Category Archives: Urban Design

Our To-do List (A work in progress)

I realize that there are so many websites & blogs out there, all saying much the same as this – that we need to vision a new future etc etc – but no clear idea on what that looks like. I’m hearing speeches and reading opinion pieces every day with terse reminders along the lines of – ‘If we don’t do something soon, we’re all screwed’, yet offering nothing concrete by way of action plans. There is a massive disconnect between the perceived need and the actions on the ground that will achieve them.I’m starting here.

-1- Often in South Africa, there is money allocated to tackle the problem, lots of money, but it gets returned to treasury unspent every year, as the money was not tapped. Reasons for this include unnavigable Red Tape and a procurement process which is (inadvertently) designed to destroy initiative and quality service delivery. The systems were designed that way to try to stop tender corruption – a laudable effort, which seems by all accounts to have failed, if one considers the slew of corruption exposes that come to light every month. The system was designed with the best intentions in mind, but doesn’t work. It’s time to redesign it from the ground up. Government has the money available to make many of the interventions needed, but they are not being made. That is insane. Starting with a ‘Two-envelope’ system is a good starting point – in the first envelope is your methodology, team and track record. Only if you make it through that first cut can your second envelope be opened, which presents your tender bid. That eliminates all the fly-by-nights and ‘crazies’ who are currently destroying the market. A second idea wold be to use the French system of choosing the tender price closest to the average price of all submissions. We have the money – we aren’t spending it – we can afford to pay to have the job done properly, rather than the current ‘race for the bottom’ where by the time you have slashed your prices to get the work, you can’t afford to do the job properly. As it stands, the system is myopic and counter productive

Action Plan No. 1 – Scrap the State Procurement Policy, and start again.

To do: Write letters to the paper, contact your local Councilor, work your networks. Devise a better system, then start publicizing it.

-2- The private sector is hoping the sun will come out tomorrow. I am one of the growing number of people who seem to think it won’t. Well, not like that, anyway. The 2003-2008 boom was no boom, it was a bubble. The party’s over. We were spending money we simply didn’t have. Now our collective credit card is ‘maxed’ and we have to stay home, watch telly and live off beans on toast. Welcome to the Post-Peak Credit World.

I hang out with property developers, a couple of whom have become close friends. One in particular was earning an astonishing amount of money every month during the boom. Its all gone. He has nothing to show for it. He’s just as happy now- but he wasn’t at the time he was losing it all. I have met obscenely wealthy people – obscene is the correct word – seldom any happier than you or I. I won’t labour the point, its all been said before – ‘Money can’t buy happiness’.

Which is fine and well if you still have an income. Every week, we are hearing of companies laying off staff or closing entirely. For those affected, it is a very scary experience. Fear of losing their home, how to feed the family – all very real concerns. The market cannot soak up the casualties, and with a smaller economy, there will be higher unemployment rates, notably amongst a sector of the labour market which is unused to the idea. I was chatting to a guy this week who is scared rigid – he’s just been laid off. He is going to try his hand at jobbing – a bit of this – a bit of that – have 2 or 3 jobs, rather than one full-time job. Maybe that is the way we are heading. The labour market is set to become more fluid and less structured, with more people working as freelancers and jobbers, and the idea of a rigid structured job working 8-5 becoming less commonplace. That may be an important paradigm shift to get our heads around:

Action Plan 2 – change the way you think about your employment.

To do: Diversify & skill up into new marketable niches.

-3- We are trying to imagine what the new economy will look like. We know it is based on a low-growth or zero-growth economy – maybe the term ‘replacement economy’ is appropriate – that we will have to stop hankering after the mindless accumulation of ‘stuff’ and rather live more simply: buy a new kitchen when the old one collapses, buy a new car when the old one is no longer economical to repair – or trade it for a bike – you get the drift. This is always held up as a horrific doomsday scenario, but is it? I’m not an economist, so I will tread lightly here, but from what I am reading from economist’s work, it is not necessarily the end of the world. Read Richard Heinberg’s The End Of Growth for a Post-Peak Credit scenario. He concludes with an optimistic note:

The transition to a no-growth economy (or one in which growth is defined in a fundamentally different way) is inevitable, but it will go much better if we plan for it rather than simply watching in dismay as institutions we have come to rely upon fail, and then try to improvise a survival strategy in their absence.

