Flipping through Aureli's "The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture", particularly the last chapter on O.M. Ungers and OMA, I am reminded again of the distinction between "urbanization" and "cities". What we consider today as "cities" are more like "urbanized areas of sprawl", and usually the historic center of places is what remains of the traditional ideals of a city (both in Western and Eastern contexts). In the 1970's in Berlin, Ungers' counter-proposal to urbanization was to essential transform architecture into "miniature cities", or point nodes that include the amenities of traditional cities (gathering spaces, commercial places, residential areas). I can see how this chain of thinking lead to, and inspired, the idea of "programs" in buildings, and eventually "mixed-use buildings" we see all around the world -- a counterpoint to just "sprawl".
But architecture or sprawl, physical communities should still have metrics by which to measure their success. From the unit of the dwelling to the built "region" or "megaregion", there are some basic ingredients that make up and shape cities. Just as a thought experiment, I wanted to catalog them from the foundational to the aspirational -- and see what it looks like. Does this still ring true? And what does it tell me about my own personal biases (about cities and what makes them function)?
Level 1: The Dwelling Unit
The foundational level is a lot like the first level of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. All cities need air, light, and water for the survival of its inhabitants. From ancient times to today, a lot of these needs have remained a constant (except for the internet). In a funny way, each of these needs build upon each other, and without the earlier step the following step would not exist. Successful places, at least in the industrialized world, have these ingredients in abundance, most of the time.
- Access to Air (MEP) - At a global level, cities exist on Earth, where there is abundant oxygen. At a local level, access to air means access to "Clean Air", free of natural or man-made pollutants.
- Access to Light (Daylight) - Here, I'm talking about daylight access. Daylight usually accompanies access to clean air, but not all the time. Fundamentally, successful places have quality lighting, free of shadow cast by unusually tall buildings, or have a sufficient quantity of daylight hours for life.
- Access to Water/Sanitation (Plumbing) - Like clean air, people need clean water for consumption and cooking. Clean water ensures that pathogens and bacterial risks are low. A corollary to clean water is access to sanitation (think outhouses and early Medieval or Chinese waste disposal systems).
- Access to Electricity (Electrical/Utility) - Since the industrial revolution, electricity has become a mainstay of the modern city. Access to electricity has allowed for the immense growth to human productivity and the quality of life. It allows for power usage without resorting to polluting fires or chemicals, and it allows for safe cooking and light access during nighttime. We take the privilege of electricity too easily for granted, I think.
- Access to the Telecommunications/Internet (AV/ICT) - (I'm debating whether this belongs here. But it is quickly becoming a human right, and not a privilege.) Since the 1980's and 1990's, the telecom/digital revolution has made access to the internet practically essential to modern life. At this point, we work, play, and communicate through this inescapable utility. A successful city today has very fast broadband connection, often free Wi-Fi access in public areas, and a digitally literate population.
Level 2: The Infrastructure
At the community level, these basic building blocks become a bit more complex, because the problem concerns connecting dwelling units together. We are still concerning basic needs, but rather than basic individual needs these are basic community needs.
- Food System - Cities and urban areas are distinctly different from the "countryside", where food is grown, so one of the most basic infrastructure types is the food network. How is food grown, harvested, and distributed to where people live? The local food movement of the millennia has advocated transforming the food-industrial complex back to a pre-20th century age, where food is grown locally, or even inside cities themselves (in the form of hydroponic/rooftop farms). However, this "farm to table" movement isn't really accessible to everyone besides the most wealthy, and most developed countries still rely on complex supply chains. Successful cities have robust supply chains and a secondary, emergent ecosystem of locally grown food. If ancient cities began as marketplaces for the sale of food and produce, then the contemporary city may be a place of both food and technological production.
- Transportation System - Successful cities have transportation networks that balance the needs of commerce with the needs of the community. There is equal opportunity for both private and public modes to exist, so that the less fortunate have access to mobility, while maintaining the option for individual mobility. People can get to work, and go home, quickly. Roads and rail networks are maintained efficiently, and buses and trains run predictably. Pedestrian walkways and bikeways allow for unpowered movement, reducing greenhouse emissions and improving public health. A safe and successful transportation system requires clean air and a reliable source of energy (our next topic). There are both opportunities for growth and opportunities for resizing (flexible infrastructure for a disruptive world, i.e. pandemics and climate change).
