Building Magazine


WEB EXCLUSIVE: A Handbook for the Future?

The arrival of Pedro Ortiz’s The Art of Shaping the Metropolis is an occasion for celebration. The handbook bravely focuses attention on the emerging global urbanization and proposes a new vision for the new metropolis. While making these proposals, the book also raises a series of questions. This brief introduction outlines the important questions raised by this new handbook, leaving to each reader the evaluation of the global solutions proposed, since every city is different and no application will be the same twice.

1. Urban Handbooks and the Dynamics of Urban History

Cities always have been dynamic, out of balance, and chaotic engines of growth and innovation. Their dynamism depends on inequality, risk and reward, collaboration, the importation of energy and food (Rees and Wackernagel 1996), a powerful working class and bourgeoisie, financial capitalism, and various safety nets. Cities have always been places of exchange and information, self- organizing systems subject to frequent collapse and re- founding, invasion, destruction, and rebuilding (Shane 2005).

Cities have also acted as memory palaces, carrying cultural and symbolic meaning important to the coherence of social, commercial, and military organizations; faith; farming; and industry (Kostof 1992). Beijing, the world’s largest city for many centuries, was re- founded several times by successive dynasties on the same site, gaining organizational capacity and stability in each iteration (Weinstock 2010). London, the next urban giant, was devastated by fire, plague, and Dutch bombardment in the mid- 1600s. Then the city stabilized as a global imperial capital in the 1800s, overtaking Beijing, only to be brought to its knees by German airpower in Hitler’s 1940 Blitz (Summerson 1946, Hobsbawm 1968). Now UN Habitat, the organization responsible for refugee housing after the Second World War, sees the current massive global migration to cities as a problem producing huge unmanageable inequality, instability, possibly war, and bloodshed.

Writing a handbook on urbanization in the face of such predictions requires nerves of steel while tackling an impossible task. While one- third of the urban growth globally annually so far has been in informal, self- built settlements, the UN (2003, 2008) predicts that this unregulated sector of “slums” will double in the future as poorer counties urbanize. In addition, climate change threatens many of the world’s largest estuarine cities (Burk et al. 2001), endangering water and food supplies, not to mention sanitary arrangements (Gandy 2004).

2. Urban Handbooks in the Late Twentieth Century

Traditional modern engineering and design solutions, based on the industrial power of coal and oil, appear to be part of the long- term problem, as the heat generated melts polar ice caps and raises water levels, altering hydraulic and climate patterns. Companies and countries that produce the energy for these industrial processes, and the consequent greenhouse gases, are richly rewarded by the global system as it stands, even as the disastrous long- term implications of their activity, powering global growth and destruction, become ever clearer (Hansen 2010, Sato 2012).

Most of the urban handbooks of the second half of the twentieth century dealt either with plans for reconstruction after the devastation of the Second World War or with the adaptation of urban form to the American invention of the mass- produced, internal combustion, gasoline- powered automobile (Buchanon 1963, Doxiadis 1963, Gruen 1964). As the imperial European metropolis with its ships and railways mutated toward the American megalopolis with its cars, planes, and containers, the scale and scope of the required urban infrastructure changed radically. Ancient Beijing had contained megablocks, such as the Forbidden City of the imperial administration, and huge streets that acted as firebreaks but carried relatively little horse- drawn or human- powered traffic. American engineers and Le Corbusier in his “Contemporary City” of three million inhabitants of 1922 had foreseen the need for huge new highways to service automobiles, replacing railways and restructuring the city over a vast territory (Evenson 1970, Gerosa 1978).

