City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

The Adaptive City

Written in


A deliberately optimistic view from 2007, on how to work with contemporary techn and the city

Ed. This was first published in 2007, and of its time in terms of its references and language.

In mid-2008, Scott Burnham kindly asked me to contribute to the exhibition catalogue for Urban Play, a project he conceived and then developed with Droog Design. It was sponsored by the City of Amsterdam and premiered there in September 2008. In Scott’s words, “Urban Play is about placing the individual at the heart of the city’s development and encouraging creative interaction between the individual and the physical city”. You can also find out more at the Experimenta site.

Scott asked me to write something about ‘the adaptive city’, noting some of my previous entries, such as ‘Punching holes in Ciutat Vella; adaptive urban form in Barcelona’ and ‘Architecture and interaction design, via adaption and hackability’. That was pretty much it by way of direction, so I had some free rein to take those thoughts for a walk, and introduce them to some more recent ideas around urban informatics and urban information design, the impact of real-time data and collaborative planning on urban form, and so on. Many thanks to Scott for his considerable patience, and for asking me to contribute in the first place. It’s a relatively speculative, deliberately optimistic piece, continuing some ideas from ‘The Street as Platform’. Hope you find it interesting.

The Adaptive City

City, heal thyself.

The scale of cities is limited by the technology of the age. With a pre-industrial city, scale was defined by how far and how effectively water could be transported, or the range of goods and services delivered on foot or via animals.

The cities of the industrial revolution transformed by rapidly building ways of distributing water and other basic amenities over a larger scale, shock cities emerging from an engine of mechanisation. Water, waste and energy were shifted over far greater distances through the construction of gigantic sewers, water supplies, gas and electricity networks and ultimately mechanised transportation. These cities had developed a kind of artificial metabolic system, enabling growth throughout the 20th century.

Eventually they reached urbanism’s psychological limits in the form of sprawling suburbs. At this point scale had outgrown the post-industrial city’s ability to react and respond to change. Cities become gridlocked, congested, with under-supply of affordable housing and over-supply of unaffordable housing, doughnut effects of depressed inner-urban cores, then inverse doughnuts of an emptying outer suburbia as oil prices start to suppress mechanised movement. City governance no longer fits this urban form. Stretched taut to breaking point, the city’s fabric snaps in numerous places. It’s too big, too fragmented, too complex.

These cities have become essentially inhuman, increasingly manifestations of the over-extended artificial metabolism rather than the citizen. Constructed at the scale of cars and other material resources rather than people. The most important markets now are financial, informational rather than physical, and thus do not provide firm enough bindings to fuse communities to place.

There is much wringing of hands all round, at least within the professions concerned with the city. Meanwhile the new shock cities of the so-called emerging economies career down the same cul-de-sacs at breakneck speed.

Elsewhere, the enormous and chaotic urban systems of the global south appear to provide an alternative model to an academic mind, but there appears to be little that individual agency there can do to construct a collective sense of urban progress. These cities are highly strung in a series of tensions arising from an wildly uneven topography of development, leapfrog technologies like mobile phones and WiMAX co-existing with barter economies and shanty towns.

Rewinding through the development of urban form, we find the remnants of cities constructed before the artificial metabolism, tucked away in the ancient centres. The old hutongs of Beijing formed a kind of continuous skin over the lived city, enabling a co-operative, dense habitat for centuries until their recent ongoing destruction. The blocks, alleys and courtyards of Barcelona’s Ciutat Vella are so conjoined as to create a hermetically sealed membrane. The Walled City of Kowloon in Hong Kong could accommodate near infinite variation, adaptation and internal growth, as if New Babylon, despite its anarchic and essentially intolerable conditions. The old city of Tokyo before The Fire was made of light wood and paper, such that an earthquake could only rearrange the pieces with minimal damage to their inhabitants, with simple reconstruction occurring as soon as the roofs stopped falling. Even in intrinsically modern New World cities like Brisbane, the ‘timber and tin’ Queenslander house, mutations of South Pacific vernacular architecture and colonial exports, are systems that are lived in, operated, maintained and adapted by their inhabitants, ultimately binding citizen and built fabric into a intimate relationship.

These urban forms appear ancient but are actually ageless, their fabric woven so tightly as to heal over self-imposed wounds effortlessly, shifting shape to enable change. Punctures in the fabric would be quickly sealed, and generally by the citizens themselves. Ciutat Vella will witness a block removed daily, as if a loose tooth, only to be filled again within days. The built fabric in this part of Barcelona is more like a continuous textured skin rather than discrete streets, blocks or roads. Urban life is constructed through shared density, diversity and the physicality of public space, enabling quotidian chance interaction with strangers, with change.

Yet though they comprise a supremely adaptive system, these city forms could also be stifling havens of poverty, rife with disease, malnutrition and limits on the possibility of the wider city. The mechanised creation of the Eixample to the north of Ciutat Vella enabled the city to draw breath and develop, with its own admirable model of adaptive architecture.

