Making and unmaking cities

Interview with Luis Feduchi by Patrizia Marin

Luis Feduchi, formerly professor of architectural design at the University of Queensland and faculty dean at the Universidad Camilo José Cela in Madrid, is researching links between the built environment and contemporary themes such as climate change and refugees. He spoke with Patrizia Marin about what a smart city might be.

Q: I recently read on an architecture blog that Madrid is about to be the smartest of all smart cities. You live there, what’s your verdict?

LF:  Madrid can be labelled smart in the sense of astute, maybe not intelligent. Astute is usually associated with an immediate reward: fun or profitability are high on Madrid´s radar, but we need to enforce a distinction between consumption – such as entertainment – and investment, including intangible investment in education or civic culture.. The possible meaning of “the smartest of all smart cities” worries me in this sense. Not so long ago (before the Olympics) Rio could have held that title. See where it is now.

Madrid now has a bicycle rental system. That’s certainly smart. But note they are electrical motorbikes, very attractive for a hilly city. That’s astute. On the other hand, letting anyone over the age of 14  participate in an unregulated motorized city-wide transport scheme could pose a number of future risks, led by safety concerns.

Q: You cited mobility in your first example. Why?

LF: Actually, I wish I hadn’t. Let me first dwell on “Smart”, a very smart word that is difficult to translate to Spanish.   I’m wary of using making an analogy between cities - quite artificial by nature - and living things. But given that self-described smart cities invariably make a claim to sustainability, consider this: smartphones and their apps are often marketed as potential tools to improve your health (nutrition, exercise, even health indicators). Yet we knew about all those health factors even without smartphones, which more commonly tend to reduce productivity, physical interaction and sleep, making them channels of ill health. I think we may not be far from the “demonization” of the smartphone on the scale of the campaign against tobacco. My point is that, just as one cannot rely on the smartphone to achieve a healthy life, we cannot aspire to a sustainable urban environment relying on smart city technologies. They can surely help, but they should never disguise that sustainability is a priority. A city like Dubai, no matter how well it performs in its smart city indicators, cannot be named smart while it relies on limited and unsustainable energy principles.

Q: Tell us about what principles you invoke in your professional work?

LF: I try to apply or at least invoke what I learn from observation, precedents, research or previous work. I distinguish between made, remade and unmade cities.

We have quite a few brand-new cities, such as Dubai and many more in the Middle East, in South Korea, etc. The idea is that on a tabula rasa you can show how smart we humans can be and, so goes the theory, avoid the mistakes that are the legacy of existing cities. Not long ago I was invited as a design consultant in China where the plan was to build many brand-new cities. To my astonishment what I observed is that the outcome is extraordinarily diverse – there was a complete renunciation of the notion of type. That’s not so different from the expansion of urban life in North America. But instead of following a method that can be checked, monitored and improved – which is why today we can refer to almost all north American cities as belonging to a certain pattern or type - what we see proliferating in China is an array of whimsical solutions responding to what appear and probably are arbitrary decisions. They don’t learn from each other.

I tend to be more interested in what exists, the subgroup I name ‘cities remade’. As an architect, I think a great effort in the coming years will have to be focused in that which we inherit, how to transform it, or reuse it.

Q: What about your third category?

“Cities unmade” are those undergoing transformations that are literally disfiguring them. I have lived and worked intensively in India, where once all cities were different, with site, culture and climate specifics, while now they are all going through the same process of peripheral growth and inner destruction. Ahmedabad, Kolkata or Madras are hugely different and yet today you see the same kind of development. Nothing defines them as Indian cities but we can surely say they belong to Urban India, emerging ahead of any ‘smart’ planning. Somehow we expect them to be ruled by smart indicators, albeit probably only after unsustainable damage has been inflicted to the water table, food production, soil pollution, etc. Short-term indicators such as traffic density are not on their own adequate. It’s like health:  access to a dialysis machine is important but preventive medicine is also important.

Q: With such environmental factors, scale is important. How do you see that – in other words, how big is a city really?

