Ecological Urbanism - design explorations through systems mapping

A guest post by Jonathan Kendall, contributing to the second Ecological Urbanism discussion hosted by Annick LabecaTaneha Bacchindpr-barcelona and UrbanTick.

With apologies for the slightly conversational tone, rather than sharing
a fully referenced academic argument I am using this online format as a
vehicle to introduce ideas that are a work in progress. The process of
writing can be a useful mechanism to test and start to structure
previously unfocused notions. I hope that periodic updates to this
narrative can track the process of exploration as the work develops.
I thought it would be useful to set out a series of thoughts in relation
to the issue of ecological urbanism that I hope to explore over the
coming twelve months through the work of MArch Urban Design students at
the Bartlett School of Architecture where I teach (this year in
partnership with Ilario di Carlo). The course, directed by Colin
Fournier, encourages plural definitions of the subject of urban design,
and seeks to develop innovative and exploratory approaches to the future
of the city. Past themes have included extreme urban density and have
been based in world cities including New York, Hong Kong and Shanghai.
This year's students will be visiting and basing their design proposals
in Istanbul.
The students will be exploring an overall issue of 'sustainability'. One
can debate whether 'ecological urbanism' is a subset of 'sustainability'
or a variant upon it. Our specific approach will be to establish a
conceptual framework of 'networks, loops and hierarchies'. Essentially,
we are seeking to use ideas of urban systems as a mechanism to
understand the complexity of the city, identify defined aspects of
sustainability at a range of scales, and to to establish design
interventions that are tangible and meaningful both experientially and
strategically. This approach is a development of a methodology started
in the previous year (with Yuri Gerrits) where we encouraged readings of
the city through notions of 'Speed' - responding to the dynamic and
kinetic qualities of the urban environment.

In setting our term of reference in relation to networks, loops and
hierarchies, we are challenging the notion of the city as a defined
entity, or indeed as the product of progressively more finite design in
a 'powers of ten' zoom. Instead, we are interested in the idea of the
city as the accumulation of multiple and overlapping systems at a range
of scales, speeds and levels of stability.
A 'systems' approach invites students to analyse the city methodically
and experientially. We are interested not only in dispassionate analysis
but an understanding of the manifestation of a range of forces and
relationships by which it is ordered and the tangible and emotional
reactions this produces.
Given that many of our students arrive with the disciplines of an
architectural training, which prioritises static, building-scale
interventions within a defined context, our initial investigations will
seek to develop a new vocabulary, establish techniques for analysis,
create notations for recording the chosen characteristics, and through
this process identify personal areas of interest for research and

Each student will initially be asked to take a defined issue to explore.
These should not be too burdensome a choice - we are not asking for a
commitment to a year's investigation, but instead we hope to establish a
set of conceptual tools that can be used by the group as a whole. Such
issues might include telecommunications networks, agriculture and food
chains, hydrology systems, ethnic/religious clustering or retail
distribution hierarchies. We are interested in the ecology of the city,
of course, but take a broad definition of 'ecology' to extend beyond the
literally biological to include the social and economic systems by which
urban settlements evolve.

It is critical that the work is propositional, and that such
propositions have a tangible and spatial quality. The danger of
exploring networked relationships that, by definition, are extensive and
complex, is that one is overwhelmed and rendered incapable of
intervention by such complexity. Instead, we hope that a networked
attitude to the city will lead to plural outputs that may be extensive
in scale or achieve constellation qualities through their collective
We will ask that each student defines a critical stance in relation to
sustainability or ecological urbanism. The breadth of the subject and
lack of orthodox definitions is such that diametrically contradictory
solutions may be proposed - extremes of development density being a good
potential example of this. We will not define a site or a quantum of
development; both should be a logical consequence of the students'
personal preoccupations.

It is hard to speculate where this work will lead. Last year's projects
took our theme of Speed and translated this into, to name only a few
examples, the flows of urban water management, the fantasy of
teleportation as a disruptive movement technology and the passages of
nomadic movement of LA's homeless community. Istanbul will be a
fascinating city to use as a base. It exemplifies the layering of
history, sitting as it does at a threshold between continents, a
threshold between the nominally 'developed' and 'undeveloped' world, and
at a threshold between Islamic and Judeo-Christian/secular world. Each
of these sweeping characterisations, part of the social 'ecologies' of
the city, have networked qualities that we look forward to mapping and
using as a basis for design investigations in the months ahead.

Steve Graham, Simon Marvin, Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition, Routledge, 2001
Martin Dodge, Rob Kitchin, Mapping Cyberspace, Routledge, 2000
Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society: Information Age: Economy, Society, and
Culture, Wiley-Blackwell, 2000
Mohsen Mostafavi, Gareth Doherty (coedited by), Ecological Urbanism, Lars Mueller Publishers, 2010
Jared M. Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, Allen Lane, 2005
Philip Brookman (edited by), Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change, Steidl, 2010
Clarrie Wallis, Richard Long: Heaven and Earth, Tate Publishing, 2009


Jonathan Kendall is Partner and Director of Urban Design at Fletcher Priest Architects where he has responsibility for the practice's masterplanning and urban design work. He is an architect by training, registered in the UK and Latvia. He has worked on a number of large scale urban projects including the Stratford City masterplan and the new urban centre of Riga. He was recently invited to act as international juror for Europan 10. For more than ten years, Jonathan has also taught on the MSc/MArch Urban Design programme at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. He has spoken at lectures and conferences around the world and has published articles in a wide range of professional journals.

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