Better Together: Holistic Urbanism

Working with urban issues from a diversity of perspectives, Mitchell Reardon is a city-maker informed by an urban planning and research background. He is an urbanist and founding partner at Metropolitan Collective, based in Vancouver, Ottawa and Shanghai & land-use planner at IBI Group. After 6 years living and working as a research fellow at Nordregio, in Stockholm, he recently moved to Vancouver. Follow him on Twitter.

Everyday, people make billions of trips in cities around the world. These trips take many forms, occur in a range of settings and have a diversity of purposes, but as they move through their urban habitats, how often do people stop and think of the many distinct and independent disciplines that have a role in shaping their surroundings? Why should they? Cities are a rich tapestry of interweaving activities, forms, functions and people that influence each other, if not immediately, then over time. So maybe it’s better to ask, why are citymakers, across all disciplines, so focused on neatly defining their respective fields as sharply as a building meeting a sidewalk?

Many disciplines at work in Amsterdam: A range of mobility options, design, architecture and more Photo: Jessica Wooding

Contemporary urban planning has a heritage of specialization and legacy of “experts”. This helped achieve deeper understandings of various planning sub-disciplines; but also served to establish silos between them, to say nothing of the chasm between planning and the distinct yet related city-making fields of architecture, design, engineering, economics and social planning, to name some key disciplines. The drive towards specialisation and expertise also tended to exclude or limit the public from decision-making processes. Not only did this alienate urban planners from the city-dwellers they served, it also downplayed the logic of considering various elements of urban planning together. Recently, there has been a growing interest in reconnecting various aspects of planning and in promoting public input. This shift is a promising start, but there is tremendous opportunity to go beyond the limited integration of sub-disciplines.

Focusing on a single discipline is like reading a single chapter in a book. You might have an idea of what’s going on, but you haven’t grasped the full narrative. Not that the 20th century, barrier-based approach is well equipped for the complex challenges our cities and societies are facing. In an era of renewed urban enthusiasm, the approach that led to the destruction of great swaths of our cities is hardly the path to the thriving, healthy and happy cities of tomorrow. By cooperating to a greater extent, city-making disciplines can help create more open and engaging cities that contribute to people’s wellbeing. Holistic urbanism is an attempt to put this city-dweller inspired, cooperative silo-busting effort into words and practice.

Holistic urbanism is a bottom-up and interdisciplinary city-making approach that identifies people as the central element of the city. It aims to overcome the barriers between conventional city-making disciplines, centrally including urban planning, architecture and engineering, while also recognizing the influences of social issues, economic development, art, culture and technology. Holistic urbanism accounts for a diversity of elements that influence and interact with one another at the neighbourhood, district, city and regional scales. The approach also recognizes that all urban dwellers, regardless of age, ethnicity, status or orientation are shaping our cities through their daily actions; some just choose to do so more consciously, and even professionally. With that in mind, the disciplines mentioned above are seen as an inclusive point of departure for holistic urbanism rather than strictly defining the concept.

Well-designed, attractive public spaces are important to a city’s vitality, as is stunning and inspirational architecture. But who wants to live in a “beautiful” city devoid of high quality employment opportunities or fluid mobility systems? Where does environmental sustainability figure in this mix? No one, or even handful, of urban elements defines a city’s success alone. Can a city truly be successful if it ignores its most vulnerable residents, failing to recognize their role in shaping the city or their potential to enhance it? Health, social issues and economics are just as important as buildings, transportation and the environment for successful citymaking. From stoplights to smartphones, technology is playing an ever-increasing role in cities as well, creating new challenges but also new ways to engage with city-dwellers and enhance the city, both bottom-up and top-down. And (literally) underneath it all, engineered systems for heat, energy, water systems and more ensure the city operates smoothly. Innovations in resource use, ranging from porous pavement to closed-loop neighbourhoods make this a particularly important series of sub-disciplines to integrate. Finally, what is a city without people? A great success as a museum, a great failure as a place. Holistic urbanism identifies, considers and mimics the ways that our cities function in practice and the inherent connections between urban elements, with little interest for the artificial silos that were raised during the 20th century.

Environmental clean-up, mixed-use neighbourhoods, transit & cleantech export - Stockholm’s Hammarby Sjöstad is a good example of holistic urbanism’s potential Photo: Mitchell Reardon

Transit station architecture with a distinct Vancouver touch, a rapid bus corridor, bridge downtown, a diversity of engineering feats underground & a public space off to the right. Lots of opportunity for cooperation. And public involvement. Photo: Mitchell Reardon

Holistic urbanism finds its inspiration in a diversity of sources. Historically, planners Lewis Mumford and Patrick Geddes both worked to integrate a diversity of elements, as did famed Barcelona engineer Ildefons Cerdà and Buckminster Fuller. Jane Jacobs, who, despite her influence, was proudly not an urban planner, underlines the central importance of the non-professional perspective, as did Sherry Arnstein with her Ladder of Citizen Participation. Even the optimism and comprehensiveness, as well as failure, of modernist architects and planners provides valuable insight to strengthen holistic urbanism. But this approach should not be viewed as a nostalgic trip down memory lane. With a clear focus on creating outcomes that satisfy the needs of people through active engagement, activist architects like Pakistan’s Yasmeen Lari, San Diego’s Teddy Cruz and Seville’s Santiago Cirugeda inspire a new way to get things done, with little regard for the traditional jurisdictions of their discipline. From an engineering perspective, the resurgence of “municipal (or urban) engineering” supports an approach that goes beyond the status quo. Finally, the work of contemporary urbanists and thinkers like Copenhagen’s Jan Gehl, who steadfastly focused on people, Vancouver’s Brent Toderian’s “plangineer” to emphasize greater integration between city-making disciplines and Amsterdam’s Zef Hemel, with his “city as a brain” concept have all informed the development of this approach.

Cities are greater than the sum of their parts. So are the skills and ideas of every citymaking discipline. By integrating these disciplines, in university programs, academia and practice, while staying open and inspired by the efforts and perspectives of a range of city-dwellers, we have the opportunity to rethink the way we make cities, enhancing them, together with the many people who choose to call them home. This is the first page in a holistic urbanism narrative. Like a city, it should develop many pages and chapters over time. I look forward to reading yours.