If we want cities to be more inclusive, we should design them collaboratively
Words and illustrations by Oliver Schulze and Louise Grassov
Seen as a whole, cities are like supertankers. They’re large, complex and notoriously slow to steer. Once you’re set on a particular course, it takes a tremendous effort to change direction, if it’s possible at all. On the micro level, cities are constantly changing – their human ecosystems grow, shrink and shift every day. Each morning, we wake up in a slightly different version of our city.
We believe that good cities have a destination – a plan for a better version of themselves – and can draw on a complex network of competent stakeholders to help adjust their course.
Cities need leadership to take stock and plot their journey, just as every supertanker needs a captain. As architects, we often think of ourselves as naturally suited to this role. When we are put into a group consisting of a range of professionals, we assume that we are the leader of this group.
As a result, we often end up with the wrong captain standing on the bridge of the supertanker: the architect. Why ask a profession that is trained to value originality and uniqueness over commonality and utility to provide a sustainable blueprint for living in cities, when the most pressing need is to build stronger and more cohesive communities?
There is a big problem here. The supertanker we call a city is simply too big and too complex for us to handle alone. In our role as architects and urban designers, we need to remain nimble if we are to respond to emerging local and global challenges and opportunities. Technological and scientific innovations are evolving at a fast pace, and our cities can and must tap into these advances to become more sustainable.
The values and norms that we hold as an active citizenry are also ever-changing. This means that at times we might also need to change the final destination of our supertanker. Right now, we are in one of those moments where we need to adjust the course. Over time, there is a tendency for cities to become divided over many fault lines; we need to counter this by making our cities – our societies – more inclusive and connected.
Think of it: the city is not just an accumulation of the many types of buildings that we have been trained to design. It is not just a random soup of roads with a generous sprinkling of green. It is a much more complex ecosystem, one that has to adjust its equilibrium constantly, and in many different ways, in order to stay afloat. This equilibrium is only reached when our cities, as a baseline, successfully function as large gatherings of many communities that can blossom and evolve together, mindful that the city is bigger than any single community alone.
From that perspective, the architect’s masterplan appears little more than a static image of where to park a lot of capital by building a lot of buildings. As a tool to provide a rich blueprint for urban life and living, it is far too crude, and probably beyond its sell-by date the day after it is drawn up.
Furthermore, by training, our profession is not best placed to consider the communities surrounding their individual projects. But what if we changed the way we train and understand ourselves as architects? What if we found new ways to use our creativity and drive to provide a different kind of leadership in the more complex city-planning and city-building processes we are calling for?
Let’s start by putting to rest the term ‘masterplan’ for good. Let us conceive instead a new type of plan – something we call the ‘framework plan’. The framework plan is based on rigorous stock-taking of the evolving urban society that inhabits the places in, and nearby, the site in transformation.
Unlike a masterplan, it is not drawn up in isolation or structured to be top-down. It is a shift in thinking that must be by and for the many. The framework plan is a product of communication and listening. It is developed over an iterative process that is at some times open and inviting, at others intensely searching and creative. At the beginning, we ask ‘How shall we live?’, before we look for answers to ‘What shall we build?’
As the framework plan takes shape, we give definition to the evolving physical structure and character of the city’s connective tissue – its public spaces, including streets, squares and parks. With this framework established, we can set out meaningful design guidelines for the numerous buildings that will come and go over time, and outline how they can contribute to the public realm of the city as a whole.
The most important thing that we build should therefore not be a starchitecture statement building, but a consensus across a pluralist group of stakeholders. It should never be a tool of polarisation, serving to set in stone singular development interests.
So dear fellow architects, get on the framework-plan team. Should you still feel the urge to be the captain, you can always buy a boat.
Oliver Schulze and Louise Grassov are partners at the urban design studio Schulze+Grassov in Copenhagen, Denmark