- Energy System - Successful cities have reliable energy systems that operate as sustainably as possible. To minimize environmental impact and cost, energy sources are local to the geographic region (wind, solar, natural gas, petroleum), and cities try to employ sustainable input sources (solar, wind, hydroelectricity). Smart grids allow diffused communities to dynamically control their energy needs and supply, potentially even selling back renewable power to the grid. Simultaneously, energy systems should be robust and contain light footprints when possible.
- Security Systems (Police, Fire) - After meeting basic infrastructural needs (food, transportation, and energy), the next level is basic protections from crime and disaster. As people are go about their lives, the police prevent unruly behavior and make sure people are not infringing on the liberties and lives of others. This creates predictability for commerce and general social peace. The fire department also prevents disruptions, but in the form of accidents and disasters that are statistically bound to occur.
- Healthcare (Physical Well-Being) - All communities need doctors and medical professionals to heal the sick and treat the wounded. A larger extension to the concept of wellness is the creation of public parks and recreational centers where the public can exercise and be fit, doing activities that can prevent long-term and costly diseases. Public spaces, hospitals, and medical infrastructure go hand-in-hand, and build upon the successes of the previous layers and components. (Because healthcare infrastructure is costly, and the training of doctors and medical staff, as well as pharmaceutical drug makers, is a long-term endeavor, I placed this as the last item in the community level.)
Level 3: The Economy
At the economic level, the infrastructure elements help generate environments for community growth. We move beyond meeting "needs" to "wants", particularly regarding economy and governance -- the more intangible, but equally important, form of social ("soft") infrastructure.
- Rule of Law / Civil Law - Once people's basic food, shelter, transportation, security, and medical needs are considered, the next level of development concerns economic, judicial, and political development. The first level of the "economy" is simply to create a level playing field among all citizens - if everyone follows basic rules and respects each other and their property, they can pursue their self-interests without fear of prosecution or criminal behavior. A clear rule of law sets the standard for inter-community development and creates a stable business environment, while allowing for redress in circumstances of injustice and law-breaking. The rule of law is also often referred as, or conflated with, "democratic institutions" in many western countries.
- Education and Innovation - When your city's residents are 1) not hungry or starving, 2) secure from war and disease, and 3) feel safe under the protection of the law, then they can finally move towards the improvement of society and of the self. This means citizens have the ability to become educated and participate in society at the highest degree possible, to live their lives at their maximum potential. There are plenty of secondary and tertiary benefits to public education, the least of which is the ability to maintain and protect the lower level systems, with competent managers and educated workers. The direct offshoot of education is innovation, the "holy grail" of 21st century economies. When your citizens are educated and well taken care of, they will have the time and space to invent new products and produce new knowledge, both of which can help the management of lower systems and build the upper ones. Schools, laboratories, universities, public libraries, and innovation hubs all fall under this category, connecting new information to society.
- Market Access and Business Climate - Now you have the rule of law and a robust education system, you can lay the foundation to connect knowledge to markets. Successful cities allow citizens to create businesses easily and with little red tape, creating a free and competitive marketplace. This allows individuals and cities as a whole to generate wealth, sustaining the costs and time required to maintain the lower levels of the hierarchy. Having a business-friendly climate also fosters more innovation and collaboration between cities and people, because the incentives are there to maintain good interpersonal relations.
- Social Welfare / Safety Net - A corollary to a "business-friendly" climate is the strong social safety net. Businesses collapse all the time, and disasters strike when you least expect it. Resilient cities understand that long-term success depend on the well-being of the whole, including the less fortunate, because everything is interconnected. A truly competitive marketplace and a culture of innovation also means that failure is often a constant, and those in unlucky or tough situations need assistance to get them back on their feet. A robust welfare system gives people a chance to move forward and continue to pursue their highest potential, even if they hit roadblocks along the way. Likewise, secure retirement systems reward city elders for their lifelong contributions to society and let them live their twilight years in dignity.
Level 4: The Individual
At the highest level, a successful city means people who thrive together, rather than just survive on their own. These are not community "wants" but individual "wants".
- Social Community - Truly successful cities have networks of social community, bringing people together through "soft" networks of common interests and needs, outside the family unit. These includes church groups, sports clubs, hobby groups, and professional networks. These smaller social networks are important because they form a crucial intermediate "glue" between family units and large, abstract organizations (like the city, school, and the workplace). This intermediate level helps build comradery among people, providing joy and meaning to life. They also help reinforce a shared sense of citizenship, promoting democracy and education along the way.
- Arts and Culture (Creativity) - From tangible building blocks to urban infrastructure, economy to education,
- Individual Well Being/Wellness - Happiness
- Personal Growth - Personal Growth