The Worlds New Cities Don’t Need to All Look the Same

I’ve been visiting and researching the rapid urbanisation in Turkey – whose cities boast some of the largest urban extensions in the world – one managing over 7,000 completions in a year – and the positive and negative lessons learned.

Fortuitously Adam Greenfield published an article in the Guardian today called:


The basic premise being:

It shouldn’t surprise us that the planet’s newest cities are to be found in the places  here its population is most rapidly urbanising: India, China and sub-Saharan Africa. Whether acquired by eminent domain, compulsory purchase order or outright expropriation, assembling meaningfully sized parcels of land in existing urban cores can be a messy, expensive and time-consuming process. The favoured strategy in all of these places is therefore to develop entirely new satellite cities on peripheral sites where land is cheap – or barring that, to build upon land reclaimed from the ocean.

Adam adopts the pretext of Vanessa Watson of the University of Capetown

a long litany of private-sector new city initiatives now spangles the African continent, …Each is dashed with the most superficial gloss of technological contemporaneity, right down to the inevitable “Silicon” prefix. And each is more placeless than the last, predicated on a generic model of development that could not possibly have less to do with the actual political, economic or material conditions obtaining in any African society….

This strikingly inapposite quality among the new African cities can be traced to a few factors. On the one hand, the bland look of nonplace is perceived by local elites to be the sign and sigil of successful modernity. But it is also true that none of the parties doing the actual design work are local to the continent, or, evidently, particularly conversant with any of its cultures.

This criticism of ‘techno gloss’ is cutting, however I challenge anyone to show me in Africa any city which has been developed anything like this high tech vision.  Schemes such as Modderfontein which aims to develop Shanghai on the Veldt near Johannesburg have hardly laid a brick.  When ‘Smart Cities’ planned with expensive renderings by western based architectural practices are implemented, using local construction and regulatory norms of which the masterplanners are unaware, they look pretty much the same as the monotonous rows of 12-30 storey identical concrete tower blocks you find now in rapidly urbanising cities on every continent.

It is the dynamics of these domino cities which makes them all look the same.  They are mass produced urban planning and architecture, where urban design does not get a look in between the two.  From my own experience their problems stem from similar causes.

A Functional Separation of Superblocks  Almost all developing countries systems of urban planning are based on approval of a functional distribution of land uses, by plot divided by a road system designed solely to improve flow of road traffic.  This is partially the influence of modernism, partially from adopting wholesale western ‘euclidian’ zoning laws, partially a legacy of colonial zoning (whose primary aim was mainly to push the locals as far away from plush new areas as possible) and partially the importance to emerging economies of laying out subdivisions for single plot buildings or sites and services (as an alternative to informal unplanned settlements).  All of these mitigate designing streets and places.  An ‘illustrative plan’ showing the design of streets and places, in 2 and 3d is not required and even considered a hindrance to the rapid laying out of plots and roads.  In any event plots and roads are likely to developed by local contractors who will quickly abandon masterplans so that construction simplicity and maximising the plot values of local elites granted privileged access to the developments are the main drivers.

A Failure to Understand the Site, Climate and Culture  Indeed it is quite common, sadly, for new cities to be planned  with no or inaccurate topographical surveys, leading to building forms and roads poorly adapted to the site.  Existing tress and landscape features are not surveyed and so are swept away,  This factor alone would lead to variation as every site is different.   Hydrographical studies, predicting where flood waters will flow – which can act as a basis for a nature friendly design – are the exception rather than the rule in many emerging economies.  Hence this is either ignored or crude engineering solutions guaranteed to ‘work’ such as culverting, are applied.  Western masterplanning firms also often have dysfunctional relationships with local firms, treating them as subservients to do the detailed work at outsourced rates rather than tapping and building up their expertise for concept design.   Typologies that may be appropriate to cooler climes, such as all glass curtain wall offices, are applied unthinkingly to warmer or colder climes.

The use of Standardised Building Footplates and Construction Techniques in terms of rate of construction but it is a good thing, but too often this results in homogonisation.  In Turkey for example they increasing use ‘Tunnel form’  techniques where the walls ansd ceiling/floor of a whole floor is cast in place at once – so floors can be constructed in two days rather than a week.  The result though – are you can see in the vast suburbs of Ankara such as Batikent- is streets than look like they have been designed by a bad Minecraft player – all the same height and boxy elevations.  The efficiency of this technique has led to 94 emerging economy countries beating a path of the Turkish Housing agencies door and lucrative contracts for many Turkish contractors.  Compare to British householders and there old fashioned ways and complete lack of exports.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  A limited number of typologies and building modules can be designed to lay out a city in kit form.  Zoning regulations can require variations in height across larger high density superblocks. Indeed design parameters should never be set by superblock by vary by street frontage and type to which individual building blocks face.

The Spectacular Sameness of Batinkent Ankara Turkey – the worlds largest satellite city

A Failure to Appreciate Scale Designing on a city scale is not the same as designing a small subdivision.  Yet many of those designing new city scale projects have simply scaled up their experience on smaller projects.  Hence open spaces, boulevards and public spaces which look good on a map at 1:10,0000 turn out to be unusable and overlarge on the ground.

Cutting Corners in Early Phases The early phases of a new city scale project always have negative cash flow – the infrastructure needs up front investment whilst revenues come in later.  If you can capture the uplift in land values this helps as you can borrow from it.  Indeed a lesson from China has been that its uncomfortably confiscatory system of eminent domain and sales to fund local government later have been if anything too successful.  One positive  lesson from Batinkent was that it was led by local design cooperatives on state land and that a European grant led to positive cash flow in early stages, hence it could develop mass affordable housing at low cost and without the fear of privaate developers of ‘flooding the market’.

Not Planning in the Infrastructure at Concept Stage Often masterplans in emerging economies are designed before infrastructure concept design, because of a lack of funding.  As a result massive medians are left for future hypothetical infrastructure networks, without coordinated design, which become barriers and barren treeless spaces.

Unrealistic or Totally Absent Planning for Public Transport To impress there clients masterplanners too often include impractical vanity transport solutions such as personal rapid transportation or monorail rather than down to earth practical and well tested solutions such as BRT or paratransport.    road capacity is often overlarge by default (and often not studied in models) often applying standard road dimensions dictated by states and municpalities that follow american practice of 30 years ago rather than international best practice .

Dalian North East China

None of these barriers are inevitable or dictated by economics.  They are the result in institutional design and laziness – they can be fixed.

Domino cities can be avoided – even if you are planning by the Sq km, but it needs a different regulatory and commissioning regime.  One that starts with building and block typologies, designing places and buildings that work well together, and then designing streets, roads and neighborhoods around those.  Successful neighbourhood footprints can then be adapted and reused as tessellations on suitable broadly flat sites, which dont require the custom street by street design of hilly sites.  Even a few different typologies for each of the key elements of cities, when added in combination, add up to millions of possible combinations at a city scale.  All new cities dont have to look the same.


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