August 11, 2012

Urban Design and the Indefensible Space

I recall the first time I heard an architect talk about programming a building.  I imagined an elaborate process of computational mathematics and structural engineering blended with social psychology.  Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that programming was little more than a designer saying "this place is for walking between a and b, this place is for sitting, and this place is is for the mixed use of sitting and/or walking."  

Certainly there is some excellent work out there to understand the relationship between human activity and the predeterminations of physical space.  I have a copy of A Pattern Language sitting on my shelf and can't recommend it enough.   But so often the process of programming is approached as formulaic as master plans (frequent readers are familiar with my disdain for old fashioned master plans).  A quick google search will reveal step-by-step guides to programming, but reading through such procedures, one is simply confronted by the usual "rational strategic planning model" to identify user needs within the framework of budgets, time, and materials.  Bottom up and mixed-methods exist as well, but again, how dissimilar is programming from basic decision making?

I suspect we use the term programming because it sounds more impressive.  But more importantly, there is a desire among architects and urban designers to identify and tap into some cosmic body of knowledge that will explain the structural underpinnings of human behavior.  I'm certainly just as guilty as anyone else.  And the evidence of this desire is everywhere.  We have decades of research on central place theory and investigations into complex adaptive systems  along with today's groundbreaking research on the mathematics of cities.  

But as we mine downward into the underbelly of social order, what do we do with these new understandings?  Do we attempt to restructure all of society according to some personal vision like  Le Corbusier, or do we simply reinforce these patterns with our design efforts, even if they are imperfect? There are plenty of tools out there to understand the role of space in human activity, but how do we build upon that?  In many ways we are beginning already to implement these lessons, such as the efforts by Washington DC police to look at how land use and development trends impact changes in crime.  But in this instance, it is about redistributing police officers to points of potential crime. As an urban planner, how can I apply these same tools and concepts on behalf of governments around the world?

This issue has been on my mind a great deal lately I have been designing a public green space for construction in the spring and have been thinking a great deal about how the space can be used, and more specifically, abused.  Unique architectural features that might stimulate social responsibility or interest can easily become transformed into vantage points for sabotage, crime, and violence.  Although security has always been a critical part of city planning, the modern idea of creating a "Defensible Space"  has emerged in the 1960s when Oscar Newman was attempting to reduce crime in low-income housing communities in the US.  His conclusions such as the use of street lights, defined walkways, and indicators of clear ownership have all been successfully implemented in communities around the world to deter urban crime.  

Unique Feature or Tactical Vantage Point?
But as I work in an areas where militant aggression and terrorism are daily realities, I'm curious how I can do the opposite.  Everyday in Kabul I see big massive walls surrounded in razor-wire with reinforced steel doors and windows glazed in blast film.  Not to mention that tall buildings have been utilized multiple times now as strategic points of attack by insurgents. Just the other day I was walking past Share-e-Naw Park and I was looking at its tall iron fences, the clusters of foliage, and the undulating terrain.  Now the park isn't exactly an offensive vantage point, yet nothing about its design actually would deter or undermine an offensive actor.  In fact, many of the elements designed in line with Newman's prescriptions just would just well serve as an asset to a criminal - with limited points of entry and exit, absorbing shadows at the edge of the spot-lit walkway and continually obstructed sight-lines formed by vegetation and corner shops.  

Perhaps a better solution is to create the Indefensible Space.  A space or structure that can only be used for its intended purpose that cannot be destroyed, vandalized, or misused as a means to conduct offensive operations.  Such a space or structure could not be formulaic, but site sensitive, and its programming would emerge more from the process of responsive decision making and data collection rather than from within a studio.  But the intentional proliferation of such spaces could transform global conflict.

We already have cities full of defensive structures, and when programming a public space in a conflict zone, it cannot be assumed that the typical recipe for creating secure structures meets long-term social interests.  In fact, I would argue that the more classical interventions are utilized to secure a city, the longer that city will struggle with transitioning between conflict to post-conflict stages and beyond.  If you want to undermine the resiliency and economic sustainability of a city in conflict, then build massive walls.  But if you want to reinforce social forces to maximize social order, then a different prescription is needed.

As for cities like Kabul that are already overwhelmed by defensive architecture, the infusion of indefensible spaces into such a landscape could help lesson the oppression of concrete barriers and checkpoints.  The free-flowing indefensible spaces distributed throughout the city could bolster stability and even economic growth.

Clearly the counter-intuitive nature of the concept yields many weaknesses.  But we already have plenty of tools from which to analyze social spaces and to measure the impact of the built environment.    So how do we transform the knowledge gained through all the analytical tools into an effective programmatic and design solution remains an unrefined art.  So while my proposal for the indefensible space isn't perfect, it poses an opportunity to explore the analytics while lessoning the potential for negative consequences.  The greatest risk is that some unimaginative planner will situate a flat, empty parking lot in the middle of a city and do nothing more.  But as for the potential opportunity for design and the art of programming?  That remains to be explored.

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