Yet the urban form benefited from a reflexive, responsive urban system nonetheless, a kind of everyday architecture and shared social framework that comprised a direct relationship between the action of the citizen and the city, a sinuous nervous system in which urban form and collective governance, of a sort, fluttered in response to the patterns of behaviour on the streets in real-time.

Fast forward, and some have written of the this century’s cities developing new artificial nervous systems, to supersede those articulated metabolic systems of the 19th century. These newer nervous systems, not centralised but distributed, and predicated on digital networks of networks in which every object is informational and every movement or behaviour is trackable, could combine to form a new kind of lattice-like informational membrane, hovering magically over the physical fabric of the city. As if one of Calvino’s imaginary cities comprised solely of information, a limitless multidimensional data-based shadow structure represents the life of the city in real-time.

Not all of the life, of course. There are limits to such models, as there are limits to the perceptive capabilities of sensors and of filters to interpret the data. Real life continues in parallel with the real-time city model. In an inversion of the body, where the human subconscious is capable of processing vast amounts of data not perceived by its conscious self, the real-time city model can only capture a tiny fraction of the information present within the city. So the city information model cannot approach the subconscious of the city, but can provide a facsimile of consciousness.

Facilitated by networks of sensors, the data emerging from the new nervous system appears limitless: near-imperceptible variations in air quality and water quality, innumerable patterns in public and private traffic, results of restaurant inspections, voting patterns in public referenda, triggers of motion sensors, the output of heating ventilation and air conditioning systems, patterns of water usage, levels of waste recycled, genres of books returned at local libraries, location of bicycles in the city’s bike-sharing network, fluctuations in retail stock controls systems, engine data from cars and aeroplanes, collective listening habits of music fans, presence of mobile phones in vehicles enabling floating car data, digital photos and videos locked to spatial co-ordinates, live feeds from CCTV cameras, quantities of solar power generated and used by networks of lamp-posts, structural engineering data from the building information models of newly constructed architecture, complex groupings of friends perceptible in social software multiplied by location-based services, and so on. Myriad flows of data move in and around the built fabric. As many or most objects in the city become potential nodes in a wider network, enabled through the natural interoperability of systems influenced by the Internet and its open-source philosophies and standards-based protocols, this shimmering informational field provides a view of the entire city.

The built fabric becomes less important than the behaviour of the city itself, and we finally have a sense of the latter. As Reyner Banham suggested all those years ago, services and infrastructure become far more relevant to the way the city feels.

However, these urban informatics do become manifest in the built fabric nonetheless; they have a potential physical presence, as the model is only partly concerned with drawing data from the city. It also feeds it back. Urban information design emerges in a call-and-response relationship with informatics, filtering and describing these patterns for the benefit of citizens and machines.

The invisible becomes visible, as the impact of people on their urban environment can be understood in real-time. Citizens turn off taps earlier, watching their water use patterns improve immediately. Buildings can share resources across differing peaks in their energy and resource loading. Road systems can funnel traffic via speed limits and traffic signals in order to route around congestion. Citizens take public transport rather than private where possible, as the real-time road pricing makes the true cost of private car usage quite evident. The presence of mates in a bar nearby alerts others to their proximity, irrespective of traditional spatial boundaries. Citizens can not only explore proposed designs for their environment, but now have a shared platform for proposing their own. They can plug in their own data sources, effectively hacking the model by augmenting or processing the feeds they’re concerned with.

If a group of interested parents suspect that a small playground added to the corner of their block might improve the health of their kids, with knock-ons for nearby educational facilities, cafés and the natural safety of a more active street, they can wrangle these previously indiscernible causal relationships into a prototype and test their new designs, garnering the requisite public engagement along the way.

Everyday design could become a conversation within social software networks, and citizens have data and tools that urban designers can only dream of. In fact, professional urban designers have this data too, and thus their practice is transformed.

The model is already being built. With only the simple visualisation of data scraped from the management systems of bike-sharing networks Vélib’ and Bicing we can already see the pulse of the city, Barcelona’s bikes heading to the beach into the sun, whereas their Parisian counterparts saunter from the Périphérique inwards to the centre, mirroring the city’s intrinsic wider rhythms of work and play. Systems deliver immediate information on air quality to mobile phones when texted a zip code. The smokestack of a power station in Helsinki is illuminated with high powered laser to provide feedback on output to the surrounding neighbourhood, who alter their patterns of electricity use in response. Collaborative mapping projects feed voraciously from every aspect of published public data about a neighbourhood, and create maps of crimes, film locations, lost and found postings, and building permits, creating a new hybrid of journalism. Bicycle networks are built along the routes that people have already indicated they take, plotting their journeys on shared maps.

With a wider set of data, fed back in imaginative, multi-sensory and distributed fashion, what stories of the city might emerge and how might they affect the way the city sees itself and thus behaves? And how might citizens use this data, how might they add their own feeds, weave together their own filtered aggregations of everyday data? Could it provide a platform through which citizens learn about the city, and are then able to better build the city?

