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

Afternoon walk, Stockholm 16 April 2020

Circling around our homes and their environs due to coronavirus-induced loops, how do the patterns, edges, and dynamics of neighbourhoods change in the Slowdown? Aldo Van Eyck’s Amsterdam playgrounds as a polka dot pattern of distribution.

So, recalling Saarinen, if we manage to carve out productive and appealing workspaces from within our homes, what of our neighbourhoods once we recognise the Slowdown beyond the Pause, the curves beyond the curve?

One salient feature of the corona lockdown, at least for those with the agency and time sovereignty to get out, is the (re)discovery of the environment around us. A day spent indoors gives us a strong desire for the immediate outdoors. Although we are in lockdown, we can’t be contained.

We drift out into the neighbourhood daily, keeping our distance from people for now — though absent-mindedly counting down the number of days before that first hug, kiss, or shake of hands may become possible — but we are strolling through the park, tramping through local forests, or even just copses and verges and patches of grass, wandering through half-empty playgrounds, listening to birdsong (which returns in inverse proportion to diminished traffic noise.)

We absolutely did not do this every day before the virus, and combined with reduced traffic leaving it clearer, quieter, and greener, we get as close as one can to admitting a feeling of joy, at least given the circumstances of a pandemic.

Or rather than ‘joy’, subjective wellbeing at least. Part of this is the gently creeping environmental restoration; but part of this is simply being at home for work, being around family, and not having to commute into the city centre. Recall Daniel Kahneman and Alan Krueger’s famous 2006 study, when they asked 900 Texan women to rate their enjoyment of ordinary activities: the charming euphemism “intimate relations” ranked first, and commuting a sorry last, with morning commutes “particularly unpleasant”. The time and money saved (given the enormity of car-related debt and expense) by not commuting regularly would only multiply the wellbeing gains. And anything that undercuts commuting — especially Texan-style, by car — also undercuts a culture of inequality, ill-health, and environmental degradation.

Table from ‘Developments in the Measurement of Subjective Well-Being’, Daniel Kahneman and Alan B. Krueger, in ‘Journal of Economic Perspectives’, Volume 20, Number 1, Winter 2006

So what if we never simply return to city centres en masse? Of course, most will. But what if many get used to working from home? What if our workdays inhabit a richer diversity of spaces and times? What if, after the virus, some people decide to stay at home completely, or supplement their home-work space with their local co-working space, library, or café? Or what if we continue to work from home for only one or two days per week? Or, what if those that can simply switch to a more productive four-day week? What if our kids are also learning from home on these days, or for perhaps one day per week?

Adapting the ‘curves beyond the curves’ diagram to indicate the shift to more-balanced distribution of work.

Either way, a shift to being at and around the home almost half of the week, en masse, not only saves tonnes of carbon and other pollution, reducing congestion on public transport, creates space for increased biodiversity, shifts patterns of activity across the city — but it also destabilises much of the speculative commercial office market, and thus much of the model of the city centre itself.

For years, it’s been clear that the property development sector’s practices were largely wasteful. It creates large, often generic buildings at huge cost financially, and even greater cost environmentally, and yet most of a commercial building’s lifespan is not occupied at all. The premise that ‘the city centre is where work happens’ keeps the entire sector afloat. The Slowdown does not support that premise.

Excise much of those unnecessary buildings, and you also excise the need for a wide array of ‘bullshit jobs’ — that’s a technical term — as well as those who have to clean, secure, and otherwise serve these places (the people currently not allowed to enjoy ‘working from home’.) That displaced labour, or unemployment, would need fixing, but there are newly emerging possibilities there.

By removing the idea of the all-consuming city centre, we end up with numerous city centres, pinned on actual neighbourhoods. Known in the trade as a polynodal city, comprising many ‘nodes’ rather than one big one in the centre, the British architect Cedric Price once described this shift as moving from the ancient city’s boiled egg, protected by a shell of city walls, to the 17th-19th century city’s fried egg — both predicated on a clear ‘yolk’ in the middle — to the modern, or post-modern, ‘scrambled city’, a shapeless, albeit often tasty, mush, connected by the albumen of cars, a featureless morass of egg.

