We don’t guess the structural performance of individual buildings so why do we guess the human performance of entire cities?

The structural steelwork of a large and complex building would not be designed without running engineering calculations. Even the smallest of buildings is subject to objective structural analysis. No client and professional team would rely on guesswork, no matter how famous or experienced the architect or engineer.

So why do we leave the human performance of places to the whim of architects who run no calculations and rely only on their instinct and ego? Why is the science of human behaviour so poorly developed? Why is chronic failure still tolerated?

In the early sixteenth century, William Harvey challenged the medical profession to take a more objective, more observation-driven approach to the understanding of the circulation of blood. At the time, medical thinking was largely based on the beliefs of Galen of Pergamon, who had set these out in the second century. Harvey challenged a medical mindset that hadn’t changed in one and a half millennia. And he encouraged his peers to embrace advances in science that allowed new forms of investigation.

We can see a similar state of affairs in the prevalence of, and institutional inertia around, twentieth century planning. Based on belief, not observation-based science, a doctrinal approach to urban planning and design pervades the professions. This is the case, whether the specific approach is Modernism, the Garden City movement or (and especially) Landscape Urbanism. Each is to some degree unscientific.

These approaches propose different kinds of urban outcomes but what unites them is a belief that the future should look fundamentally different to the form of continuously connected, dense and mixed-use urbanism found in cities for as long as there have been cities – the kind of urbanism that architects and town planners visit on their holidays.

The kind of urbanism – and here’s the irony – that Galen would have recognised. If only architecture and town planning were stuck in a fifteen hundred-year-old mindset. We would still have vehicles on the road but we wouldn’t have vehicle dominance. We wouldn’t have land use zoning that generates long-distance commuting, traffic congestion and negative health impacts. We wouldn’t be encroaching on the rural landscape with semi-detached, density-fearing dwellings.

Fundamental change in our professions is needed and science has an important part to play. In the spirit of Harvey’s observation-based approach, we need to embrace the new capabilities offered by sensing, analytics and modelling. We need to understand how cities truly work before we then form ideas about how to change them. We must move beyond the beliefs of twentieth century practice. The evidence is there to demonstrate that practice based on belief hasn’t delivered great places with the consistency required either by the investors in them or the users of them.

We can learn from Harvey, even if our end goal is the urbanism of Galen.

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