GAM 05


Ernst Hubeli

GAM.05 – Urban Future Scenarios Within New Growth Limits. If we were to try and extract the key message for this GAM edition, it might well be this paradigm: The notion of “environment” is slowly but steadily replacing the notion of “capital”. This does not mean that apocalyptic postulates and green morals will gain in power – quite on the contrary. The somewhat sobering conclusion is that the environment – its nature, artificiality and its pattern of change – follows a political economy. similar to the way capital has anticipated its political economy over the course of the last 200 years. The important historic-materialistic difference is that environment is able to exist without capital, while capital is worthless without environment.

Over the course of the past 30 years, environmental policy has presented itself as a “building ecology based on a guilty conscience” (Dieter Hoffmann-Axthelm). Better insulation, fuel economy, and solar cells on the roof of the one-family house may cater to the subjective wish for doing one’s bit against the wasting of resources; however, despite measures of this sort, our environmental impact has not lessened, but actually increased. Measured against the overall figures, the marketing of “environmentally friendly products” has not even managed to limit the damage. What is the use of saving money on the heating bills if this money is then invested in a second car or third flat?

Today, and for the foreseeable future, the privatisation of environmental policies is unrealistic. Whether we choose to see climate change and resource shortages as apocalyptic or evolutionary scenarios is secondary in this context. The development so far has not only reached its limit in ecological but also in economic terms – limits that, globally speaking, only an increasingly small minority is able to go beyond. The Fordian model of constantly growing prosperity has exceeded the point of culmination. For the last ten years, we have witnessed a “downgrading” of prosperity and purchasing power, in particular among the Western middle classes.

In the context of these framework conditions, ecology and sustainability are not part of efforts to “make the world a better place” as much as pragmatic and efficient elements within an overall balance. The same applies to the known consequences and costs of climate change. In this respect, the traditional mission of planners is also being turned upside down. Until now, the profession has geared itself mostly to normative assertions, which has widened the gap between the ideal vision and the realities of everyday life.

This is confirmed by the quantitative and qualitative potentials – both in a positive and a negative sense – that are currently being identified for urban and spatial development. On the one hand, new opportunities for consolidation are being identified, especially in immaterial terms; on the other hand, settlement growth as we have seen it so far has left behind a heritage that not only entails an ever-increasing waste of energy, but also a waste of infrastructure, space, soil, air, maintenance, and time, which increasingly affects our quality of life. In other words: The collateral damage is defining new, structural and increasingly narrow growth limits that illustrate the interaction between energetic, economic, and social issues and our quality of life.

Unlike in the early 1970s, consolidation scenarios can no longer be about limiting settlement growth. Today, we are talking about reconstruction. In terms of time management, the equation is pragmatic and simple: The later we start, the more expensive it will be. In North American and European agglomerations, it has already begun – necessarily so, as life in strongly overdeveloped areas has simply become unaffordable for many, and for virtually the entire middle class.

The alternative – the substitution of finite resources – is an illusion, as is the promise that the problems will be solved by “as yet unknown innovative technologies”, which won’t be kept at least in the foreseeable future. Representatives of energy research and environmental politics worldwide agree by now that in approximately 10 years our oil will either dry up or become extremely expensive. A substitute won’t be found within such a short period of time, or if it is, it will be marginal (approximately 6-10% worldwide) and have limited or even negative effects, as wastage will simply shift to other resources, for instance food products.

It is therefore mandatory that we learn to use existing resources efficiently. Consolidation scenarios, in whatever shape or form, must be part of this strategy for the near future. There are many indications – from political pressure to new research carried out and strategies implemented by various energy companies – of a paradigm shift that is putting practice rather than postulates at the centre of new approaches. Inescapably, the challenges facing urban planning also face society as a whole. Current power relations as well as consumer behaviours will be affected. In this way, consolidation scenarios also constitute scenarios of the everyday life of a given society. This requires a complex, and at the same time realistic, notion of sustainability.

In retrospect, not only the “building ecology of the guilty conscience” has come full circle – both monothematic research and product-fixed marketing have questioned their own sustainability. This also means that an environmental perspective will require its own re-politicisation. Like technological inventions, well-intended efforts force us to move in an area where the “doable” hits on contradictions, power relations, ambiguities. The notion of “sustainability” is made up of pitfalls and opportunities. It cannot chase an ideal; at best it can follow its own reflection.