Cedric Price’s ‘city as an egg’ proposition, omitting the possibility of the omelette

Right now, we might think of a further iteration: the city as omelette, a simple dish with many variations, which can carry numerous different elements, each with different ingredients, each offering different focal points of taste, different local cultural influences, distributed concentrations of intense flavour in a sea of egg.

If we want to articulate Saarinen’s multiple scales, however, perhaps a better description might be a kind of ‘polka dot pattern’ spread across the city’s fabric, with multiple ‘mixed-use’ neighbourhoods full of people working, learning, playing and living. This breaks the model of the single large city centre, or ‘CBD’ in American or Australian parlance, which forces all transport into hub-and-spoke mode, connecting separated-out functions of commerce, industry, and dormitory suburbs for residential.

That’s the opposite of what’s happening now because of the coronavirus, with work and leisure carried out at neighbourhood level, and the city centre empty, and in question. A polka dot city describes this distributed pattern. (It has more in common with the Baran web network model underpinning the internet, named after Paul Baran’s redundancy-based plan, than the Legrand star, named after the 1842 French railway network design that converged all lines on Paris, as told in Steven Johnson’s ‘Future Perfect’).

City centre/CBD surrounded by a morass of featureless single-use, dormitory suburbs (above)
Or intensely connected and distributed ‘polka dot city’ of multiple mixed-use neighbourhoods (above)

Interestingly enough, given the context of the virus, this pattern can also be seen through a post-traumatic urbanism lens. The diverse repetition is not efficient — but it is far more effective, resilient via network redundancy, and provides far greater character through diversity. And besides when, outside of 1960s urban planning and pointless smart cities campaigns, were cities ever about efficiency?

In some respects, this polka dot city resurrects the original Garden City movement of a century ago, in itself a reaction to the Victorian-era viruses of the cramped central city. That was predicated on a hybrid of ‘town-country’, and can now be seen as a logical extension of the ‘home-work’ described above.

Original plan for “Enskede trädgårdsstad” (“Enskede Garden City”) by Per Olof Hallma, 1907

I’m typing this from Enskede, one of Stockholm’s garden city developments of that era, which is still a pleasing tangle of human-scale streets designed pre-car around active transport, fine if modest self-built homes, schools and cafés, and lush greenery everywhere. (Yet, before the likes of Ed Glaeser get their knickers in a twist, as we’ll see in a later paper the same polka dot patterns can apply to high-density Tokyo. This is not garden village—it need not be twee, if lovely, low-density places like Enskede, but can now easily work at medium-density scale. What it is probably not is centralised clusters of vast towers, which are banking their own issues in mental health and wellbeing, true carbon footprint, lack of resilience, and spatial and other inequality.)

Places like Enskede are not only ‘good in a pandemic’ — we hope — but better prepared for the next incarnation of the city: the return of super-local food production; of diverse varieties of live-work-play environments in biodiverse surroundings; of active transport (bikes, walking) and short-range slower public transport only 15 minutes from other city centres on the faster subway; of localised amenities like schools, shops, health centres, logistics hubs, co-working spaces … as noted previously, this is the 15-minute city model that Paris is pushing for (just as others, like Chengdu, did before that) — the virus shows us how close, or not, that we are to this.

The polka dot is a little reminiscent of the way that Patrick Abercrombie’s famous 1943 and 1944 plans for London were articulated and in particular the social and functional analysis maps.

This patterning actually necessitates a higher quality immediate environment, just as moving in slower modes of transport, post-car, requires a higher-resolution street environment. This is not the idea of a suburb as something that one drives through, parking as close to your living room as possible before retreating further inside. Instead, it means living in a town as we used to, office flipped inside out, such that the city is your office, and vice versa, and the way we move through it—walking, cycling, leisurely transit—both rewards and reinforces that slower, deeper engagement.

