The Slowdown brings the return of the ABC-City, neighbourhood markets, crowds in the city, and greenness on the edge of town
Some decades after the garden city movement in Sweden, the influential Sven Markelius, Chief City Planner of Stockholm during the 1950s, promoted the ABC City (ABC-stad) concept — ABC, derived from Arbete (work), Bostäder (housing) and Centre (a commercial and cultural centre) — a suburb that acted almost like a city, aligned along subway lines, as with Van Eyck’s playgrounds, like pearls threaded on a string. It would have enough heft and presence for amenity and diversity, yet could be small enough for meaningful interaction and community.
“The ABC towns had to be big enough to function (somewhat) independently from the city centre of Stockholm, but still a maximum of 45 minutes by underground or train from the city centre. They were to be constructed as separate neighbourhood units, big enough to support some services and a school, but small enough to promote a democratic community and social interaction among the citizens.”—‘Sweden: The Life and Death and Life of Great Neighbourhood Centres’, Louise Nyström and Mats Johan Lundström, Built Environment Vol.32, №1
Vällingby in Stockholm was perhaps the most famous example of the concept, but also famous for its ideals not being realised. Alongside some planning errors typical of its day, the lure of the ‘real’ city centre in Stockholm remained too strong, and these ABC suburbs became dormitories: all ‘B’, with no ‘A’ and a sorry ‘C’. Housing over work and play. Or the workers in Vällingby lived elsewhere. (The ambition was for roughly 50% of the local workers to live in the same area, yet, “In 1965 there were about 14,000 people working in Greater Vällingby, although less than a thousand of them lived in the area.”—Nyström and Lundström, ibid.)
Now, however, does the Slowdown make this idea viable? We are currently prototyping ABC suburbs en masse once again, albeit accidentally, and for all the wrong reasons, admittedly, but now perhaps with the right technology and culture onboard? How will the experience of the lockdown shape how people feel about the city centre, and their own neighbourhood? It’s unlikely that city centres fully devalue, but perhaps a better balance can be struck now, a middle way. Will the ABC-Stad work better under Slowdown conditions than it did in the heyday of what Dorling calls the Great Acceleration?
Contrary to some positions already emerging from the pandemic, this ‘new-ABC’ approach to prioritising the openness of the city means the very opposite of the centralised, privatised, enclosed places that much urban planning and development have allowed to slip by, or been a willing handmaiden for, over the last couple of decades.
As in many other areas, the virus is revealing that these vast malls, skyscraper clusters, and big-box retail parks are not resilient structures. Right now, these structures stand as inadvertent question marks over the wisdom of enclosing large numbers of people in a sealed air-conditioned environment (crowds on an open, porous network of streets are intrinsically safer.) The virus horribly exposes ‘places’ like this — and thus they are emptied fairly quickly, largely valueless, a stranded asset to the tune of billions in the case of places like Hudson Yards and Kings Cross. The virus effortlessly upstages the tawdry look-at-me glamour of these such developments, which were easy to criticise before the virus; now we can’t even be bothered. As vehicles for capital rather than generators of city, they are so out-of-step with the times that they feel like the urban development equivalent of that sudden jarring sensation you feel upon hearing a pre-January mattress advert playing in a post-February podcast.
The patterns of these emperor’s new clothes places is one of bull-headed scale and controlled concentration, built around one or two functions and with limited adaptability, rendering them less diverse, less adaptable, less resilient. More is less. This pattern is found not only in the attempts at central business districts but also in the gated malls and neutered, hardscape retail parks in the peri-urban spaces hugged by motorways on the edge of the city.
A city dominated by spaces of consumption moves production like industry and agriculture out of sight and out of mind, evading their presence, leaving a feeling of phantom limbs (“There used to be something here, what was it?”). In conveniently zoning industry away, the city ensures that its exhaust is not included in the city’s reported carbon emissions, whilst remaining utterly reliant upon its production. Food is even more displaced, shunted into industrialised agriculture in the form of increasingly vast farms monopolising the landscape with monoculture-based automated farming, leading to soil degradation, water pollution and biodiversity loss, whilst shipping its low-nutrient homogenised product into the city centres in big trucks along large arterial roads before much of it is ultimately wasted. Efficient, in an industrial sense, but really, really dumb.