Architects, urban designers, and planners have coupled much official urban growth and planning of the past 50 years to road infrastructure, especially in megascale blocks linked to the speed of the automobile with infrequent exits that slow down traffic (Panerai et al. 2004). The global history of new towns from Chandigarh (1951) to Brasilia (1956), to Shenzhen or Nav Mumbai (1990s) reveals a preoccupation with megablocks and superblocks, producing 1000- foot- wide highways inhospitable to pedestrians (Prakash 2002, Tattara 2011, Walker 1981). Kevin Lynch (1961) protested against such highways in downtown Boston, just as Jane Jacobs (1961) fought Robert Moses in New York. But in Asia, following the 1964 example of the Tokyo Olympics (Cybriwsky 1998), many countries raised these highways 60 feet above the center of old cities, following the paths of old streams or beside rivers, creating parks below. The recent removal of a raised highway and uncovering of the Cheonggyechon (2005) stream as a park in Seoul marks a turning point, as does the global success of the Danish designer Jan Gehl, who led the team that initially pedestrianized downtown Copenhagen over 40 years ago (Shane 2005, 2011).

3. Handbooks and Shifting Paradigms in the Early Twenty- First Century

Any new handbook has to confront the inevitable shift away from the highway network scale and megablock as new means of transportation emerge in response to the rising price of energy, not to mention rising sea levels and expanding deserts. In addition, this new handbook must deal with the ongoing information revolution that affects rich and poor countries alike, aiding both dispersal and centralization. Peer- to- peer self- organization, in combination with 92 percent of the areas of self- built favelas concentrated in cities of 1 to 2 million (Satterthwaite 2005), promises a new set of self- organized armatures that will make the 1000- foot- wide highways of the late- twentieth- century planners look like dinosaurs ripe for redevelopment and downsizing. New intelligent networks of personal and mass transportation might well dissolve into small- scale networks, linked perhaps to high- density and high-speed nodes.

The fast expanding cities of Asia often include agricultural belts. These cities, as well as shrinking industrial cities in America, Europe, and Japan, the old industrial heartlands, provide a glimpse of what this future city might be like. The big- scale grid, shrunken but still surviving, provides a framework for a new urban form, multiple centralities, and a widely distributed urbanism with multiple hubs. Personal mobility on electric bikes, scooters, and cars provides local, short- distance flexibility of travel, while public transportation with an accurate information system coordinates with high- speed trains. Anyone who has traveled in the new, modern tram system of Zurich, coordinated with the Swiss Railway and airport flights, can envisage this new hybrid future that casts a much lower per capita eco footprint for transportation. Similar systems using bus rapid transit (BRT) systems can be found in Latin America as in Bogotá and throughout the developing world.

The shift in infrastructure envisioned in this scenario of energy and informational transformation takes advantage of the heritage of the large- scale automobile transport networks. This networked vision exploits the long intervals of the megablock system and its capacity to nest superblocks and regular blocks within. This giant scale allows for variety and diversity, flexibility, and patchiness within the framework of the obsolete megastructure. Agricultural villages, small factory towns, even small residential complexes, and b
ack offices can be held within this giant framework (McGee 1971, 1991, 2007). The secondary capillary networks of the superblocks and village streets, augmented by streetcars, taxis, motorbikes, and bikes can provide a flexible alternative at a local scale to the atrophied highways and autoroutes of the past, connecting to new local nodes and regional systems that might replace the abandoned malls and highway intersections.

These new cities will not look like Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai, London, Paris, Madrid, or Mexico City. They may contain high- density nodes and patches responding to global pressures. But if the massive urban migration proceeds to cities of 1 to 2 million, as predicted by the UN (Satterthwaite 2005), a new urban form will undoubtedly emerge. Not every city needs to be New York, London, or Tokyo, a global hub. Networks of smaller cities linked by fl exible infrastructures and new communication systems could result in many new urban forms and organizations to house people in self- built sectors, in a new hybrid, bottom-up and top- down municipal model, yielding a new form of urban social contract.

Conclusion: From Network to Meshwork in the Megacity/Metacity

Pedro Ortiz’s handbook provides a framework for entertaining such wide- ranging questions, with its emphasis on the power of networks as an organizing device. The book provides a basis for the contemplation of the old network paradigm of the megalopolis into the informational meshwork of the mega- or metacity of the future. The handbook’s review of the networked past is invaluable, while its projection of these networks into future plans raises very many important questions for planners, urban designers, architects, and concerned citizens alike.

You can view the book’s website here: 

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