Climax City

Random writing on cities

Climax City

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.

11 thoughts on “Climax City

  1. The points you make are clearly focused on the evolution of a society out of the control of the people themselves. There is little consultation with communities in regards to what they want, rather than what is good for them. the philosophy we shared with so many others years back. The idea of a community that decides and builds around a need and way of living that is both organic and allows for growth, one built on collective vision fuelled by artistic expression.

    • On the contrary – it is the ‘we know what’s good for you attitude’ that got us into this mess. I would argue that in the past before planners and other bureaucrats started to try and manage urban areas, people did it collectively for themselves much more effectively. Of course it wouldn’t happen today – the forces of the market would run riot. I’m not therefore suggesting that the the Climax City is necessarily a good thing, just that it is a process that we should understand if we are going to try and intervene in cities.

  2. You rightly stress the organic as opposed to the mechanical process by which cities evolve, and I have always bee struck by the efforts gardiners and farmers have to put into keeping weeds down. However chemicals are not the right answer, and I have wondered myself what kinds of urban form are most resilient. I am sure the idea of green belts is counter-productive once development jumps over the belt and that green fingers should be better Yet in revisiting Spiro Kostov’s great book on the City Shaped there are no strong diagrams to follow on from Howard’s Social City.

    We surely need (and perhaps you interest in maps and aerial photographs should help) some clear and inspiring models for what good or sustainable urban form should look like. Take Oxford, for example, can one suggest a more resilient and less wasteful form of growth than the County Town policy that has been favoured for decades, where the new housing goes to places like Witney, Banbury and Didcot, rather than say Kidlington or other settlements on the edge that might make use of suburban trains or rapid transit plus bikes to get to work?

    Perhaps Daniel Libeskin’s star concept offers a new model, but I feel we should be able to refer to natural processes of growth to draw conclusions from what works best over time.

  3. Cities with focus and interest only evolve if many are allowed to explore and interest groups share believes and make real decisions in regards to function and sustainability, meaning that to allows for light energy and well-being to coexist with materials, so this is not just planning for function (although this is a vital aspect) this is planning for real purpose and sustained living.
    Design isn’t something that should only be in the hands of the few, but should be a consultative process, allowing for a way that rests well with its surroundings (complimentary) allows for a real flow and respects not only the environment, people but the importance of interaction and communication. Idealist possibly but ultimately a living organism.

  4. Climax city has a climax rate. Therefore no one can live there without the climax money. What do you think?

    • Not sure I understand your question or that you understand the Climax City idea. Our suggestion is that humans, left to their own devices, will create a city that matches their needs. This has happened through history and has sometimes created places of great beauty and sometimes places of immense squalor. Income has nothing to do with it. I was interested to read that Syrian residents of UN refugee camps were rearranging the tents into the type of traditional family based urban groupings that you find in the old quarters of Damascus – that is the climax city process at work.

  5. Of course settlements for centuries have shown that people given a choice will build for their needs, function, comfort and communication are ingredients that will win over through consultation, interaction and sensitivity to materials and space.

  6. A Climax City would presumably be one where residents & users were able to take autonomous decisions and actions to accommodate their needs with regards to living & working in that city without undermining the wider coherence & architectural integrity of the city. Perhaps it is attained in some Georgian & Victorian areas of British cities where homes can be adapted to accommodate need balanced against a measure of respect for architectural integrity, style perhaps, such that residents would not make alterations that harmed their property values & attracted disapproval from neighbours, without Planners having to police them? Perhaps it is also attained in the occasional self-build & self-adapt neighbourhoods found, including parts of the lived-in warehouse neighbourhoods found in some areas of London (although market forces usually steamroller over these areas as soon as they become officially accepted)!

    Interesting idea; definitely something in it!

  7. In my humble opinion organic growth is a recipe for disaster. It should be planned, but with the approval of the people who live there. Our county (Leicestershire) have come up with a plan called Sustainable Urban Environment(SUE) which they are now pushing through to meet government housing requirements. They are effectively bolting onto existing small villages up to 2500 houses with no major concern about traffic flow. The highways are already congested and the Sue links directly with the existing ancient village centre which already has a very narrow one way system. Since the average household now has approximately 2.5 cars we are talking about 6500 extra vehicles using the existing systems. Buses have to mount the pavement to pass and we have already witnessed two accidents to vehicles in the past 2 weeks with buses. Also the pollution created is not sustainable. I have previously lived and worked in London and the amount of time and fuel that is wasted in traffic must amount to billions of pounds as well as being mind numbing and unhealthy. London is effectively gridlocked in the rush hours and all large cities are going the same way. There are two adjacent villages with planning approval for a SUE. No one in the villages wanted this development.

    There are large stretches of boring open countryside in Leicestershire crying out for development with good access to a motorway or a dual carriageway. I believe that a far better solution would have been to build a on these fields. If these two SUE,s had been amalgamated and built on one of these areas with sufficient roads to link to the highways which could accommodate the traffic then it would have been a far better long term solution. It could even have been less expensive. Effectively build what I would define as a Garden Village.

    Land grabbing is now becoming an epidemic in the UK with big companies such as Gladman Land who have highly paid Barristers to support them and who are making vast sums of money out of any piece of land that they can get planning permission for without any regard to the local inhabitants objections. The old adage is prevalent with “money talks”!

    In my lifetime we have made some appalling decisions such as the sixties housing and shop front designs, now looking very ugly and run down, high rise flats, now pulled down. I just wonder what heritage we will leave our children!

    • Paul – What you object to is not what we mean by organic growth. Indeed your complaints relate to the problems with the planning system not the absence of planning. I won the Wolfson Prize a few years ago for an essay on garden cities that made pretty much the same point as you. My arguement was that it was better to take a few confident bites out of the green belt, that could be developed sustainably rather than nibbling around its edges and annoying everyone.

  8. David – Do you not think that our failure to build ethical places in the western, mordern city has been our fixation on aesthetic and urban governance all along? When I read this article, images of the ‘Kowloon walled city’ come to mind. Areas of cities stigmatised for one reason or another, entangled in a ‘discourse’ of decline seem to foster forms of ‘climax urbanism’ that planners and policy makers could never hope to achieve. Therefore, It seems to me that the climaxcity is very much around us, in the non-governed, informal and open spaces around cities whose ambiguity can encourage social exchange. Perhaps what we need then is not the production of iconic – spaces of consumption, but to revert to the ‘architecture without architects’…

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