Monday, March 9, 2009

Of Uncertainty in Urban Planning

I've been carrying around this pamphlet since a lecture by Thomas Sieverts at the University of Oregon last fall. Last night after dumping my bag of it's acquired detritus, I had a chance to re-read this short essay entitled 'Of Uncertainty in Urban Planning', which furthers the dialogue in Sieverts work related to: "...the Zwischenstadt, or "in-between city", as it exists between old historical city centres and open countrysides, between place as a living space and the non-places of movement, between small local economic cycles and the dependency on the world market." (via Wikipedia)

These very landscape urbanist ideas of participation and formal evolution in the planning of our cities is the topic of the essay, folded into the idea of the in-between city, and the idea of uncertainty as a benefit, not a drawback to our methods of urbanization.

The essay is a concise exploration of the idea that we perhaps cannot know everything that is necessary for making appropriate urban decisions. While there is a need for a deterministic 'deductive' approach that synthesizes research into decision-making, the innate complexity of urban systems makes it impossible to predict even a fraction of the cause-and-effect relationships at play. Thus uncertainty must be embraced in this new methodology, and research used to limit the breadth of this and focus it in meaningful directions.

This ideology is derived from Sieverts work with SKAT Arkitekten, particulary in the work in the Emscher Park International Building Exhibition, which aimed to rehabilitate the industrial pollution in the entire river valley. Similarly to the notable Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord by Peter Latz, a project by SKAT, the Westpark Bochum, which needed to manuever through the uncertainty of existing structures, polluted soils, and the cultural baggage of a lost industrial base.

:: Westpark Bochum - images via SKAT

As Sieverts explains in the pamphlet (p.4): "...there is no particular demand for many recently abandoned areas, and it remains questionable whether there will ever be such a demand. Here, in practice, limits to planning's functional deduction and reasoning become clear. In these situations of uncertainty, a creative approach to insoluable contradictions is called for. The development of the abandoned area is uncertain, but prospects for dealing with it are required, just as if there really were a purpose for the area."

While globalization often begs for the mutable, there is still a necessary connection to place - making landscape a very vital player in the field of uncertainty. Sieverts discusses the concept in two different student approaches (p.5-6)

1. "Design that uses image-frameworks and image-cores, complicated by open fields of development: Here, limits are set on uncertainty by using classic design methods of urban planning. Networks of open space are connected with 'oases' of stable design-cores - together, the two form open fields of development."

2. "Design in the dimensions of nature and time: With this design approach, new experiences that are familiar only to this generation of students come into play. The students are familiar with technologically formed industrial and military wastelands that nature has reclaimed. It is not clear whether one should consider these abandoned areas natural or artificial; they stimulate designers to conceive of new building structures that are at once rich biotopes and also frameworks for human cultural functions. These spaces encourage the design of their possible transformation over time - transformation simulations that can be played out in a wide range of visual alternatives on computers."

This idea is the core of traditional planning and landscape urbanism, which looks for new patterns in the use and reuse of urban places. While knowing the variables and planning for scenarios is the status quo, embracing uncertainty as a challenge that can be formative allows for a range of 'solutions' that are not static by iterative. The addition of new technologies allows for representation and analysis of opportunities that can exist within these fields.

Sieverts alludes to the courage it takes to achieve partial or fractional realization of designs, what he terms 'beginner totalities', which are the material for more complex design. The use of images acting as placeholders for activity allows for not just a visual solution, but one that includes time, action, and uncertainty. While this gets at some of the discussions of (mis)representation that exist in design and planning, with beautiful imagery hiding the lack of design quality - there is a fine line between the emphemerally representational and the blatantly manipulative. Often we don't delve into this level of interpretation, just reacting to the ahhh factor, while being constantly disappointed with the results - as they are still based on a static premise.

Building on the LU concept of field, Sieverts discusses the images as 'stages' which can allow viewers to occupy and inhabitat (as well as change and evolve) spaces within design structures. While the use of 3D imagery, rendering, fly-throughs and other filmic mechanisms provide some more of this life - these are still manipulative, as there is a lack of control. The proper imagery is not derivative or directional, but offers a sketch framework where viewers can fill in a range of potential realities. There are very few examples of this successfully incorporated into representation, as most rely on the illusory strategies that have occupied designers for millenia.

:: Westpark Bochum - images via SKAT

Another aspect of the essay is the articulation of ecological analogs such as 'networks', 'nodes', 'cores' and 'fields' which are tied to landscape systems - but often applied (with varying success) to urban social and political systems. Rather than abstractions, these can be place-specific and non-hierarchical, allowing for mutability as well as application to topography. These can be adapted to logical systems that would be useful to users of urban areas - such as nodes acting as logical 'interchange points' such as traffic signals. It is useful, but also a trap to include and communicate a form of reality that is a little too real, such as traffic networks.

The real meat falls not in the specifics, but in the peripheries, such as the 'open, transitory urban fields' (p.10) which provide the connective tissue which provides the areas for action. This is doubly-relevant in neglected industrial landscapes that are overgrown and 'reclaimed' by nature - blurring the line between the former nodes and cores and the interstitional space (or as I like to say, the fuzzy line between landscape and urbanism).

Sieverts concludes (p.11): "Such experiences lead to experiments in creating built areas that are at the same time valuable biotopes, in which the landscape is built and what is built has landscape qualities - in a continuum from technically controlled natural areas to areas 'freely' abandoned to nature. The old opposition between technology and nature is 'sublated' in a third thing that has qualities of both."

The final concept that is discussed is temporality and the linking of deterioration of things, and the evolution of landscapes into natural cycles. This starts to directly confront our ideas of culture and nature - challenging a long-held "...opposition between building and nature." (p.11) While this openness is of value, there is also the need to maintain a potentially artful and ordered side - allowing not just for evolutionary ecologies but also formal design strategies and patterned systems - as Sieverts mentions, the "lawlike". (p.12)

:: Westpark Bochum - images via SKAT

This brief inquiry into that which cannot be known offers good fuel for a theoretical framework of landscape urbanism that uses the existing rational frameworks of deterministic planning, but also provides opportunities to expand these into the 'political' - which is a scary, yet potentially liberating opportunity to expand our potential for urbanity.

This 'book' is not readily available (but potentially available in compilation), and made the lecture somewhat more special due to the added value - particularly the sort of Portland DIY publishing by the back room - which a simple format and graphic layout that makes for a very accessible (and obviously portable) read.


  1. Perfect timing posting this for me - I'm dealing with some of these issues on a design competition. I don't suppose you would scan and share the pamphlet?

  2. yes please, would love to read the full essay. sounds like it articulates a lot of important ideas.

  3. please check the back room link and see if they may have some copies available... I'm kind of hesitant to scan it due to some recent idiocy related to copyright and fair use zealots - but if you can't get one through fair means give me a shout via direct email and I can see about a digital copy.

  4. Good time to refresh oneself with this issues. UO Arch is bringing Sieverts back this summer to do a theory seminar and a studio focusing on the zwishchenstadt:

    "Summer Studio Arch 484/584 The summer studio will focus on proj-
    ects in the ‘Zwischenstadt,’ fringe city or marginal zones of the
    city. These may include projects around transit stations, or projects
    such as refugee camps or transitional farm worker housing, and
    still other new projects that can be found and invented in this new
    city, such as projects of infrastructure including water treatment
    facilities and recycling facilities as well as projects along the Tigard
    Highway W99 corridor. (Instructor: Hajo Neis)

    I know I'm looking forward to wandering about the fringe parts of Portland in search of potential interventions, social slippage, and reclaimed orphan spaces.


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