Urbanization after the Bubble

Anticipating the City That Never Was
By Christopher Marcinkoski and Javier Arpa

One of the most overlooked aspects of the ongoing global economic crisis is the contributing role that the urban design disciplines – architecture, landscape architecture, city planning and civil engineering, among others – have played in the shaping and production of this situation. Beyond discussions of banks, mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations, derivatives, credit default swaps and “too big to fail,” there is a clear body of evidence of design’s complicity – whether intentional or not – in the production of this moment in history. In particular, the recent proliferation globally of incomplete, unoccupied and abandoned urban settlement can be directly linked to awidespread disciplinary reliance on inflexible, singular formats of settlement and easily replicable urban spatial products that characterize contemporary urban design practice. The geographer David Harvey, among others, has pointed out that this current economic crisis can in fact be characterized as an urban crisis in its social effects on a population, but also in the many ways it has emerged from the ongoing investment in and construction of new urban settlement.

One might easily argue that urbanization in its most basic form is a fundamentally speculative act, one that presumes both population growth and ongoing investment.

The relationship between urban design and an economy has long been fraught with incongruities. Real estate bubbles in particular are a recurrent phenomenon in a wide range of geographic and economic contexts, and have continued to occur at an array of scales with varying degrees of long-term effect. In fact, one might easily argue that urbanization in its most basic form is a fundamentally speculative act, one that presumes both population growth and ongoing investment. Historical examples of this sort of speculation abound, including the Los Angeles real estate boom of 1887 and the South Florida boom of the 1920s, both of which were the result of a real estate market generated through the opening up of a new or exotic landscape. More familiar contemporary examples from the first decade of the 21 century include extensive speculative construction in the Sun Belt and desert Southwest regions here in the United States, as well as construction booms in contexts as varied as Ireland, Panama and Angola.

China has been under increased scrutiny of late as a growing number of media reports and images emerge of massive, unoccupied new settlements being built in the country’s interior western and southern provinces. Of particular concern is the proportion of the Chinese economy tied to this speculative construction, which conservative estimates suggest is greater than 25 percent of GDP. However, perhaps the most dramatic example of the potential consequences of the speculative tendencies of contemporary urbanization, both in terms of its scale and the repercussions of its failure, can be found in Spain.

The quality, scope and extent of this urbanization can be described as nothing short of delirious, seeming to have more in common with emerging Asian economies than Spain’s own continental neighbors.

Following its accession to the European Union in 1986 and the success of the Barcelona Olympics and the Seville Expo in 1992, through to the global economic collapse of 2008, Spain experienced an unprecedented expansion of its urbanized territory. Unlike many historical examples that were limited to a particular geographic region, this building boom can be seen throughout the country and was comprised of five primary formats of urbanization: 1) peripheral expansions of established cities like Madrid; 2) new dormitory or commuter towns often 50-plus kilometers outside of these established centers; 3) new mobility infrastructures including highways, high-speed rail lines and international airports; 4) state-of-the-art culture and leisure amenities such as expos, museums and theme parks; and 5) coastal resort and recreation developments intended to lure investment capital from other European countries. The quality, scope and extent of this urbanization can be described as nothing short of delirious, seeming to have more in common with emerging Asian economies than Spain’s own continental neighbors.

Spain’s particular urban growth model was so robust during the early years of the 21st century that it was frequently held up as an exemplar of contemporary urbanization both in terms of the quality of its physical form, as well as its own particular economic strategy. In fact by 2006, Spain was widely perceived to have displaced the Netherlands as the epicenter of cutting-edge architectural and urban design as demonstrated by the Museum of Modern Art’s now widely panned “On Site” exhibition. Yet the result of this model – which devoted as much as 20 percent of the country’s GDP to the construction sector during the boom – is a current national unemployment rate of nearly 25 percent; an economy overwhelmed by both private debt accumulated through underwater home loans and public debt created by trying to offset the downturn post-2008; a population fleeing the country with increasing frequency (when the means are available); and a physical landscape characterized by over-scaled, under-occupied settlements and infrastructures that were promiscuously broadcast into almost any territory not holding a designation of high ecological value.

Certainly, many would rightly argue that the decision-making processes and policies that lead to this massive, unchecked urbanization were outside of the traditional purview of design. Yet given the fact that urbanization though history has proven to be a fundamentally speculative act – one characterized by risk, interruption, inflection and failure – it is discouraging to note that design continues to engage the task of planning for new settlement in fixed, singular and unresponsive ways that presume the preferred outcome is the only one worth elaborating.

