Geodesign #3: We have identified eight key defining moments as an introduction to this emerging design movement—from garden cities to organic architecture.
The human species has become masters over manufacturing objects. We modify our environments like all living-beings and build interconnected systems - like our cities. Urban areas have developed over a long period of time from urban settlements to mega cities. They build the densest and deepest part of our technosphere where humans, biology and technology interact. Our cities have formed a planetary crust around planet earth. Whilst they have often been associated with being the most consuming, carbon intensive and environmentally unfriendly places on the planet, they also represent the places where creativity and innovation spark. It is predicted that 70% of the human population will live in cities by 2050, how will innovation, humans and nature fuse to create our future urban habitats?
From Garden City to Broadacre City
Cities always had to fulfill a certain human purpose. During the industrialization of the 19th century, cities were places of functionality and productivity. The industrial activities influenced the layout of cities, for example marked by short commutes from workers flats to the factory. Cities turned into well-oiled machines fuelled by an uncontrolled strive for productivity that shaped the city with its own uncontrolled agenda. The resulting health crisis led social theorist and economist Henry George to the question in his book from 1879 ‘why a company's economic and technological progress went hand-in-hand with their workers' poverty’. It sparked a quest for a true purpose that should build the foundation of our urban habitat.
Urban planners such as Ebenezer Howard came up with a new innovative urban design: the Garden City in 1898. Howard believed that all people agreed with the overcrowding cities and wanted to provide the working class more than the two options of working on farms or in crowded unhealthy cities.
This plan aimed to capture the benefits of a countryside environment and a city environment while by forgoing the downsides of both.
This plan aimed to capture the benefits of a countryside environment and a city environment while by forgoing the downsides of both. Thereby it sought to reunite people and nature by making cities a hybrid form of town and country by minimizing the distance between agricultural, living areas and greeneries through his famous concentric ring diagram.
Community engagement was at the core of the Garden City movement, capturing the highest benefits of the urban and agricultural land. Howard wanted to build several decentralized urban hubs with well-connected and generous green spaces, and a central park in the centre. By zoning the different elements in the city, he wanted to secure affordable housing areas for ordinary people, combined with cultural, recreational and commercial facilities in walking neighbourhoods to promote diverse, mixed income, and self-sufficient citizenry.
At the core of the Garden City movement lied a strong vision for community engagement by capturing the highest benefits of the urban and agricultural land.
The streets were lined with trees and connected the open spaces. To prevent the uncontrollable urban sprawl, his designs included a green belt that surrounded the countryside and integrated accessible transport systems for people to commute easily to their abundant job opportunities. His pioneering urban plan changed the design of urban environments to a social and environmental vision forever as it put societal wellbeing at the core of urban planning.
His pioneering urban plan changed the design of urban environments to a social and environmental vision forever as it put societal wellbeing at the core of urban planning.
While Howard tried to contain urban sprawl with a surrounding green belt, the Broadacre City concept by famous American architect Frank Lyod Wright decentered and expanded across the landscape. Wright acknowledged the importance of the geographical landscape in terms of the entire city plan but also the buildings itself.
Wright acknowledged the importance of the geographical landscape in terms of the entire city plan but also the buildings itself.
He introduced the world to ‘organic architecture’ which took the local environment and climate into account when designing a building with the famous example of “Usonian” houses using natural light, passive solar heating and local materials to the environment. His goal was to unite the outdoors and indoors by bringing natural elements inside the house through use of large windows or corner elements while fulfilling the functions for its inhabitants. He considered the geography of a place, the topography, the whole environmental condition from streams to sun exposure in his designs. He designed with the geographical space in mind, in a way, practicing geodesign.
Designing next urban utopias
Major architects worldwide are trying to make their cities more sustainable, resilient and be able to respond to the ever-changing environment. The realisation to incorporate the cities design in the landscape and merge the boundaries of food production and urban living have become integral to their vision. For now, designing the future cities is still the primary tasks of urban planners and architects. However, the inhabitants of the city - including non-human habitats - need to have a say to design a desirable city for all.
One of the youngest cities in the Netherlands built on reclaimed land from the sea - Almere - is built on the premise to put the people at the core of its design. It strives to become a sustainable alternative to the dense, urbanized metropolitan region of Amsterdam. Based on Howards principles of a Garden City, it represents a multi centred structure that incorporates the surrounding water and nature as much as possible and ought to symbolize an icon of sustainability. Rather than developers designing the town, people actively design their own houses within the given structures. By allowing for the tenants’ imagination and creativity to flourish, they are trying to embrace a collaborative design of the urban sphere.
While collaboration needs to be at the core of designing our habitat, we need the skills and capacity to design for sustainable future habitats.
While collaboration needs to be at the core of designing our habitat, we need the skills and capacity to design for sustainable future habitats. We need to be able to tap into the imaginary realms brought forth by designers, architects and science fiction writers to break out of our toxic building habits. Rather than reinforcing our building practices that reinforce our dependence on resource extraction and fossil fuels, we need to embrace new forms of living with our surroundings. From circular systems to co-evolving with living architecture that maintains itself. It might sound like an abstract idea, but even our contemporary urban jungles were once an utopian idea 500 years ago. It teaches us that yesterday’s utopian ideas might build the foundation of tomorrow’s home.