LF:  There is tremendous value in the work conducted on urban ecology. I will cite only one of the discipline’s founding fathers, Richard T. T. Forman, a professor at Harvard. He crafted his useful concept of urban region with the express intention of sizing and re-sizing cities to keep them in balance. The first and most evident dimension is that cities’ real space – their lebensraum, used in a technical rather than aspirational sense – is considerably larger than their urban real estate. If we’re serious about carbon neutrality, it’s bigger yet.

The expanded notion of region has large and largely still-to-be-mapped implications for territorial planning. And even politics: how does a megacity negotiate its needs and resources when they cannot be found on its own municipal, metropolitan or even national realm?

Forman deployed the image of a mosaic, the territory as seen from an airplane: Syncopated fields of green, water or built-up areas, articulated as patches and corridors over a matrix of land. Balancing their potential and limits would lead to ecological equilibrium and what today could definitely be called a smart city, perhaps even a brilliant one.

Q: Your city, Madrid, is recreating its relationship with its river.

LF: Madrid has always been a city without a river. Suddenly – I was not living there during the decade when this happened – there emerged Madrid Río, a chunk of the city along the Manzanares, a tiny rivulet.  This riverbed has been redeveloped mainly as a public and green infrastructure and given the suspicious brand name of Madrid-Rio. In fact there never was a river, and the commendable green spaces cover a vast highway infrastructure underneath.  There are people who consider that smart. I see it more as an act of “city unmaking” than one aimed remaking the city. Madrid Rio, no matter how much we might enjoy its praised surface outcome, puts a tremendous pressure on the whole. It is more like the grand projects taking place in booming cities like those in Central Asia, Latin America, Africa or India than to what happens in the European context. In fact there’s a project along Ahmedabad´s Sabarmati river waterfront in India. It transforms an area where the river floods annually but almost disappears in the dry season into a high-end real estate development. The benefits for the rest of the city and citizens may not add up to its negative impact. Cities handled with smarter, in the sense of more intelligent, ways of management, may not incur in these mammoth expenses of short sight benefit.

Q: You know Rome well. What would be a “smart’ thing to do there?

LF: There is an image of Rome by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an 18th century Italian printer and architectural designer, comprising not only ruins but also fragments, which - a bit like the mosaic of Forman - evokes the possibility of reinterpretation.  I did quite a bit of historical research into what were the abitato, the densely-inhabited quarters, the disabitato, such as parks and the cemetery, and also the campagna beyond the city limits. The better remedy to the contemporary city may be found in the latter. For example, the bed of the crater on the Via Prenestina used to be occupied by the Etrurian city of Gabii. Today that area is mostly agricultural, with a few traces of the bygone city. The Rome of the future could take the form of an archipelago, with well-managed, densely-inhabited smart island fragments surrounded by a sea of interconnected green infrastructure organizing the traffic of goods and people along the lines of the antique roads like the Appian Way rather than that of the Grande Raccordo Anulare.

Q: To sum, up, for you a smart city is one that frees the future as much as possible without violating its respect for its own past and its ties to nature?

LF: Yes, and no. A city’s past has lots of elements and maybe some are shameful. Think of all those outer-suburb residential quarters built with cheap flats and almost no civic or green infrastructure. But one has to gauge the value of any planned transformation. Demolition should never be done for the sake of a ‘smartly’ branded real estate operation but for true uncontested long term ecological or civic needs!

There’s a lot of elasticity when it comes to nature.  The relevant environmental risk or needed service might not be just beyond a city’s gate but far away. The Amazon forest apparently relies on fertilizers that blow in from the Sahara. As for the future, rather than “freeing” up possibilities – a feel-good term that could easily be abused – I think urban design at any scale should consider explicitly indicating not only its aims but what it does not want to happen. Insisting on this point might make cities more honest about the trade-offs that need to be made, which would revive civic participation and perpetuate the raison d’etre of a city in the first place. It’s too simple to promise greater efficiency and then express surprise when adverse collateral effects that could easily have been anticipated emerge.