Sunday, December 07, 2014

ESRG Symposium Update, October 2013

ESRG Research Coordination Network

Meeting Notes (MM)

1PM, October 10, 2013

Room 01 West 060
School of Architecture
Delft University of Technology
Julianalaan 134, 2628 BL Delft

Summary of key emergent issues of discussion:

  1. We need a more rigorous, perhaps more “scientific” approach to urbanism (depending on what we mean by that term). It is evidence-based, but not mechanical or functional.
  2. We need to be clear what is our normative theory of urbanism. If it isn't to facilitate exchange (why we build cities at all?) what is it?
  3. We need to confront the massive challenges of implementation issues, and the obstructions from complex interactions of the design and construction “operating system”.
  4. In particular we need to recognize and deal with the economic forces that shape design and building, and account for them.
  5. The ESRG and its colleagues can play a role in advancing these issues, and finding additional ways to collaborate. (Perhaps with other partners – universities, funding sources, CEU, et al.)

Notes from the discussion:

MM gave a welcome introduction and brief history of the network – formed in 2006, events at UCL, Oregon, Arizona State et al. Strong influence from the software pattern community (represented in the network) – inspiration from cross-disciplinary research and development (e.g. pattern languages of programming, wiki). Can we take a useful lesson from them for urban designers?

MM mentioned various related projects by colleagues – new approaches to coding, network theory, new work in wiki and pattern languages applied to urban planning and design, work on greenhouse gas emissions and urban form, etc. MM noted there are several potential funded projects and initiatives that may be relevant, including a proposed CEU research initiative, the just-announced AMS research center project (Delft, MIT and Wageningen, funded by the City of Amsterdam for 50 million Euros) and two others proposed by Stephen Marshall.

Attendees gave short introductions and description of their work and interest areas. Attendees represented institutions in Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, Russia, UK and US. Common interest in new developments in urban design, strategic issues of implementation, cities as spatial networks, dynamics of self-organization, dynamics of process in design and construction. Overlap between practitioners and researchers, and key synergy between the two. Key issue learned from the software community – feedback cycles need to be tight.

MM introduced Stephen Marshall's paper on “planning pseudo-science” in Urban Design International, and coverage in Scientific American. MM noted the paper talks positively about Jacobs, Lynch, Cullen and Alexander, but notes that their initial insights were not followed up by a rigorous process of evaluation and learning, i.e. science by any other name. SM commented that this was a chronic problem for urban design – suggesting the need for a more empirical framework. MM drew an analogy to medicine, where practitioners apply the best science and do so as craft practitioners, working from inductive clues, and seeking to take steps that improve the qualitative health of the patient. The science is not the end, but a tool in that process – the process of applying an “evidence-based urbanism.” MM cited Bill Hillier's reference to “crap theories” that dominate. As a profession, we need to dispel these, and appeal to a more rigorous basis. Perhaps ESRG colleagues can play useful roles in this process.

Paul Murrain said there is a need to ask the fundamental question, what is it we are seeking to do when we build cities? To put it simply, we are providing for exchange, through spatial configurations. This is a goal and we need to be clear on it, so that we can define a normative standard. MM agreed, pointed out Lynch's argument on the need for a clear “theory of good city form” – lest unclear theories conflict with one another and cause dysfunctional cities (as they do).

MM noted Emily Talen's proposal for a paper on the various ill-defined theories, and a normative conclusion about them (and about a way forward). She is at MIT this year and that would be a fitting “Lynchian” project.

Peter Drijver pointed out the economic dimensions of city-building, and the limitations that it imposed. We need to deal with the socio-economic dimension as much as any other dimension. Kobus Mainz agreed, and pointed out how projects get derailed by political constraints. PM pointed out how safety regulations actually do not promote living but prevent dying – with the unintended consequence that the quality of living is degraded. Others agreed that this is a fundamental problem in planning and design”: various silos interact and create untended consequences.

MM noted the software community has faced a similar problem (in a field that is prone to clutter and unintended consequences) and has developed “agile methodology” – finding simple essential rules and/or tight feedback methods that are able to minimize the unintended consequences. Ward Cunningham speaks of “maximizing the work that isn't done” and “not just seeking to specify behaviors, but instead, generating behaviors.” SM pointed out this is a classic part-whole problem, and we need more global methods for determining outcomes and their normative performance.

Carlotta Fontana described work to identify “performance-based” approaches, similar to Agile methodology. A need to identify outcomes (post-occupancy etc), draw lessons, more than at present.

The group discussed potential collaborations and next steps. MM mentioned the previous work on a book project. Andy van den Dobbelsteen pointed out that what is urgently needed is to provide education and outreach to urban residents – for example in the AMS project. A book project, especially one just targeted to professionals, will be of limited use unless tied to this kind of outreach. MM agreed, pointed out how “companion websites” can work together with publications. (Especially in e-book format.)

SM discussed his proposal for a funded network. He noted that often in academia, there is an artificial network (and project) created to secure the funding – the ESRG already has a remarkably diverse network, spanning research and practice. This rare asset can be put to effective use.

AD agreed, mentioned the upcoming work with the AMS project and the potential value of inter-disciplinary networks focused on implementation issues. PM argued the need to take on regulatory complexity. PD and KM also argued the need to integrate economic factors.

MM also described a possible funded event as a next step, e.g. at UCL (as discussed with SM). This could also be part of a larger network funding. The paper idea (e.g. with Emily Talen, or related) would be a way to focus an agenda (and “agenda-statement”) for the upcoming work to identify needed new approaches toward an “evidence-based urbanism.”


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