A more complex idea of architecture emerges, with variegated, malleable layers of interaction, of public-ness and privacy, as if the adaptable screens in vernacular Japanese architecture, and so akin to the architect Sou Fujimoto’s line of thought:

“Perhaps there is no differentiation between a house and the city, only the depth … I imagined that the city and the house are no different from one another in the essence, but are just different approaches to a continuum of a single subject, or different expressions of the same thing- an undulation of a primordial space where humans dwell.” — Sou Fujimoto

Again, this shifting to discrete elements, multiplied, distributed and localised, applies to other things, like schools, shops, health centres, and again, the original garden city-infused idea of suburbia, as a healthy, green and diversely patterned space, can be renewed. Watch the 1939 short movie ‘The City’, which is effectively a propaganda film for suburbs by Lewis Mumford, and note how they portray “city and school and land together”. These activities effortlessly shift through a series of super-local green environments hugging low-rise superblocks, designed largely before the car took over.

Greenbelt, Maryland, the American ‘garden city’ featured in ‘The City’ (1939) (via)

The car was such a successful insurgency movement against the original idea of suburbia that the two became synonymous. Yet the original suburbs, also produced in response to public health concerns, were designed at the scale of neighbourhoods with the active transport of walking and cycling getting you around, and fast public transport, like a subway, tram, train, or now rapid bus system, connecting the polka dots in the fabric. That pattern works for the logistics of things as much as people. It’s a Slowdown pattern of city-planning. It is not designed to produce carbon, waste, debt, and poor mental and physical health, as with the era of the car, but to produce culture, conviviality, creativity, and a longer-term, more careful, more resilient form of commerce.

A city centre/CBD model requires heavy or high-volume transport, all heading in similar directions at similar times at attempts at high speeds, often via congested, fragile arterial road systems (above)
Whereas Polka Dot City has the resilience of distributed nodes in Baran Web model, with key nodes connected by fast public transport networks and slower local connections in the gaps in between (above)

The scale of the neighbourhood works equally for other systems. Mobility companies don’t have to scale to be Uber. In fact, aspiring to be like the latter — ‘blitzscaling’ in the careless, crass vernacular of Silicon Valley — generally leads to appalling outcomes in every metric that counts.

Yet the simple act of sharing a ride, in what we can describe as a true ‘sharing economy’, is not problematic at all. An apartment block of 20 units with two or three shared cars and a couple of cargo bikes is a good thing. Given cars are parked 95% of the time, those few cars still give the inhabitants the flexibility they require. There’s certainly no need for 20 cars, and therefore no need to build a parking garage at all, which makes the building cheaper, or simply better. It reduces the total volume of vehicle in the world — and thus saves carbon, energy, space. The ‘service layer’ of sharing the cars is neighbour talking to neighbour, thus increasing social fabric in the block. (The economist Elinor Ostrom won her Nobel Prize for researching how humans have successfully managed such shared ‘common-pool’ resources for millennia.)

Even autonomous shuttles, those self-driving minibuses already trundling around some cities, can work perfectly well at the scale of the neighbourhood, community-owned micro-transit systems connecting elderly neighbours with subway stops, or helping you carry your shopping in the rain when you don’t want to, or can’t, bike. Again, it does not have to scale to become Uber. In fact, scaling would likely make all of these outcomes worse. As Leonard Koren wrote in an entirely different context:

“With increasing bigness, concern for the particular subtle needs of individuals diminishes as concern for the less subtle generic needs of ‘the masses’ increases.”—Leonard Koren, ‘Undesigning the Bath (1996)

Leave some systems at the scale of the neighbourhood, small pieces loosely-joined via public code. (These are lightweight, adaptive, and distributed ‘non-grid’ forms of infrastructure; my Arup team and I played these out in polka dot patterns for three major district plans for Amsterdam municipality, influenced by Aldo Van Eyck’s playgrounds—see below—but also by Nicholas de Monchaux’s uniquely brilliant ‘Local Code’, as I describe later.)

The immediate impact of mobility choices predicated on smaller scales over smaller distances is on the street. The street is the basic unit of city, but contrary to current orthodoxy, the street is not about traffic, nor does it have to be. We have only let it become this. The original streets, in the middle of the old European towns and cities we all go and visit on holiday, are not defined by traffic at all. They were for exchange, cultural or commercial or otherwise, and so defined around social spaces, the little knots of interaction that make up a genuine neighbourhood, that can actually speak to and articulate the local communities they sit within.