And then a warning if we don’t make the shift:

In effect, we have to create a desirable “new normal” that fits the constraints imposed by depleting natural resources. Maintaining the “old normal” is not an option; if we do not find new goals for ourselves and plan our transition from a growth-based economy to a healthy equilibrium economy, we will by default create a much less desirable “new normal” whose emergence we are already beginning to see in the forms of persistent high unemployment, a widening gap between rich and poor, and ever more frequent and worsening financial and environmental crises—all of which translate to profound distress for individuals, families, and communities.

Action Plan 3 – change the way you think about our economy and your expectations of consumption.

-4- As a Built Environment professional, we are facing this very reality at the moment – there is precious-little private sector work, and the public sector work is in such short supply that by the time you have won the ‘race to the bottom’ to slash your fees enough to win the tender, you can’t afford to do a decent job.

So what will the future hold for the likes of us? – There will still be buildings built and areas developed to house the ever-growing population, but what will it look like, and how will we afford it? Property Development has always been a high-risk – high-reward industry. Take away the reward, and the only way it will be done is if someone else shoulders the risk. That would be the government, and let’s be honest – their track record for creating inspirational places to live is nothing to crow about. Nope – we need a third way. Desperately.

We are currently engaged with a new breed of property developer, the likes of whom I have never encountered before, but wish I met every day. we are working on a large development which will make an enormous change to the way our city functions and approaches inherent shortfalls and problems. The success lies in cross-subsidization, and that is an incredible part of the plan. It does not look at lifting the cream off small high-profit components and trying to scrape off the loss-leaders, he takes a holistic approach and views the entire system as a whole, which functions as a healthy whole, or not at all. It speaks directly to Alan Savory’s work. This guy truly is an inspiration. 400,000 homes are to be built using this approach – (which would mop up the social housing backlog of our city if it were to happen tomorrow), and despite the chorus of derision from the Doubting Thomas’s, the project is looking less and less like a pipe dream and much more like a sure thing. It will mean living in mixed social and economic neighbourhoods, and will change the ways we think about our communities. Rather than living in niches, in which we surround ourselves with people of similar status and standing, we will be exposed to a far greater cross section of our society.

Keith Writes about the Tools Of Disconnection in his book ‘A Matter Of Scale‘, listing them as the means by which Industrialized Machinery has cleaved us from our world, community and reality. When one begins to understand the importance of community to our psychological well-being, we see how essential it is to reintegrate ourselves as a community, and function within that realm.

Action Plan 4 – change the way you think about your community – how it is comprised and your place in it.

-5- Food Production. My next post will be on food production and the planet’s carrying capacity. Reading Jared Diamond’s ‘Guns, Germs & Steel’ has sent me in paroxysms of despair, as it becomes very clear that the earth has a carrying capacity of between 1 and 2 billion people, depending upon whom you listen to. That means 5-6 billion people will be left without a chair when the music stops, and that is a truly terrifying concept for all of us, regardless of which side of the divide you think you will end up on (and be honest, you hope and believe that you and your family will make it – we all do) I hope we all do too. It is a long argument which I shall paraphrase in the next posting, but the bottom line is – learn to grow your own food. Practice now while you can afford to fail, because in a few years time, you will eat or starve by your efforts. Before the industrial revolution, and indeed for the past 9000 years or so, it has been thus, and so shall it be again. You will need secure land, water, food and time. Start reading up on it, join classes or web groups, and start scanning your neighbourhood for suitable allotments. The City of Cape Town has already made it policy that each neighbourhood will have 1 good park, and the other Public Open Spaces within the area will be made available for other uses, particularly for Urban Agriculture.

Action Plan 5 – learn to grow your own food, and find ways to secure space to do so.

Genius Loci

I spent the better part of today with Bill Reed, of Integrative Design Collaboration. Bill has written a book called
The Integrative Design Guide to Green Building: Redefining the Practice of Sustainability and is currently in Cape Town delivering a number of lectures to the South African Green Building Council Conference.