Given the increasing reliance on urbanization as a favored instrument of economic production in both emerging and established economies, the symposium “The City That Never Was” posits that there is a clear need for the urban design disciplines mentioned above to reconsider their particular modes of operation; the tools upon which they rely; and the metrics by which the success of these projects are evaluated, in order to begin anticipating and negotiating the inevitable instability that characterizes contemporary urbanization.

A Disciplinary Opportunity

Urban design is a fundamentally optimistic endeavor. As such, disciplinary work has long been predicated on assumptions of population growth, market expansion, increased wealth and improved social equity through design. And the products of this work are almost exclusively oriented towards a singular, idealized future. Site plans, renderings and animations show shimmering edifices; lush, verdant landscapes; speeding systems of transport; and smiling, contented citizenry often punctuated by a butterfly or fireworks or dapples of gleaming sunlight reinforcing the optimistic ambitions of the project. Yet the capacity of the work to achieve this ideal future is under constant challenge from a variety of influences and inputs, including the global economy, local market, climate, community, politics, geography and environment to name a few.

What if the focus shifted to the elevated likelihood of inflection, interruption, pause and failure in the creation of new settlement, rather than the single, idealized outcome?

Though many of these inputs and influences reside outside the control of the designer, there is a long, mixed history in urban design of looking to mitigate and attempt to control the potential impact of these influences. But what if design shifted its focus away from
pursuing formats of control in favor of generating new strategies of contingency? What if the focus shifted to the elevated likelihood of inflection, interruption, pause and failure in the creation of new settlement, rather than the single, idealized outcome? What if the focus of urban design was the articulation of precise catalytic interventions that leverage an economy of means in order to trigger longer-term processes? Does such repositioning erode disciplinary credibility by acknowledging these inputs are outside of the designer’s control? Or does such a reorientation actually increase the cultural value of the allied urban design disciplines because expertise is employed in the longer-term management of urbanization, rather than just its one-time planning and construction?

In order to make this shift, new disciplinary tools and models of practice must be demanded of urban design. The inevitability of multiple outcomes suggests the need for adaptive, resilient operating systems for urbanization projects rather than fixed master plans or near-future framework plans. Interruption, inflection and failure should become potential moments of urban opportunity rather than inescapable write-offs or losses. Economy, ecology and politics should become peer disciplinary considerations to form, material and performance. Generic, reproducible formats of urbanization should be discarded in favor of hyper-localized specificity.  Waste and entropy should be seen as potential points of leverage and opportunity rather than something that needs to be mitigated or designed away. Networks of infrastructure and utility should be hybridized and “lightened” so as to move beyond the weighty monocultures of their 19th century-based predecessors. Systems of agriculture, food, water and natural ecology should move from peri-urban support structures to the basis of new hybrid formats of settlement. Seemingly radical notions of nomadism, periodicity and lightness should be reconsidered as lenses through which to consider new formats of settlement. Or perhaps more simply put, the recent proliferation of incomplete and failed urban settlement globally is a strong indictment of contemporary urban design’s current mode of operation and suggests a need to radically rethink its current disciplinary and cultural orientation.

At a point in time when there is widespread consensus on the ascendency of the city as – to borrow Ed Glaeser’s description – “humankind’s greatest invention,” it is worth pausing to consider whether the formats of urbanization upon which the last century has relied represent the appropriate way forward for conceiving of and deploying 21st century urban settlement.

Or are designers at a moment in history that demands they stop focusing solely on the idealized city of the future, and instead turn their attention to anticipating the city that never was?

Christopher Marcincoski and Javier Arpa are co-organizers of the Architectural League symposium, The City That Never Was.

Mr. Marcinkoski is an Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture and Urban Design at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a licensed architect and a founding director of PORT Architecture + Urbanism, an award-winning urban research and design consultancy based in Chicago. Prior to his appointment at Penn, Mr. Marcinkoski was a Senior Associate at James Corner Field Operations in New York City where he led the office’s large-scale planning and urban design projects.

Mr. Arpa is Visiting Professor at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Paris Belleville (France). He is architect and focuses his professional activity on architectural publishing, curatorship and research. He is the co-author of numerous internationally renowned publications on contemporary architecture and urban planning. Prior to his editorial career, he worked for a number of architecture firms in Argentina, The Netherlands, Spain and France, and led several urban planning projects in China.

Published: October 29, 2012