The isle of Burano, near Venice, Italy, in a beautiful pic by Marcello Bertinetti, 2006: a clear example of the ordinary, lively magnificence that can only emerge through a process of spatial self-organization in time. Learning from such processes and implementing them in current practice of urban planning and design is our mission at UDSU.


UDSU – Urban Design Studies Unit at the University of Strathclyde (see the Strathclyde website) was set up in 1989 by Hildebrand Frey, to address problems of urban rehabilitation, renewal and restructuring. Its research originally focused on the city and its origin, its development, form and structure and expanded to its impact on people and community engagement. It has developed over time within the areas of ecological, urban and economic sustainability, the history of urban design, minorities and the built environment. Research within the group has been sponsored by the EU, ESRC, AHRC, RTPI and other grants. UDSU has a strong expertise on urban analysis, planning and design, street design and traffic calming, community engagement in urban policies and design, identity and sociability of public spaces.

Currently the Unit, led by Professor Sergio Porta and Dr. Ombretta Romice, is expanding further towards an interpretation of urban form and dynamics as layered manifestations of complex relationships of mutual change and evolution that require new ways of interpreting, representing and managing space. This shift towards an understanding of how urban space changes between different states and forms of control in time rather than how are those states configured, i.e. towards a concept of adaptive space, may provoke innovations in Urban Design practice by means of contributions from many disciplines of the built environment like urban morphology and geography as well as other sciences like the biology of evolution or the physics of complex networks. UDSU has therefore developed a strong record of international and multidisciplinary research in the study of spatial complex networks, with important studies on urban transportation network morphology and their impact on economy and people behavior in cities. Its work includes the production of a modeling tool based on Geographic Information System (GIS) for spatial network analysis.

Significant efforts are needed to better understand the main challenges looming on urban structures as a consequence of globalization, economic uncertainty, rapid mobility and migration, in both the western and developing worlds. Dealing with major interrelated dynamics like those posed by massive urbanization processes, informal settlements and instant cities, community revitalization and new forms of place identity in the space of flows, social housing estates rehabilitation, street reclaiming and automobile dependency in cities, requires acknowledging cities as inherently self-organizing systems.

The Unit has developed International expertise on urban analysis from both a morphological and an experiential angle. Work on Multi Centrality Analysis, urban regeneration, sustainable transport and development, community engagement in design and Post Occupancy Evaluation (POE) is well known and used in both academia and consultancy, thanks to its strong theoretical premises as well as to its widespread and innovative range of analytical tools devised, which tackle all components of the urban design process. Recent urban studies at several scales of development in collaboration with Architecture and Design Scotland have been received as significant, refreshing and influential (‘An Comann’ and ‘Under the Microscope’, 2010). The Unit also has a strong portfolio in masterplanning and street/space design and has widely published in the area of sustainable development and area regeneration focusing on both design and management of the process.


Practicing Urban Seeding: to explore the spatial structures that, under certain social, financial and political conditions, will enable processes of self-organization in contemporary cities to flourish and evolve.



On giants’ shoulders

For those interested in urban design and planning these are exciting days. A whole new story is beginning where at many levels the promise of a better world is raising from new forms of synergy between the agenda of Sustainability for policy makers and that of Place Making for architects and urban scholars in general.

It took a while to reach this point. More than 10 years ago, influential documents like Towards an Urban Renaissance and The Urban Design Compendium inaugurated this new page by summarizing in form of guidelines a wealth of literature from the late Eighties which included works by Peter Newman and Jeff Kenworthy in Australia, Peter Calthorpe and Andres Duany in the USA, Ian Bentley, Mike Jenks and Hidebrand Frey in the UK, and we certainly cannot quote all of them.

To be true, this new wave of urbanism, which took the names of New Urbanism in the USA and Place Making in the UK, proceeded on the shoulders of giants like Jane Jacobs, Christopher Alexander, Oscar Newman, Donald Appleyard, Allan Jacobs. These were protagonists of the first sharp criticism to the many facets of conventional urbanism in the early Sixties, still shrunk between endless sprawl and senseless towers-in-the-park. Such two models stemmed directly from the theories of those, like Ebenezerd Howard and Le Corbusier, who shaped the new discipline of urban planning and design at the very dawn of the XXth century.


Sprawl and Towers-in-the-Park: overcoming the Cultural Problem

A long story indeed. A story dense of intellectual challenges and adventurous human trajectories that sometimes resulted in sharp conflicts with each other. And a story of major failures. The whole culture of Place Making that we are here interpreting for the best future of Scotland can be reduced to a long and difficult recover from those two models, the countless Levittowns and Pruitt-Igoes that have permeated our urban culture and shaped both our industrial cities and our discipline since their very origins. After so much time and so many realizations, after the environmental challenges posed by global warming and the immense social challenges posed by global urbanization, the shortcomings of such two models are in front of our eyes: they are simply not sustainable anymore. We should retrofit Suburbia. We should regenerate Futurama. And we should do it now.

There are obstacles in front of us. One may think that such obstacles are very hard to overcome because they are enrooted in complex financial or political problems, but it is not like that. The problem is mainly cultural. And the first thing we can do to move our civilization forward towards better places for our people is to acknowledge that there is apparently a long way to go before we understand how cities should be designed and planned.

Look around the new “urban jewels”; give a glance to glamorous architectural journals; listen to what is taught in the best schools of architecture. Generations after generations, we architects still perpetuate the gospel in a surreal childish game, where the higher the failure, the greater the honour. Our idea of designing cities is that you should do the job pretty much as if you were designing a building, but just a bit larger.

