of humanism in face of the fading ignorance of the mediaeval era. The baroque city, with its dramatic volumetric emphasis on churches and palaces as axial centres, extols the power of both Church and aristocracy of the Ancient Rgime. The contemporary city is a physical manifestation of the capitalist accumulative process that takes place there through the production and consumption of space, as much as skyscrapers are symbols of the power of corporations and financial institutions. Urban sociologists Logan and Molotch (1987) demonstrate how control over the real estate dynamic of a city is, more often than not, seen as a

unifying common cause among several extracts of the local elite dominating the social scene in each city. The accumulative process on which these groups rely is dependant on the perpetual growth of the city, and to this end these dominant social groups tend to engage in an organized effort to maintain the conditions that make growth possible. This spontaneous convergence of interests leads to formation of an informal coalition for growth, to which the authors refer as an urban growth machine. Urban land, differently than most other capitalist commodities, cannot be endlessly produced in a factory and released for the markets consumption. The amount of available space in a city in any given time is fixed (unless its borders sprawl horizontally), and the sum of all the real estate owners holds a monopoly over the total space available for development. So, in order to extract capitalist gains over urban property, it is necessary to incessantly develop land thus rendering the city a machine for growth. Perpetual urban growth runs counter to the idea of sustainable development, as much as urban sprawl represents the opposite of the compact city ideal. Thus, there is an inherent contradiction between the logic of capitalist accumulation and the sustainability agenda. As Cuthbert (2006) puts is, It goes without saying that Western cities within capitalism are a reflection of the value system they embody, and we have to begin by making the simple observation that none of these cities has ever been constructed, even remotely, on the idea of sustainable development in any form. () Overall, Western cities have been structured largely on the basis of market principles, the symbolic needs of dominant hierarchies, and shifting ideologies through which the reproduction of systems of domination remained covert. Competition between institutions for symbolic and cultural capital, combined with ever increasing land values, sponsored taller and taller structures, and there is as yet no end to this insanity. (Cuthbert, 2006: 163). This reality poses a serious threat to alternative forms of sustainable development that challenge the status quo of contemporary capitalist modes of production. However, the unequivocal incongruence between sustainable development and capitalist accumulation has never been explicit; by all means, sustainability, smart growth and green cities are the order of the day, frequently advocated by the very corporate groups whose interests would be most defied by these concepts. Instead, such groups (banks, international funding agencies, etc) take it as their banner the unquestionable cause of improving the citys energetic and functional performance, a cause that by itself does not contradict neither their own interests nor the tenets of sustainable development dogma. Meanwhile, the urban growth machine can be at work, incessantly promoting urban sprawl with new developments in the suburbs, where land is cheaper and there are greater opportunities for profit. The inconsistencies in this approach take their most perverse form in the largest cities in the developing world, where the urban poor are more vulnerable, public regulation is less strong and opportunities for predatory development are more numerous. For example, in the city of So Paulo, Brazil, despite there being a considerable supply of public services and mass transportation in the central districts of the

Figure 9. Demographic migration from the downtown to the periphery of the city of So Paulo, Brazil.
Source: Prefeitura de So Paulo, 2006.

city, the real estate market keeps developing land in the furthest reaches of the metropolis, where profit margins are considerably higher. Meanwhile, growing rents in the old downtown press people to move to the periphery, promoting the exact opposite to the idea of compact city. As a result, there has been a steady population decline in the serviced central districts of So Paulo, while population increases exactly in the periphery where such services are precarious or nonexistent. This is an ominously unsustainable model of urban development; however, such questions frequently tend to fall outside the realm of the ongoing urban design debate, for the simple reason that most urban designers are not prepared to see and understand such reality.


Urban design can sometimes be understood as a technical discipline devoted exclusively to the study and design of the physical realm of urban space. After all, it deals mainly with questions pertaining to the material reality of the city: the size and outline of streets and avenues, the design of squares, parks, and other similar public spaces; the shape, height and volumetric configuration of buildings, and so on. All these parameters can engender clear, albeit unarguably complex, repercussions on the environmental performance of urban spaces and on the city as a whole. This leads many urban designers concerned with the sustainability of urban environments to believe that the design of cities can be solely assessed on the grounds of these parameters, or at least that the discussion on the environmental performance of urban spaces can be divorced from the actual processes of implementing urban change. The reality, however, is much more complex. As we tried to demonstrate, the underlying social conflicts involved in the production of urban space, particularly in context of capitalist production, can sometimes run counter to real preoccupations concerning sustainable urban development. Moreover, this conflict is often mired by ideological content, which sometimes can manipulate the sustainability cause into fitting a comfortable, yet intrinsically controversial, role in advocating urban policies that only reproduce conditions of domination and social exclusion. The environmental discourse possesses, today, a powerful legitimizing capability, as most sectors of society are becoming increasingly aware of impending environmental problems, both urban and otherwise. This, in turn, places the environmental designer in a strategic and privileged position for promoting actual and lasting change. Nonetheless, such professionals have to be fully aware of the subjacent social, economical and political conflicts with which they interact, or else they run the risk of becoming nothing more than technocratic tools in the hands of interests they do not fully comprehend.

7. References

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