Under Slowdown, the most valuable elements of that older high street return, but reinvented as a 21st-century high street. The Slowdown street is not defined by parking and queues of traffic but instead by actual life — playgrounds, trees, theatre, making, markets, music, passeggiata.

This street has different forms of working spaces and studios, unlocked via digital services which ensure high utilisation whilst avoiding unnecessarily high buildings. This enables the kind of extended footprint of home-workplace described previously: your home as your city centre, but multiple workspaces around. With an emphasis on Slowdown, policies to encourage local and distinct independent retail, cultural venues, fabrication and production make much more sense, and can be threaded together by slower and quieter active transport logistics, yet with global presence digitally.

This street receives deliveries from elsewhere of course, but not at the current scale of Amazon dropping 1.5 million packages a day into Manhattan, which obliterates local environments and economies. A balance of local and global is struck by active policymaking, as well as infrastructure and service design, driven by Slowdown dynamics. This is another of our contemporary patterns accelerated by the coronavirus: under the lockdown, e-commerce will destroy even more physical retail, but only the undifferentiated, undistinguished retail will stay dead. (An earlier paper touched on some of the Streets projects already running in the ‘day job’, which covers all these aspects.)

For this street, we need to actively suppress the modes of transport that destroy these possibilities — just as we failed to do when we let cars reverse back and forth over our garden cities. We didn’t do much about that last time, despite some seeing it coming. Jun’ichirō Tanizaki wrote in 1933:

“There are those who say that when civilization progresses a bit further transportation facilities will move into the skies and under the ground, and that our streets will again be quiet, but I know perfectly well that when that day comes some new device for torturing the old will be invented.” — Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows (1933)

Now we are seeing streets largely without those ‘torture devices’, albeit briefly, it’s time to reconsider our sense of priorities.

The housing that sits on and around our streets need no longer be speculative, with the homogeneity that this produces. As Dorling describes the dynamics of Slowdown population growth — i.e. a lack of growth — he briefly notes that this undercuts the idea of increasing demand for housing. Thus it also pulls the rug out from under the idea of infinitely rising prices, of the home as a speculative asset. Demand may no longer outstrip supply, and so prices drop accordingly. In this soil, a diverse variety of housing types can flourish, including cooperative-led as well as private and social. All of this can more easily be set within a super-green and -blue, biodiverse, and productive public realm.

The hundreds of playgrounds that Aldo Van Eyck designed for post-war Amsterdam worked as a kind of post-traumatic urbanism, healing the scars of the Second World War, but they also exemplified this polka dot pattern of distributed accessibility, openness, and local public life. Humble but clever, adaptable and customisable, they were a kind of ‘small pieces loosely joined’ approach to distributed networked spaces, to borrow the language of early internet design philosophy.

Polka dot map of known locations of Van Eyck playgrounds in central Amsterdam (as at 16 April 2020), from the wonderful resource ‘Seventeen Playgrounds’. There were over 600 more than this built. Do endorse the work of ‘Seventeen Playgrounds’ in order to make the usually exemplary Dutch record-keeping locate them!

Commissioned by Gemeente Amsterdam’s Jakoba Mulder in the Public Works Department, over 700 playgrounds were realised between 1947 and 1978. Constructed in bomb sites originally, the web of small playgrounds helped stitch together communities and neighbourhoods. Most are now long-lost to subsequent urban development, but the research project Seventeen Playgrounds has faithfully documented over 40 of them.

Peter Smithson saw the Van Eyck’s playgrounds as “grains of sand, which, when introduced into an oyster (the city) caused irritation and thus gave rise to a pearl (renewal of urban life).” How much more generative, more equitable, more resilient, to have these strings of pearls, gifted to the city’s neighbourhoods, rather than simplistic monoliths in the centre. Ken Worpole described Van Eyck’s ‘ideal city’ as “a labyrinth of small, intimate territories, a random constellation of stars.”