Historically, architects are very young professional figures: in past ages they used to be master builders, they used to serve the community just doing the right thing as it had always been done before, adopting, preserving and respecting the overall structure of spaces even when – especially when – very special and prominent buildings where realized. But then architecture was entirely reconfigured in a different and even opposite way. We should pay a lot of attention to this passage. With this passage, at the beginning of the XXth century, architecture changed its status from being a practical art and an experimental science, in the age of the master-builders, to being just a branch of the visual arts in the age of the avant-guards. It is at this point that the dimension of the extraordinary prevailed and architects started doing a different job. But, in John Habraken’s words: “The demands of the everyday environment are vastly different from what is required to create the extraordinary. Nevertheless, the profession’s self image, publications and ways of working still cling to its roots in monumental architecture” (Habraken, 2005). So let us be very clear: by calling for a new evidence-based approach to the design of the ordinary city we are now challenging our mother-discipline of architecture to the heart, we are questioning its very foundations. We are making a big jump into an entire new scientific domain and beginning to delineate the foundations of a new discipline.


Clues of the new Discipline

Of course we do not know what this new discipline is going to be. But we know something, we know several key aspects of it. Whatever this new discipline will be, it will have to do with:

  1. Evidence-based analysis [as opposed to image-based analysis]
  2. An reference to the dimension of the ordinary and a science of the common sense [as opposed to the dimension of the extraordinary and the rhetoric of the stunning]
  3. A major interest in spatial change and evolution [as opposed to a notion of the intangibility of the art-work]
  4. A priority interest in processes of informal participation [as complementary to formal processes of community involvement] and a culture of generative citizenship.
  5. A structural approach that emphasises what is recurrent in space and time (within certain spatial and temporal domains) [as opposed to the analytical approach that privileges what is different in space and time]
  6. A stylistic neutral attitude [as opposed to style-led urbanism]

As one can see, one major characteristic of this new discipline will be a focus on self-organization in the formation of urban space. This focus, in this specific field, means conceiving the city as the unplanned stratification of billions of projects and plans, some large and some small, some collective and some individual, in mutual tireless interaction in time. It means seeing what has been negated for too long: that self-organization has nothing to do with chaos, it is in fact a higher level of order. And that all the most lively and successful parts of our cities are in fact those less planned, which means – by definition – more complex. And that the secret of all good cities has always been one specific feature, with which a city can be good or bad depending on many other factors, but it is alive and kicking, and without which a city can just be bad, because it is dead: adaptability. Adaptability, or the structural disposition of spaces to change by welcoming changing needs in time: that is the key.

Because, according to Panerai, Castex and Deapule: “Building the city today could mean the wish to find again, perhaps with different forms, the qualities of proximity, mixture and the unexpected, i.e. a public space accessible to all, a variety of mixed activities, a built-up area that keeps adapting and transforming itself in unplanned neighbourhoods.” (Panerai et al, 2004).


The oxymoron in practice

Planning for “unplanned neighbourhoods”? An anti-planning planning agenda. In fact, an oxymoron. But we can play the oxymoron even further: we need planning today because we have to re-activate the circulation of blood in our planning system after decades of chill, and this chill is planning itself. We need to achieve by virtue of a conscious and organized effort what once was innate and unconscious knowledge. We need to reactivate the circulation of information between inhabitants and powers through informal processes of participation based not as much on large formal gatherings and structured processes of inclusion as on the daily and direct control of inhabitants over the ordinary modification of their own individual and collective space, at different scales. And because we are no more in the middle age, these very traditional processes of informal participation through ordinary change need to be enabled under conditions that must be carefully identified, organized and planned. The space of self-organization will never come back on its own. It must be re-invented under our days conditions. And here we see the programme of the new discipline: we must explore the spatial, social, financial and political structures that will enable once again processes of self-organization in contemporary cities.

And here we can see that, as part of the broader cultural problem, there is a major scientific problem that must be addressed. I cannot find better words to define it than those of Christopher Alexander:

“The character of this minute, step-by-step adaptation is vitally important in the world, and we have been ignoring it, in recent decades, at our peril. […] The planners, building officials, construction companies, and engineers who have redefined everyday processes during the last 100 years, working in a broad context of algorithmic thinking, have, without explicitly intending to, destroyed a far more subtle process. […] All this is hardly more than common sense. Yet the fact remains that this kind of adaptive process does not currently have an acknowledged part in theories of algorithms, in developmental biology, in architecture, or even in system theory. It is not part of the mental models in our current toolkit” (Alexander, in print).

We should not underestimate the magnitude of the challenge: it is this “far more subtle process” that we should reinforce and reanimate in a new contemporary – but timeless in nature – form of city planning. Therefore, to be true, we are not speaking of urban design or planning anymore: we are speaking of this new discipline, under a different name, that of urban seeding.

This term resounds again Christopher Alexander’s words: “This quality in buildings and in towns cannot be made, but only generated, indirectly, by the ordinary actions of the people, just as a flower cannot be made, but only generated from the seed” (Alexander, 1980).



Alexander, C. 1980, The Timeless Way of Building, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK

Alexander, C. in print, Harmony Seeking Computations: a Science of Non-Classical Dynamics based on the Progressive Evolution of the Larger Whole, International Journal of Unconventional Computing

Habraken, J. 2005, Palladio’s children, Taylor & Francis, London, UK

Panerai, P. Castex, J. Depaule, JC. Samuels, I. 2004, Urban Forms. The Death and Life of the Urban Block, Oxford: Architectural Press.