Andrew Wisdom, Catalyst, Keynote, Project, Team, Individual


The city can be the most sustainable model for human habitation, but how do we get there? A total architecture approach will help.

The most sustainable model for human habitation, in every sense, is the city. But how can we achieve the sustainable city from where we are now?

Consider the following as a view of the city of the future:

“The city is established initially with north-south and east-west axial streets, and is laid out as a grid. Each block is envisaged as a programmable slot and is mixed-use, containing apartments, houses, shops and workshops, creating a dense city core. Urban amenities such as plumbing, reservoirs, drainage and sewers, pedestrian sidewalks and traffic calming measures are employed throughout, along with public amenities like markets, public baths and toilets, theatres, and religious and governmental buildings. Between the urbanised zone and the city boundaries is a buffer zone, and beyond lies agricultural land.

The city’s population is actively engaged in public life, through sport, food and drink, and an out-doors ‘24/7’ culture, but also through political discussion. Active transport ensures a strong, healthy populace, almost all waste is recycled, and food production is localised and distributed throughout, with orchards, vines and herb gardens integrated into living spaces. Light industry is also distribut-ed throughout the city, and connected globally through trade networks. Global communications are at the centre of the city’s success.

Housing is based upon the courtyard house model, with an average of 3.5 people living in a dwell-ing featuring two private courtyards, one of which collects rainwater that feeds subterranean water tanks. Cooling is achieved through passive design, and heating through the inherent thermal prop-erties of ceramics.

Although dense, 69 per cent of land use is green space, leaving 11 per cent for infrastructure and 20 per cent for built area. Of that built area, 52 per cent is public space and 48 per cent is housing. Of the green space, only two per cent is devoted to parks, as the other 98 per cent is a productive landscape of urban agriculture, far more ubiquitous than the hemmed-in green spaces of the 20th century city. As citizens spend much of their time in this verdant space, dedicated parks feel less necessary.

The entire urban form is modular, flexible and capable of being repeated in numerous contexts and locales. It has been tried and tested throughout much of the known world, and refined through ad-aptation with each iteration.”

Perhaps the reference to public baths gives it away, but this is actually a description of the arche-typal Roman city circa 500 BCE to 500 CE (drawn from the recent exhibition and book 49 Cities by New York architecture company Work AC.

Of course, the Roman city had more than a few flaws and not just for the slaves – even the health-iest citizens had life expectancies far lower than we would accept today. Furthermore, there are new technologies that the 21st century city should certainly take advantage of, such as renewable energy production, wireless connectivity, bicycles and, of course, the espresso machine.

Looking back to look forward

Yet it’s surprising how similar the visions of contemporary urban planners – with their own versions of urban agriculture, active transport, walkable densification, courtyard housing with passive design, recycling, localised production and so on – are to this Roman city from two millennia ago.

Clearly, looking back at urban history can be useful, but we must not simply cherry-pick from the past. After all, we are facing challenges that have no precedent in human history. Given the urgent need to mitigate the impact of climate change, we must find a more sustainable mode of being. Yet the inability to manoeuvre the built form into another shape makes this impossible, doesn’t it?

Not necessarily. Cities are both the problem – the source of most carbon emissions – and the solution. The most sustainable model for human habitation, in every sense, is the city. But how can we achieve the sustainable city from where we are now?

We can approach the built fabric we already have, retrofitting existing buildings and neighbourhoods with more sustainable infrastructure. We can manage most of the population growth that cities require well within their existing boundaries, through careful and sensitive densification – at the scale of Barcelona or Paris’s four-storey courtyard blocks, rather than high-rise, for example – or, indeed, the Beijing courtyard-house-and-hutong model.

Traffic could be reduced through congestion charging or pay-for-use, which could then fund more sustainable transport modes, such as smart shared bikes or light and high-speed rail – just waiting to be installed over our existing asphalt arteries. Australia in particular is blessed with so much ‘naturally occurring’ energy (solar, geothermal, wind, tidal) it could probably power all of Asia, if it wanted to.

