Comfortable Chaos in Cambridge

Liane gave a lecture recently at the University of Cambridge to participants of the Interdisciplinary Design for the Built Environment (IDBE) part-time Masters Degree.  The course is offered jointly by the Departments of Architecture and Engineering and is aimed at encouraging collaboration between professionals across different built environment disciplines.

Focussed on the production of the built environment it challenges participants to explore and develop the critical thinking and leadership needed to grapple with how we are to meet the competing economic, social and environmental demands of future urban growth. You can find out more about how to participate in future courses here.

The course involves a series of residential weeks where participants undergo an intense programme of activity including seminars, lectures and workshops that help them to produce a personal and group project.

Liane took part in the most recent residential week in July which was themed around “Design for Survival – The challenge of 2050 is now”. The week was hosted by Stephen Hill, C20 futureplanners (Decarbonising city planning); and fellow lecturers (and lectures) included Dr. Nicola Headlam, University of Liverpool (Not all cities can be…or need to be on steroids – Lessons from cities that aren’t London); Andrea Gibbons, LSE, and Editorial Board ‘City’ Journal (Disruptive Citizens: community organising for a right to the city); and Chris Brown, CEO igloo regeneration (‘Can commercial development ever be genuinely ethical?’).

Liane’s lecture was titled “Planning for Comfortable Chaos – examining the tension between rational planning and social construction of public space”. It was designed to challenge our very basic concepts and notions around how we plan and conceive places and cities in such a seemingly rational way, despite humans and cities being inherently irrational, messy, chaotic and unpredictable.

The key idea for the lecture centered on a problem: that the act of planning and designing our places and cities is divorced from the act of living and experiencing them.

At Mend, we are interested in how we make place and urban experience; and the future role people as citizens and professionals will have in planning our cities in an increasingly, disruptive, DIY and social world. “Comfortable chaos” serves as a unifying principle for the way we think cities and our relationship with them are.

Liane used the rest of lecture to unpick some very basic questions around:

  • What do we think about when we think about cities, urban and place?
  • How do we make urban space and why do we do it that way?
  • Who and what do we make cities for?

Using examples and references from the likes of Henri Lefebvre, David Harvey, Edward Soja, Colin Ward, Jane Jacobs, Richard Sennett, Christopher Alexander and Nassim Taleb she pointed to how disruption, disorder, chaos, mess, flux, randomness, the unplanned and unfinished are intensely feared in planning.

Far from fearing and trying to contain mess or the unplanned, Liane argues that mess is a sign of life and indicator for how places and spaces are really, actually used and signposts to ways in which we want to live in and use them in the future. Encouraging spontaneity and the unplanned in planning enables a more honest and emergent process of city building, towards authentic places that are made by the people that actually use them and sparking new forms of citizenship for making that happen.

Stemming from a tendency for the human mind to want to simplify and order what is around us so that we can better understand and process it, we apply this to urban environments and use planning to effectively sort and categorise. This manifests in stunted places and neighbourhoods that lack the authenticity of how everyday life is actually lived and experienced and curtails opportunity for change and spontaneity

Planning becomes a process for controlling and managing our urban environments as 3D containers for our social lives. When it should be about using our social lives to inform the design and development of our urban environments.

Liane makes the point that planning is a physical process with social outcomes; but if it was a social process with physical outcomes we would have better places.

Liane is convinced that the future of our cities is social and that trends in the DIY or emergent city, peer to peer markets, disruptive solutions, active citizens and smart data is conspiring to influence the way me make cities and produce urban environment to to be much more DIY, citizen-led and social too.

Disruption, far from being negative incursion should be seen as an on-going and positive process of tweaking, playing and hacking convention and mainstream for innovative new ideas. The ability for people to come up with their own ideas and things is made ever more possible and accessible, rendering business, state and organisation as mass enabler not sole provider.

Yet the planning system we have lags behind this and remains to be underpinned by concepts that’s seek to reduce the city to a commodity of easily sortable and separate component parts; the complexity of the relationships between them and how humans, and their relationships and behaviours interact, is totally lost.

As users we should be influencing our environments as much as users are integral and vital to the design of virtual environments. Cities are social networks and need to be conceived as such. In doing so, we create spaces that are more responsive, relevant and real and therefore more sustainable, equitable and exciting to be in.

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