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Monday, May 28, 2007

Urban Design Principles - A reconciliation of two eras

Assuming that we are to respect the notion of using African ancestoral historic precedents in the case of urban planning, just as we hope to do in the case of architecture proper, how do we go about reconciling these two eras - the ancient and relatively simple one from our ancestors' time, and the current one we live in, with all its complexities from the technological, social, environmental, and other transformations? In other words, are the urban planning principles from the era of our African ancestors transferable?

The above is a very legitimate question posed by Seo in response to my initial post. I believe the answer lies with a lot of very good places which have stood the test of time - managing to evolve with the rest of the world without losing sight of their historic past.

I will begin to sound like a broken record, but I will always be grateful for the years I spent abroad in Italy, Greece and Spain. Don't get me wrong, these places don't hold all the answers, but we must admit that the longevity of these countries as places of great physical historical content is a testament to which we can all learn from.

With that said, what we can learn from these places is the willingness to move forward without great disregard for the past in most cases. By that, I mean when one walks through the streets of any of these countries, you realize that not all streets are meant for cars. The historic streets (like Seo alludes to) were designed for other means of transportation, mainly foot traffic, and at the widest, horse drawn carriages. Roads were rarely ever strait because these animals did not really travel in strait lines. Streets are very narrow, buildings are dense, and this allows for the ability for a person to live a full daily life within a very tight travelling radius, sometimes as little as a 1/2 mile radius is all one needs to live a complete day in any of these countries.

As technology improves and automobiles become a necessity that needs to be dealt with, roads are built around the historical centers and new block patterns begin to develop which may be a little bit more spacious. The key to the new growth, however, is that they never stray too far from the original building patterns of their ancestors. The streets may be wider, and the buildings nicer with more ammenities, but the barber shop is still next to a butcher shop next to the hair dresser next to the grocer, and we all live above the shops. Thus, the 1/2 mile radius is all but intact.

I encourage people to look at plans of Rome, Siena, Pienza, Athens, Valenzia... and the list can go on and on.... to see how many strait and wide streets there are in these cities. We can not design as slaves to the car. The citizens should always come first, and cars should be thought of as what they were intended to be, a luxury to have, a pleasure to use, but not a dependant lifeline without which we can not function.

How does this relate to African cities? We need to declare and restore historical centers which indicate some of which our ancestors lived by. We need to recall the growth structures of how cities grew in Africa, with the automobile as a secondary, or tertiary thought, and most certainly not a primary dictator of how we should design our blocks. Most importantly, we need to use new technologies that we have afforded us now. However, we need to employ technology as a part of the design process, not as the overriding factor of design.

I sincerely believe that there's a reason why we look in travel brochures and decide to take vacations to places that look nothing like where we live, and because it looks interesting and has some historical value, and if we use the history of our African cities to our design advantage (and if there's one thing we have a lot of, it is history), we can begin to create cities of great interest which will begin to inform us all about not just our history, but also about a positive path towards a better future.

Hopefully some of what I've said makes sense and responds to the question posed by Seo. As always, I end with the statement that the opinions I offer are quite humble and I'm very open to other points of view, and I look forward to hearing what everyone else has to say.


Brian said...

Disclaimer: I am not an architect, as such please excuse me if I make any statements that are asinine from an architectural perspective.

Nana, correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like you are advocating an urban design that somehow incorporates traditional African urban centers/village designs. You do raise a good point with regards to most European countries’ lack of great disregard for their past in the design of their current cities. I would venture to say, the advantage these countries had is the feudal societies they were composed of in the middle ages. Recall, these societies were characterized by a select few nobals/lords owning massive expanses of land leaving the poor majority or peasants, to squat on very limited acreage. This lack of space resulted in the peasants setting up spatially “efficient” villages, which essentially are the inspiration of the dense city sections that allow for a 1/2 mile radius sufficiency that you speak of, especially you example of folks living above the shops. (Note, this is just my interpretation)

With traditional African societies however, land constraints were not as much an issue as in feudal Europe. Due to this lack of spatial constraint, the general design of these villages were never really close to being this “efficient”. Therefore, an attempt to reflect the traditional African village layout, may take away from the efficiency you seek.