Streets can be greened almost effortlessly, enabling better rainwater handling, natural cooling and, most importantly, sheer delight. Distributed production alongside locally owned stores supported by smart home-delivery networks can replace ‘big box retail’, and so on.

Many of the technical solutions are already available, and could be implemented at little overall cost. Yet we still cannot move quickly enough. The problem of changing hard infrastructure is not necessarily technical, but social, cultural, legal and political.

To effect these changes would entail nothing less than conjuring up ‘a new Australian dream’: A richer version than simply owning one’s own quarter-acre block.

As a nimble and cosmopolitan New World nation, one of the most urbanised in the world, we are well placed to do this – to find a way of preserving individual creativity and ambition within a deeper understanding of interdependent sustainable cities and regions, to balance the individual with the community, and the systems that support both. This means fully taking on what Peter Head describes as ‘the ecological age’, and understanding that cities are indeed systems – albeit containing humans and, therefore, the most complex systems of all.

This ecological age vision fundamentally reinvents approaches to urban development, no longer based around the equivalents of GDP as the only measure of human development but, rather, taking into account environmental, social and humanitarian as well as economic factors. Here, again, we can draw from history to understand the non-built aspects of our world.

We might look at the urban development process itself from an economic, legal and social perspective. Cities are essentially ongoing, organic processes, with the best bits often the function of what Jane Jacobs (the urbanist, writer and activist best known for her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a critique of the US’s urban renewal policies of the 1950s would have recognised as emergent processes. Given this, the structures of development processes and planning tend to work against the grain, in fits and starts, based on periodic snapshots such as census data rather than real-time feedback.

This model does not allow for iteration, unlike the design processes for, say, cars, mobile phones or websites. If we can find a way to iterate development, using the kind of small urban acupuncture with which Jaime Lerner has so successfully transformed Curitiba, or the various retrofitting strategies devised at consulting firm Arup, we can enable the citizen to engage with the city once again.

The city may no longer be a tangle of 1950s-era highways, high-rises and CBD streets strewn with tumbleweed after 6pm, but something that everyone feels part of and understands their part within. Responsibility might feel engaging, rather than a hassle.

We might use smart technology, such as sensors, liberally sprinkled over the urban environment, to perceive and understand this living system in more detail, feeding back in real time the way the city is actually being used. Careful design could ensure that privacy is preserved, recognising that city life at its best perfectly balances anonymity and community.

Yet this urban informatics could allow the city to be understood as a real-time system for the first time, enabling a supremely efficient allocation of scarce resources. It could allow the realisation of a newly responsive urban landscape, sensitive to the touch and alive with visualisations both meaningful and delightful. The post-industrial city could have the kind of everyday feedback loops that the Roman city benefited from.

Total Architecture

Equally, we must ensure that design and development is holistic. Ove Arup talked of ‘total architecture’, implying that only in the convergence of disciplines will we find the most creative yet pragmatic solutions. Only by balancing qualitative inputs (‘What makes a great street?’) alongside the quantitative (‘And who will pay for it?’) will we find a way towards a balanced sustainable city.

In the past, too many cities have been blighted by a simplistic preoccupation with bottom lines, and there is an obvious if awful parallel here – Sir Nicholas Stern calls Climate Change the biggest example of market failure in history.

A greater understanding of people in particular – all the messy stuff that planners and designers have traditionally shied away from, such as cultures, ambitions, desires, fears – will deeply inform this new development process. Total architecture encompasses the ‘quality and the quantity’, the top-down systems and emergent patterns, the people and the objects, giving us a holistic way of balancing good business and good design, leading to great cities.

So alongside our technical and creative expertise, we are interested in enhancing our understanding of cities in a holistic sense, and then creating visions that people actually begin to desire.

We are not talking about the Roman city as a literal model. Nor do we see a sustainable city as a necessarily humble, bleak vision, in which your hemp toilet paper endlessly circles around your continually blocked grey water toilet, or as a gleaming oasis in the desert outside Abu Dhabi, but instead Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and others – retrofitted, reoriented and renewed.

(A version of this first appeared in Science Alert in 2009, under then Arup Australasian CEO Robert Care’s byline.)