A criticism that has been leveled at the Green Building Council’s approach to creating more sustainable buildings is that it amounts to bolting widgets onto a building in exchange for stars, as opposed to a holistic approach to the entire development from the ground up. An architect friend of mine describes it ‘buying your stars’. Bill delivered a series of lectures which were very well received by everyone to whom I spoke. In them, Bill warns against the ides of ‘buying’ your stars or putting together  shopping list of widgets to bolt on. Rather, he contends, start from the beginning. And he means the beginning. He and his team go back to continental drift, and look for the relevance of that. It seemed a bit far-fetched to me too, until he started discussing the difference between Vermont and New Hampshire in the USA. I happened upon the Free State Project movement website the day before. “The Free State Project is an effort to recruit 20,000 liberty-loving people to move to New Hampshire”. The group had decided that after holding a referendum amongst their members, New Hampshire was chosen as the most likely place to start a state, independent from the USA. According to Bill Reed, when they evaluated the difference in attitudes between New Hampshire and Vermont, they traced one of the possible drivers back to the Paleozoic era 250 million years ago, when Africa and North America were still linked and part of Pangea. Bill’s team discovered that the soil in New Hampshire belongs to the same group as that in the Ivory Coast. The split in the continents left a sliver on the North Americans mainland. That sliver now wants to be a separate state. Go Figure.

Bill and his team evaluate at a broad-brush scale an enormous amount of information about the site, looking for patterns and themes of repetition – or variance. Bill holds that a watershed is the smallest unit of space that can be studied. Studying anything smaller is a fraction of a whole and no comprehensive picture can be established that will be meaningful. So where we so frequently study the area inside our cadasatral boundaries, maybe the street – sometimes the block, by Bill’s reckoning, we should be studying the watershed as a minimum. Bill’s team study elements including water movement and hydrology; climate, geology, soils, energy patterns, economic patterns, flora and fauna patterns, migratory patterns,settlement transport and movement patterns, going back as far as possible – in the scale of 3.5 billion years, where available.

Bill likens the patterns of sifting through this material to the skills of a tracker, looking for sense in the data. He stresses that the process is not the collection of as much data as possible to sit on a bookshelf. Rather, it involves taking whatever information is available and in a broad-stroke analysis, making sense of it. Malcolm Gladstone speaks of it in his book ‘Blink’ – how a trained eye can survey something and just know what is happening – intuit the patterns of movement and behaviour. Using these, Bill and his team start to design.  Unlike with Ian Mc Harg’s work, they don’t take a  snap-shot of how an area appears at present and design how best to avoid the important bits. Instead, they look at the information images and work out what story the images are telling. This is the ‘Essence’ of the place, as Bill calls it. One then takes the ‘Essence’ and builds using that. It may mean that rather than avoiding areas, you join the dots and reconnect them. “Look for the story”, Bill advises. If you link the elements, a story emerges. Once you understand the story, you understand the place.

An important part of the discussion is the Regeneration of the landscape, which is rebirth or reincarnation of the land. It is more advanced than Restoration, whereby the mitigation or repair of damage is sought. Restoration and Regeneration are seen as sustainable and energy efficient, using Bill’s simple yet elegant model. Interestingly, Conservation and the traditional understanding of ‘Greening’ is seen as energy consuming and unsustainable. In this way, it is a clearly forward-looking approach, rather than a retrospective pull towards the past. Bill holds that our disconnect from the land means that we have stopped seeing ourselves as a part of environment and a legitimate vector of change, and rather considering ourselves as outsiders who have mucked everything up. He maintains that this is a paradigm best abandoned. Within Bill’s approach, he urges us to look at what went before, how it was functioned, understand the form and function, the relationships and constraints. Then establish what went wrong to throw the relationships out of balance, and the consequences of this. Using the model of Regeneration, we would then look not to simply restore it to it’s former state, but rather reincarnate it into a new form, in which the relationships, forms and functions are re-established. That is an important distinction. The function of the system is re-established, but the form has moved on. There was a reason it was changed in the first place, albeit by an anthropogenic vector. That vector nonetheless exists or existed, and this must be considered in the process, if the rebirth is to succeed.

Engaging the local community is essential, as the meaning of the land will be understood by the locals who are most connected. Most often, the local community will have a very clear understanding of the Essence of a place. Bill suggests we ‘ask for the meaning of the place. This will lead you to the Essence’. Understanding the nature of these connections and what the land means to and touches within the residents will form an irreplaceable part of the vision for the future. Designing the form to accommodate the aspirations of the local community, whilst holding sacred the Essence of the place, will bring the design forward to a state in which there is new-birth, suited to current use yet incorporating functional and healthy natural systems which are both Efficient and Sustainable.

This is a work in progress. It will be added to and amended as I research this topic further. Copyright asserted.