Urbanism without Density

Els Verbakel | Rafi Segal

Our built environment is in the process of reorganizing itself, redistributing densities of buildings, population and activities. Cities are expanding, growing and sprawling, while at the same time their centers and downtowns are shrinking, disappearing, voiding out. This process of growth and redistribution has been partially described by terms such as sprawl, suburbs (with roots in the American context[1]), wild living and the diffuse city (‘città diffusa’, mostly referring to the European context[2]). Dispersal functions as an umbrella term for these phenomena, by zooming out and describing them as part of a larger global tendency. In this context, Cities of Dispersal can be recognized as an emerging type of low-density environments; decentralized, heterogenous, radically different from traditional definitions of the city in their spatial organization and patterns of growth.

Throughout these physical transformations of the urban environment, the notion of public space has not remained unaltered. Public space has long been a decisive factor in our understanding of the city. Furthermore, we can say that the notion of the public itself, even if by virtue of imagination, has been essential for any act of urban design or planning.[3] It is therefore inevitable to ask: What is the place and role of public space in new disperse urban environments? How have disperse urban conditions changed the notion of public? But, also, what are current notions of the public that influence the way we conceive cities?

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[1] In the American context, and consequently other regions in the world, sprawl was largely initiated by the post-WW2 housing crisis, the democratization of “the good life”, and the encouragement of consumption: a growing demand and supply of choice, privacy and mobility. Also in Europe, suburban communities gained importance after the second World War with massive reconstruction efforts and the creation of new towns as satellite settlements around existing cities.
[2] “Diffuse city”, a term invented during the 1990s to describe the spread-out urban fabric of Italy’s northern Veneto region, has been adopted to identify multiple regions in Europe such as the Dutch Randstad, the Flemish Diamond, the German Ruhr area and others. These areas have grown from a network of medium-sized to small cities, interspersed with former agricultural territories and rural villages, transformed into a mixture of industrial parks, commercial complexes and suburban housing. Similarly, the term “wild living” refers to the massive inhabitation of the disperse European territory. Originally introduced in reaction to Dutch government-controlled standardized housing, it came to describe the process (phenomena) of modernizing the rural landscape as a means to prevent city growth.
[3] “If we did not have a practical sense of what publics are, if we could not unself-consciously take them for granted as really existing and addressable social entities, we could not produce most of the books or films or broadcasts or journals that make up so much of our culture; we could not conduct elections or indeed imagine ourselves as members of nations or movements. Yet publics exist only by virtue of their imagining” (Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics, p.8).
[4] One of the forefathers of urban design (town planning), Patrick Geddes already pointed out a hundred years ago that the antagonism between city and country, wilderness or suburbia is no longer sustainable. Even contemporary urban historians and theorists such as Marcel Smets and Manfred Kühn still raise the need to overcome this dichotomy. It requires us to rethink both the urban environment as a much larger system, maybe even re-using Geddes’ regional city model, and at the same time re-invent the profession, blurring the distinction between landscape, urbanism and infrastructure.
[5] In current urban design practices, what most people (including architects, urban planners) would consider “good urban form” is largely a convention based on the spatial and architectural qualities of historical models such as medieval town squares, renaissance piazzas and 19th-century city boulevards. A common belief is that we haven’t created any good cities after the 19th century – (of course not, since cities are judged by pre-20th century criteria). We tend to formulate our conception of a good city based on an outdated model. The fact is that new forms of urbanism have been created since, or re-created, starting from garden cities to new towns, suburbs, edge cities, sprawled cities, diffuse cities, etc. These forms of disperse urbanism have now begun to be transformed into a new kind of environment – a type of urbanism.
[6] Many theorists and practitioners have studied the phenomenon of losses that occurred during this process of dispersal, thereby offering new descriptive models that stress the lack of coherence, definition, limits. See Richard Ingersoll’s Sprawltown: Looking for the City on its Edges, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006, the Shrinking Cities project, and others.
[7] Mark Wigley, “Resisting the City”, in TransUrbanism, Rotterdam: NAI Publishers, 2002, p.103.
[8] “Shaping public space is considered the first order of urbanism by the architect/urbanist. Thus, the primary role of urban design is to develop methods of doing so.” Alex Krieger, . “Urban Design Futures”, in Malcolm Moor, Jon Rowland, eds. Territories of Urban Design, London and New York: Routledge, 2006, p. 22.
[9] Craig Calhoun, ed. Habermas and the Public Sphere, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992, pp. 1-48. Catherine Zuromskis, “Introduction: Visual Publics, Visible Publics”, Invisible Culture: An Electronic Journal for Visual Culture, issue no. 6, 2003. Our theoretical understanding of the public has changed since Jürgen Habermas introduced the high bourgeois public sphere (1962). The more recent work of Bruce Robbins, Nancy Fraser, Rosalyn Deutsche and Michael Warner present a less definable singular public sphere, rather, a fragmentary interplay of multiple publics and counter publics.
[10] Craig Calhoun, ed. Habermas and the Public Sphere, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992, pp. 1–48.
[11] Margaret Kohn, Brave New Neighborhoods: The Privatization of Public Space, New York: Routledge, 2004.
[12] The layout of the parliament house for example as it emerged during the Enlightenment (as discussed by Bruno Latour in “Making things Public”) established an architectural expression for that period’s conception of political assembly. The architectural space and setting physically enabled a certain public-political activity to take place. This same setting is still used today to represent the public (as a political body), even though the structure, function, and spaces of political activity/debate have drastically changed. Bruno Latour’s examination of past notions of the public as a political body, suggests that in our world, beyond the political , there are many other kinds of assemblies that gather a public around things: church, supermarket, disputes involving natural resources. He therefore defends examining and exploring how things are made public.
[13] Graham Shane, Recombinant Urbanism, West Sussex: Wiley, 2005.
[14] As recently discussed in the conference “Visionary Power: Producing the Contemporary City” at the 3rd International Rotterdam Biennale, the concept of heterotopias has led to a reading of the environment as made up of binary poles, center and periphery, leaving no middle ground. Lieven De Cauter and Michiel Dehaene adopt this dichotomy between center and periphery in which they identify conditions of “hyperarchitecture” (of the sanctuary) in opposition to an “infra-architecture” (of slums, camps, etc.).
[15] Yet, what is called empty should be understood in relative terms, specifying that of which it is vacant: vacant of buildings, vacant of activities, vacant of human presence… It is a search for the materialization of this emptiness, or what Willem-Jan Neutelings calls the “density of the void.” Moreover, empty spaces between buildings should be recognized as potential locations for social and collective coherence, as the adhesive between urban fragments. See the writings of Marcel Smets, Kees Christiaanse, Henri Bava, Willem-Jan Neutelings, Peter Buchanan, Manfred Kühn and others.