bicycle paris
Paris’ recent rejection of cars and car-parking illustrates the powerful transformation that comes when the inefficiency of the car is revealed and people are given the ability to safely walk and cycle around the city. Image: Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau.

It’s a tired refrain that we always try to win the current war with the tools and ideas of the last. Sadly, that’s also true of the way we make buildings and cities in the 21st century. For better or worse, the urban forces of the 19th and 20th centuries have got us to our current multi-level crises. We aren’t going to make cities healthier, less polluting, and more productive with the same ideas. 

The problems of the 21st century are mounting, with social unrest, economic instability, climate impact, and unchecked technologies. The forces that shape the built environment are still operating in the wrong structures and attempting to achieve the wrong things.

Different forces are at play now. Covid helped us realise this. Decarbonisation presents the biggest of global challenges, and new ethical models such as social impact and ESG are demanding a more coherent, positive, and long-term view of impact. 

There are bright points, but we simply still aren’t moving quickly enough. 

We have the principles of a new urban world: denser, greener, more inclusive, longer-term thinking, electric, more public and active transport. But we don’t have the visions of this world to propel us forward – to make this future compelling. 

It’s a failure of imagination as much as a failure of planning and technology. We need to think big, not in terms of project, but conceptually. 

We can start in the negative – we know what the future can’t be. 

It can’t be the status quo: the unproductive tensions and exploitive relationship between private and public capital, the public consultation methods that lean on citizens to reject new ideas rather than get involved, and the restrictive zoning patterns of the 20th century. 

It isn’t the architecture of big egos and corporate urbanism. It’s not an age for Guggenheim’s that stand apart from their setting, nor the big glass box, nor the architect as a brand name. 

It isn’t many of the novel, but naïve models percolating today: such as the 15-minute city which evokes a kind of souped-up suburbia, nor the electric car, or the many dumb versions of the smart city. 

It also isn’t the city optimised around efficiency, which is the wrong metric for human health and wellbeing, and leads us to repeat the same kind of marginal gains on things that aren’t fundamentally important. 

We can further develop this list of 20th century responses with their more positive 21st century alternative: 

  • driving v moving
  • planning v shaping
  • zoning v performance
  • horizontal v three-dimensional
  • expansion v retrofit
  • environment v ecology
  • authoritarian v collective
  • city-making v city-shaping
  • extractive v zero-waste

If we collect these 21st century values, we start to see the outline of a new kind of urbanism – an  “Ecological Infrastructural City”. 

It will necessarily be a step away from the formulations that we’ve followed in the past. Much of the 20th century was an attempt to solve 19th century issues of poverty, social division, and industrialisation with new models. 

The Garden City is a good example; it understood the urban in relation to the social and political, and embraced the powerful urban impacts of good rail. Like today it placed the wellbeing of its citizens at its core and called upon a clever mix of entrepreneurism and planning. However, the Garden city evoked an understanding of nature born in the 20th century, very different to the ecological complexity and interconnectedness we have now. This is one of the main reasons the model which has been referenced so widely in the 20th century so rarely worked. 

Howard’s Garden City tried to strike a balance between town and country, but this was a British form of occupied landscape. Instead, we need a new model that strikes the balance between town and Country. 

Country offers us two great insights. Firstly, on a deeply ecological understanding of land, geology, landscape and the relationship of the built environment to its broader context, including community. Secondly, on the specificity of place. Each site is unique, each part of the city stands on and is a special part of Country with its own history, and with many distinct possible futures. 

Design thinking, architecture and landscape design has a special role to play in giving presence to this specificity. Mixing the infrastructural with the specifics on a particular place and time is what designers do. The tools of the 21st century, of a more appropriate form of place visioning, making and shaping require a careful and caring set of skills.

The architecture profession needs to step into this space. Not with the arrogance of 20th century geniuses, but with a shared, collaborative and open approach. What is needed now is not the universal vision of modernity, of singular solutions to many problems. The appification doesn’t work on cities. We need many different skilled hands on many different tills sailing an armada of good design solutions, not a monolithic singular Titanic.  

We don’t have time to build and rebuild entire new precincts and cities. We need a new kind of city-shaping that changes “just enough” of the city to get it functioning for everyone. There are new better ways to measure our designs coming. Social impact sounds corporate, but it presents much more robust and long-reaching methods of measuring impact, in ways that can in turn help generate better, healthier and more productive designs. 

We clearly can’t see the full vision yet, we’ll only observe it once it emerges. But there are glimpse coming and from recent history: 

  1. Many of Japan’s railway stations mix private capital with intelligent investment strategies that build complex, diverse retail experiences – creating a world leading super green public transport system with highly unique and localised social and cultural experiences. 
  2. Paris’ recent rejection of cars and car-parking illustrates the powerful transformation that comes when the inefficiency of the car is revealed and people are given the ability to safely walk and cycle around the city. 
  3. A network of new train stations are under construction in Auckland: a belated but much needed construction of a proper urban rail-line for the pacific city. The stations are presented as an array of local indigenous creation stories, leading to a collection of vibrant new interventions in the city that locate and resonate with its unique cultural position.  
  4. A new generation of public housing is emerging in London and around the world, led by architects Peter Barber and Karakusevic Carson. This new housing presents simple, dignified buildings that are carefully integrated into the existing city. It’s the modernism that didn’t happen in the 20th century and presents a new optimistic face for social investment in housing over the long-term. 

This city will be messier, more dynamic, more beautiful, and more productive. A city in which each part is of its place, a location that is unique but contributes to the whole. That is designed with just enough care to make it work the way it needs to. A call for the power of design and community to work together to weave the infrastructural and ecological opportunities into discrete wonderful places. 

Barnaby Bennett, UTS

Barnaby Bennett is an adjunct fellow, Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building, UTS More by Barnaby Bennett, UTS

Andrew Cortese, Grimshaw

Andrew Cortese is the managing partner of Sydney for Grimshaw Architects More by Andrew Cortese, Grimshaw

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