I do agree that the automobile doesn’t necessarily have to be the focal point of the urban design, especially when you can have the city sit on an intricate network of underground rails that would get people efficiently from one point of the city to the next.

Another suggestion could be, rather than seek to design an urban center who's layout reflects traditional African city layouts, we could look to design a modern, efficient urban layout that consists of buildings/structures that reflect traditional African architecture. In my opinion, from a layman’s perspective, the focus is more on the buildings/structures rather than the layout.

To further illustrate my point, imagine if you took the grid layout of a typical US city, then populated the grid with arabic architecture. A lay person walking through the streets of this city, will be “fooled” into believing that they are in an arabic city.

nandoh said...

Thanks Brian, and for not being an architect, you do make some very valid points.

To clarify, my advocacy of looking to European precedent has nothing to do with building typology or spatial constraints, and everything to do with the logic behind the urban layout. By that, I simply mean that what we need to do is identify various building typologies local to our cities, and develop our cities using these buildings as a "kit-of-parts", thus creating a variety of building forms within a very small radius.

The problem is, when we lay out our cities, we lay out the buildings according to use, and not form. As such, we create residential zones, office zones, industrial zones, etc. However, if we designed using a combination of all the building forms we have available, then the house can be close to the school, the church will be close to the market, and so on... and we can all live our lives with relative proximity to our daily activities. (I do understand that this also has to do with zoning laws... which I have no idea if they exist in African cities, but its all part of the battle.

I would however strongly disagree with Brian's point about a "modern/ efficient" city layout. It was modernity which brought about these zoning laws in the first place. Look at our American cities and you'll see what I mean. After WWI, it made sense to politicians to employ these zoning codes to ensure that civilian casualties would be at a minimum should any single place be attacked... or at least that was the thought process, and quite frankly, who would want to live next to the factory where bombs were being made. The result of this zoning trend is, we now have our city center where we all go to work, surrounded by residential zones where we all live, and in the outskirts are the factories, and we connect to all these places with highways, increasing our dependance on cars.

The problem increases when we need new housing. We create suburban pods further and further away from the city center and still commute to that same center on a daily basis. This is the idea of sprawl, and in my humble opinion, sprawl is a product of modernity.

As such, I ask that we look back to successful examples of mixed-use urban towns, where a town is not dependant on a single center surrounded by sprawl, but rather a polycentric model which allows for smaller neighborhood centers which encourage people to get out of their cars and walk, and I believe we can find this model if we look hard enough at what our ancestors did on the African continent.

Kithinji Mwirigi said...

Good discussion and takes, Brian and Nana.

Nana, I concur in toto with your call for the type of urban planning that promotes the integration, location-wise, of everyday human functions - civic, residence, retail/commerce and work. Upon reflecting on Brian's take though, I wonder what ancient Africa's urban space configurations were like? Were they condusive to the afore-mentioned, desired, mixed-use, self-sufficient and effecient urban spaces...or were they relatively sprawl-ish owing to the existence, generally, of vast expanses of land in Africa, as Brian implies? What if, after researching authentic African urban planning, we find out that it doesn't conform to the desired and efficient afore-mentioned urban planning - do we still embrace it because it is what we are really seeking to re-birth, and in the process compromise our belief in the above-mentioned self-sufficient urban space model?

nandoh said...

Seo, you pose an excellent question which I believe should actually spark some debate.

After research has been conducted, my hope is that we discover two very important factors: (A)The urban characteristics of our ancestors, and (B)The architectural characteristics of our ancestors.

In answer to your question, Seo, I think that whatever we do find, what we deem to be "good" should be kept and enhanced, and what we deem to be not so good, we discard.

In my humble opinion, we would be aspiring towards mediocrity if we chose to embrace "everything" we find, good and bad.

My hope is that, from whatever we discover through research, we are able to dissect it almost as a kit-of-parts, and using time tested precedent from other places that we know works, use all of these to create something wonderful for our cities. And by using what our ancestors did as our foundation, whatever we do should be distinctly "African."