New types, forms and materials for architecture may emerge due to Covid-19,just as modern buildings responded directly to tuberculosis, but perhaps the impact will be greater for the pattern of strategic planning, accelerated by the virus exposing our lack of resilience. For instance, those big-box retail parks mentioned above — the natural habitat of Ikea, B&Q, and Walmart — are easy to imagine repurposed. They would work perfectly as spaces for peri-urban agriculture, growing food via permaculture, close to towns and cities and so minimising logistics such that it can be carried out on active transport, with other local hub applications, like battery swaps for electric trucks and drones powered by large solar arrays and gravity batteries — fossil-free versions of the service station or truck stop — a community hub with co-working spaces, workshops, libraries, sports grounds, kindergartens for those areas that live nearby, of farmers’ markets that are actually close to the farms and farmers.
And as renewed green and blue spaces, they can handle flood mitigation, natural waste filtration, with potential to be massive carbon sinks and biodiversity generators, as well as food producers — just as I described the vast wetlands system does outside Kolkata, nature-based technologies and infrastructures, far out-performing any ‘contemporary’ technologies on virtually every metric.
As noted before, as we shift from Lockdown to Slowdown, we must not accidentally remove those elements of touch, close interaction and concentration of people that define our towns and cities, those collective works of art predicated on propinquity, diversity and, yes, crowds.
Crowds are fundamental to the human condition, whether in a sweaty nightclub, a swaying football terrace, a jostling food market, a singing protest march, or passeggiata through the piazza at spritz-o’clock. Baudelaire’s 1869 poem ‘Les Foules’ (‘Crowds’) takes on a poignant air presently, not least in his reference to masks:
“It is not given to every man to take a bath of multitude; enjoying a crowd is an art; and only he can relish a debauch of vitality at the expense of the human species, on whom, in his cradle, a fairy has bestowed the love of masks and masquerading, the hate of home, and the passion for roaming.
Multitude, solitude: identical terms, and interchangeable by the active and fertile poet. The man who is unable to people his solitude is equally unable to be alone in a bustling crowd.”
—Excerpt from ‘Crowds’, Charles Baudelaire (1869)
As Baudelaire suggests, this key counterpoint between solitude and multitude is the pendulum on which our individual and collective psychologies swing. As we are forced into forms of solitude, as odd as it will seem during a viral pandemic, we cannot lose that sense of the multitude. Markets, streets and schools, for instance, must still be defined by hustle and bustle, by the noise, the smells, and the throng.
We will be through the lockdown at some point, and be able to interact physically as we always have, more or less. But we will need to reorganise how many things happen—partly to rebalance our biodiversity and systems, to prevent the climate crisis and the creation of zoonotic diseases, and partly because the simplistic hyper-concentrations of space, technology and capital described above have proved unequal, unhealthy, and not resilient. Hence the exploration of different, and sometimes older, patterns here—the polka dot organisation is hardly new, after all—which shift peaks and concentrations of activity across multiple spaces and at different times.
Dutch practice Shift Architecture Urbanism’s short-term manoeuvre of redesigning a local food market for pandemic-times is based around the managed queuing more typical of an airport than Mercat Santa Caterina. It is sharply done, and entirely practical this week. Yet it might already not be necessary within a few months, except from time to time when the hammer has to break up the dance, and it will hopefully be completely unnecessary, several flattened curves and a vaccine later. I’m not underplaying the timeframe within which our lifestyles might be seriously affected by the virus—simply ensuring we see this tactical response as pragmatic temporarily but not desirable in the longer term.
Yet the really interesting aspect of their proposal is to break the monolithic central food market model into small pieces loosely joined—hyperlocal micromarkets—and distribute in the polka dot pattern resonant of Van Eyck’s playgrounds, or garden city neighbourhoods. This could absolutely be a long-term play, arguably many times better than current practice, and particularly attuned to the Slowdown conditions of increased local focus, reinforced by Covid-19 highlighting the folly of globalised supply chains and thus hyper-concentrated ‘efficient’ logistics and markets.
