A few years ago we (we being URBED a urban design cooperative based in Manchester in the UK) were working on a masterplan for part of a large city. In the optimistic way that urbanists have, we had drawn a plan to show what the quarter would look like in twenty years time, when everything had been built – something of course, that never happens. We decided to call this idealised vision a ‘Climax plan’ and that in turn triggered a set of ideas that I have been developing ever since.
The core of the idea is that every part of the world and human culture has a climax urbanism, just as it has a climax vegetation. If you take a piece of land near where I am sitting in England and leave it to its own devices it will become a meadow before being colonised by scrub and then trees until, after a few hundred years, it will have become mixed, deciduous woodland – mostly beech and oak – the sort of place where Robin and his merry men would have hung-out (if they had lived near Manchester) . Having reached this state it would stay that way for ever or at least until an external force intervenes.
The idea of the Climax City is that human settlement also has it’s climax state. A human society anywhere in the world left to it’s own devices will develop an urban culture which will be expressed in buildings and spaces that perfectly meet the needs of that society. Having reached that state it will stay there until disrupted by some external force or until the society itself changes. All over the world human societies, in doing this, have created beautiful towns and cities, many have been designed, but many more have just sort of happened.
But not any more… We have lost the ability to create beautiful urban places, and the more we try through planning, urban design and architecture the less successful we seem to be. It may be that, in the modern world the Climax City condition is unattainable, the process of development is now so far removed from the needs and desires of local people that the process no longer works. It may be that the modern Climax City is not the sort of place that we really want to be creating. The ‘dark satanic’ mills of Manchester or the sprawling suburbia of Thatcher’s Britain could be argued to be Climax city states – the perfect crystallisation of a set of social mores and economic conditions. Today the Climax City might be the Brazilian barrio, the desert towers of Dubai or the cancer of ‘cottages’ covering much of rural Ireland. All are the result of economic and social conditions unconstrained by planning.
These are the things that interest me and I have been exploring for the last few years through drawing maps (working with my friend Shruti Hemani). It seems to me that all cities are the product of three forces:
Organic growth: The process by which we build the human termite mound. This draws on complexity theory and the emergence of complex patterns from seemingly random variables
Planned growth: Our attempts to control and shape this natural growth through planning design and regulation.
The process of decline: The effects of the process when it goes into reverse and there is no growth. The impact on cities of economic decline and population loss.
These are some of the issues I want to explore in the blog and hope eventually to develop into a book. I would be really interested in honing these ideas through debate and would welcome comments, criticisms and suggestions in response to these posts.