Playground (via ‘Aldo van Eyck’s Playgrounds: Aesthetics, Affordances, and Creativity’, Rob Withagen and Simone R. Caljouw, Frontiers in Psychology, 04 July 2017)

These small playgrounds, inserted into pockets, are—one notch on the Saarinen scale down—the same polka dot pattern as the small terracotta pots of flowers crammed into every corner of a Japanese house’s façade, or—sliding one-notch up—the pocket squares that punctuate a city far more equitably than the great urban park, whose ne plus ultra is Central Park in New York, the very essence of a large centralised node, tending towards exclusivity rather than access. (See also some of the large 19th-century British parks, built at the time, appropriately perhaps, to function as “the lungs of the city”, as William Pitt dubbed them. Now we need a polka dot pattern of distributed ‘urban ventilators’, perhaps, rather than one single lung for everyone.)

For the same volume of park, the increased surface area of smaller spaces like pocket parks, piazzas, and Van Eyck’s playgrounds simply affords more access. Their pattern of distribution into neighbourhoods rather than city centres affords more equal access.

Amsterdam playgrounds designed by Aldo Van Eyck

Crucially, their design, from location to form, was a rejection of isolation, in terms of dealing with the trauma of the war. and the ‘hunger winter’ of 1944, when more than 20,000 Amsterdammers had died of starvation. In this, they provide a further message from the past to the present day.

The fact that the playgrounds were flowers sprouting directly in the ruins themselves was a clear signal of a defiant city, but equally, their unfenced openness was just as radical at a time when the car was taking over Amsterdam, just as it was in other cities. (Van Eyck’s programme started two decades before the kindermoord protests that helped transform the central city into what it is now).

A still-functioning Van Eyck playground, collated by Denisa Kollarová & Anna van Lingen for ‘Seventeen Playgrounds’ (via Future Architecture)

The car in the city, as I noted in earlier papers, is far more dangerous than the coronavirus. But Van Eyck’s solution was not to withdraw people in response but to spatially stake a claim for their position in public life in the city. We would do well to recognise this bravery in design and figure out what defiant markers of public life we can lay down, in response to this crisis.

As sociologist Richard Sennett notes, Van Eyck “designed a park using the simplest, clearest elements that invite its young users to develop the skill of anticipating danger and managing it; he did not seek to protect them through isolation.”

We cannot “protect through isolation” now, either.

In the next paper, the Saarinen Principle moves us up a notch to the scale of the neighbourhood, district, city and countryside …

Slowdown Papers

This is the second batch of Slowdown Papers, a series of observations, reflections, and ideas, emerging from my view of the early impact of the coronavirus Covid–19 pandemic in the first quarter of 2020. All Slowdown Paper are collected here.

13: From Lockdown to Slowdown

“Chair-room-house-environment-city plan”; how the coronavirus could change the strategy for our patterns of distribution of workplaces and work, from home to town to countryside to nation.

14: From Lockdown to Slowdown: Home-Work-Farm

As Covid-19’s Great Pause forces a blurring of home, work, office, classroom, studio, and shop, we get a glimpse of the patterns, spaces, and rhythms of a deeper slowdown.

15: From Lockdown to Slowdown: House-Playground-Street

Circling around our homes and their environs due to coronavirus-induced loops, how do the patterns, edges, and dynamics of neighbourhoods change in the Slowdown?

16: From Lockdown to Slowdown: Neighbourhood-City-Country

The Slowdown brings the return of the ABC-City, neighbourhood markets, and greenness on the edge of town.

17: From Lockdown to Slowdown: Region-Country-Continent

The changing dynamics of a deeper ‘slowdown’, hinted at by the coronavirus-induced ‘pause’, could change the distribution and dynamics of production and consumption across city, region, and nation, with outcomes not only for sustainability, resilience, and wellbeing but also politics.

18: From Lockdown to Slowdown: Tokyo as Slowdown City

Polka dot city Tokyo as an exemplar of ‘Slowdown’ theory, as the world’s largest and smallest city, and as a case study for others post-COVID.


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