Again, this is a pattern which many of us have been pushing for years, which the coronavirus—talk about attention-seeking —suddenly puts front and centre. Their second diagrams, at the scale of the city, are a great example of seeing a curve beyond the curve. The first curve, flattening-the-infection, is short-term dehumanising (on purpose) social distancing. We want to be over that as soon as possible, keeping as many people alive as we can.
The second curve, however—their distributed network of hyperlocal micromarkets—is about tackling the climate crisis, health and wellbeing, social justice and equality, and enabling a slowdown economy with a greater sense of culture, identity and place. It is far more interesting. How do we excise the airport-style queuing as quickly as possible, yet retain the hyperlocal micromarkets polka dot distribution? The co-benefits generated by the latter are profound, given Slowdown taking the heat out of globalised, high growth-based economies.
These different distributions of space and function allow for a far richer, more textured tapestry to emerge, which could not only shake our existing blunt economic logic but also our existing, myopically human-centred understanding of technology and design. As Timothy Morton writes, this shift is akin to us realising that it is “not about being ecological, it’s about understanding that we are ecological.” (This reminds me how the complaint “I’m stuck in traffic” should recognise “I am the traffic.”)
(In this earlier Slowdown Paper I point to the work of Anab Jain and Anne Galloway, as well as Watson, but on this theme see also this excellent article by landscape architect Claire Martin, of Australian practice Oculus: ‘Trans-species health: An aesthetic responsibility’.)
To address viruses like Covid-19, as well as its parent the climate crisis, we will need to restore and regenerate biodiversity at scale, in all its forms, locally and globally, and thus reorient urban planning and design too. We need to rethink our relationship here, based on a form of ‘nature-based design’ rather than human-centred.
“The more I think about it, the more I think it is a very dangerous position that we have taken in the west — that we are a special creation and that we don’t have the same connections with nature as everyone else.” — Frans de Waal
Understanding non-human natures might be will feel confronting to many: but consider them as artificial intelligence or nature-based technologies or simply flora and fauna; either way, we are among them, but not above them. This repositioning will not be easy, given the broader context that design sits within, with legacies stretching back centuries. Let me put it this way: usually, trees do not get to vote in local elections.
Yet as noted above, this focus on restorative biodiversity would not only make it easier for us to repel viruses — note how people that live in places with air pollution are less likely to be able to resist COVID-19 — but a rebalanced relationship also cuts off the production line of such zoonotic diseases in the first place.
Shift’s proposal for food markets distributed throughout the city is emblematic of a different type of urban intervention: smaller, lighter, open, and porous, easier to thread into biodiversity-rich neighbourhoods. Of course, this is a pattern that cities used to work with; it may be useful and insightful ‘folk memories’ of this emerge through participative design practices. Such micromarkets would be connected to these larger, mixed-use interfaces on the edge of the city, greener and softer than the currently grey and hardscape big-box retail spaces that currently define these peri-urban zones, This unlocks an entirely different urban landscape. Slow, active transport (and equivalent, including data-driven coordination) can handle mobility needs over these shorter distances, which also makes more room for biodiversity. Such moves would sit well within reinvented ABC Cities.
A polka dot pattern seems less efficient, and in a sense it is, but in the best sense: both urban history and contemporary tech suggests it is effective and resilient, and the qualities of its presence in the city mean that it not only distributes well into neighbourhoods, but makes space, and higher environmental quality, for other ecosystems.
The way we distribute ourself over the landscape, and then the way we live within it, directly affects how we cope with this virus, how we minimise how we address the climate crisis. One of our great recent losses, Michael Sorkin, once wrote:
“All architecture distributes: mass, space, materials, privilege, access, meaning, shelter, rights …” —Michael Sorkin
Subtly new patterns of distribution will be key to a more fundamental transition. The ‘home-work’ experiment, for some at least, suggests different ways of drawing these patterns, as does necessary innovation in food systems, mobility and other infrastructures. The virus puts all this on the table, and with the stakes so high, we will need to rethink decision-making, including design and architecture, in fundamentally different ways.
The coronavirus, and the climate crisis pulling the strings behind it, is sending us repeated messages now.
In the next paper, the Saarinen Principle moves us up a notch to the scale of the countryside, region, country and beyond …
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, crowds in the city, 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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