For this GAM edition, we have put the following assumptions and questions up for discussion:

  • How will we live tomorrow? Demographic trends, changed lifestyles, the downgrading of prosperity, consuming power and mobility, new forms and means of communication, information processing, and knowledge production are all keywords to describe the societies of the future.
  • Urban forms of living will become globally dominant in the near future. How can and how should spatial interrelations, social and informal networks constitute themselves? What could a post-Fordian utopia look like? Are cities with zero growth a realistic scenario?
  • Settlement growth is reaching its economic and ecological limits, making the development and realisation of consolidation scenarios – in whatever form – an absolute necessity. In fact, the necessity to act is already becoming more and more urgent: To sit back and do nothing is the most expensive way of dealing with settlement growth and its known effects on climate change.
  •  New opportunities for consolidation exist: The location dependence of industries, functions, and utilisations has become increasingly relative, which means that “cities” are able to spring up and disappear again almost everywhere. Linked to this are shrinkage and concentration processes that can currently be observed. They are increasingly driven by invisible impulses – tax benefits, social and digital networks, logistical calculations, political and legal frameworks, global market openings for “hot spots”, temporary urbanity et cetera.
  •  In most cases, we must assume that spatial consolidation efforts do not start from tabula rasa but will require the transformation of what already exists. For instance, urban sprawl might be transformed into a concentrated development or into linear cities that use existing traffic and supply infrastructures more efficiently and promote a mix of utilisations. This scenario – consolidation efforts that work inwardly – also offers potentials for relatively densely settled areas such as Switzerland or Holland, as well as for existing cities. In this context, current projects, urban development strategies, and concrete visions are of great interest.
  • In the foreseeable future, self-sufficient settlement forms – with closed energy consumption and production cycles and neutral environmental impact balances – might become a concrete possibility. This topic includes current project and examples.
  • Spatial consolidation efforts are no longer tied to structural instruments alone. The material form coexists with an immaterial density that creates networks and communication. The middle- and long-term potentials and limits of immaterial forms of consolidation remain largely unexplored.
  • The microlevel of spatial consolidation lies in intelligent building typologies. Buildings use approx. 50% of global energy. This illustrates the importance of energy efficiency in buildings; however, the figure is just one aspect in the overall energy balance sheet. Relevant questions to be asked on the performance of buildings also include: How much land, infrastructure, and maintenance do they require? How much traffic do they produce, or by how much do they reduce it by means of synergetic mixed utilisation? And of course also this: To what extent do they contribute to comfort and enjoyment of life? Highly consolidated, polyfunctional building structures could be imagined as building complexes with a radical mix of utilisations, as cities within cities, or as vertical cities. Again, this topic focuses on concrete projects and examples.
  • On a global level, reverse scenarios have developed: Urban growth versus urban shrinkage. In the developing countries, cities are expanding to such an extent that we are currently experiencing an annual urban population growth of 50 million. On the other hand, most North American and European cities have been shrinking for the last 50 years. However, we are currently also witnessing suburbanization processes in China, India, and other Asian and also Arabic countries that largely follow the Western “urban sprawl model” and totally eclipse their supposed examples in terms of size. And even though the world agrees that we are talking about a phase-out model, the West has learned its lesson too late. The question now is whether economic or other incentives could bring about a change in the trend.
  • Just like with spatial consolidation, highly consolidated building types also reach limits set by societal and emotional acceptance. Countertheses and compromises must be evaluated in this context.
  • One vital question within the context of self-reflexive modernity refers to the limits of planability. Has the traditional notion of planning become obsolete, just like political primacy has shifted towards economic primacy? Are normative assertions unrealistic, obscuring, or even counterproductive, because they deepen the discrepancy between ideas and the realities of settlement? What could different, more successful planning approaches look like?

Not all of these questions and theses will be answered and discussed in the present GAM edition. Our research has shown that although the debate generates a high level of interest, it still has the status of a stock-check or a situation analysis. The contributions follow very different intentions and approaches: Pragmatic-practical suggestions on how to consolidate existing settlements stand alongside small- and large-scale visions, culminating in the question of what theoretical and political basis is needed for the technical discussion to be at all relevant.

In this respect, this GAM edition cannot offer any final insights and conclusions, except for this one: Unlike so many others, the charm of this debate lies in the paradoxical. It can only gain in relevance, even if ideas and solutions turn out to be nothing more than assorted occasions of failure. For our discipline, with its cycles of self-referential episodes, this constitutes an irresistible opportunity.