If so, the city becomes shaped by side-effects. Each action produces a torrent of metadata describing that action, which can be aggregated and combined with other data in order to provide rich representations of city life. The individual informs the model, and thus development, through their behaviour. Paths through parks emerge where people walk, rather than the other way round. This is subconscious collective adaptation.

Yet there is possibility for more active conscious interventions too. To enable this, the informational city must be reconfigured with a series of seams, hooks, handles and portals. In the language of code, the city itself has APIs, through which information can be read and written, enabling a self-reflexivity that in turn enables the city to adapt, just as those early cities were able to through physical proximity. A panoply of varying smart meters, sensors, and schema are required to feed data to the model, and so the only possible technical architecture is an open one. This openness also provides safeguards against misuse, opportunities for creative hacking and enables a vast set of possible outputs. As openness informs the model, with more data-sources providing a richer model, the aggregate is open too, a web service that citizens can immerse themselves in just as much as city officials and planners. The model is something everyone can touch, as it is comprised of everyone. It encourages interaction, reflexivity and adaptation.

And this is not a sawn-off SimCity. This is not a simple series of parameters unfolding with algorithmic predictability. This complex lattice allows for unforeseen events, mashes together previously disparate data-sets with abandon. The influence of contemporary informational thinking means the data is captured, stored forever, easily addressable and processed continually without a particular end-point or raison d’être in mind. Instead the data is allowed to play out its own rhythms and textures. To see what arises.

However, despite its detail, the important aspect of the model is not the model itself, but how its presence affects governance, the city, and the way people feel about their city. This platform only comprises a subset of the city’s actual behaviour, in which individual and collective unpredictability — the stuff of distinctive cities — cannot be absorbed in real-time. Yet it provides the nearest approximation to the real-time city, behaving more like contemporary web service than traditional urban governance and moving closer to the older nervous system shared by the ancient city limited by scale and physicality. This new, distributed nervous system flexes over far larger urban forms. Governance becomes more akin to gardening, tending a system by homeostatic nudges, responding to the everyday patterns of movement in the city yet also able to look back over a vast terrain of data to find deeper meaning.

Urban planning is a history of metrics, measures and commentary. This is a new systemic, service-based approach, balanced between the cold, hard averaging of statistical analysis and the hawk-eyed urban observations of William H. Whyte and Jane Jacobs. It takes an informational viewpoint that says: “draw data from everything it can”. No matter how banal or inconsequential the data seems, the model remains open to its potential. It can give us historical patterns and real-time interrupts, live from the street.

For citizens, the model provides an interface onto the same processes, the same city. It gives them a user interface for governance, in which they play an intrinsic role. Holes in, say, the service of the bike-sharing networks are visible to all, over data feeds and multiple diverse platforms, and a delayed letter from the government department responsible, promising a subsequent investigation, is no longer going to be seen as an appropriate response. Where professional design interventions are not required, the city designs itself. With the model as common platform, there is sufficient data to indicate the likely impact of improvements, experiments, and adaptations to the city. A new mode of civic engagement emerges.

Urban design takes place in a shared space, and so evokes a tacit recognition that design is an ongoing social process. Thus, design and governance must be adaptive and continuous, fluctuating in response to use. Where urban design was oriented towards the macro, individual micro responses were often only resistant, subversive hacks — in some cases inspired, in others inspiring, but more about checking unwelcome development than co-creation. Yet this new shared space for urban design is neither macro nor micro; it’s somewhere in-between.

To be a shared space, its seams are clear, providing affordances for interaction and contribution. Certain basic rules about privacy, security and graceful recognition of people’s right to their personal data are intrinsic to the system being trusted. The clumsy surveillance culture of CCTV and speed cameras is seen as ludicrous and long-forgotten. The eyes of the street itself — now enhanced by the data of the street — ensure safety and responsible behaviour, within constraints set by the neighbourhood.

Despite the promise, these technologies are beset with potential flaws. Or rather, there is immense potential for the culture around being unable to adapt accordingly. Will architecture, property development and urban governance be able to deal with a system which indicates the pace the city is actually lived at, which indicates how designs are actually used and abused, which requires an ambient ongoing service design model? Can the capital costs be spread over the life span of urban fabric, rather than delivered up-front? Can the power relationships implicit in a top-down governance system be reconfigured into this shared space? Can such a technology ever be designed appropriately, in order to avoid misuse, privacy and security issues, or just poor user experience design? Might a simulation simply distract from physical reality, rather than enhance it?

Sadly, the history of technology and the city is not actually one of smooth implementation, shared standards, and open access. It progresses awkwardly, in fits and starts, rather than smoothly and equitably. Yet the history of urban development itself is also awkward. Nonetheless, here is the hint of a promise that a city could heal itself, as if the adaptive membrane of earlier cities is present at the scale of later cities.

As Jamie Lerner has said “If you can design the city, you understand the city, you respect the city.” The new technologies of urban informatics and city information modelling enable citizens to reflect on their city, engage in the design, adapt their behaviour and the city around them. It could well lead to a new understanding and a new respect, and so to a new city.

This piece was originally published 7 September 2008 at


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