INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Medium SEPTEMBER 1, 2021 - by Dan Hill
WORKING WITH BRIAN ENO ON DESIGN PRINCIPLES FOR STREETS
Bringing a cultural voice into an urban planning conversation that has become narrowly technical, and diversifying the thinking around what streets are about, and what cities are for
Planning, designing, and managing cities in Sweden can be a largely joyless, technocratic affair, dominated by efficiency-oriented engineering, economic and managerial sensibilities. Although the Swedish state continues to fund arts and culture at a level that would make many other countries green with envy, it tends to keep those practices and perspectives quite separate from questions of city planning, governance, and even design. This is far from unusual, of course, but it is perhaps heightened in the highly pragmatic Nordic countries, their governance cultures reconstituted for New Public Management.
So one of the many ideas I wanted to test within the One-Minute City street retrofit projects I've been leading in Sweden was how we might deliberately counterpoint those sensibilities, enriching the mental models that shape how cities are handled with other thoughts, other questions, other positions, offering a richer diversity of outcomes.
If we were to do so, perhaps we might be able to explicitly recognise that, essentially, the whole point of cities is culture, not efficiency - at least 'culture' in the multiple senses that Raymond Williams described: processes of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development; particular ways of life, or patterns of living; and practices of cultural production, embodying and articulating what we stand for as society.
And if we recognise that streets are the basic unit of cities, then they must be about culture too; they convey what we stand for. This simple repositioning means that engineering and traffic planning sensibilities are recognised as being necessary enablers - but they are clearly not the point. This means decision-making around streets can be realigned around more meaningful questions: such as What is a good street? And who for?, rather than the crudely damaging How might this thoroughfare best accommodate 1000 vehicles per day? In other words, strategic design involves changing the mental models that are used to frame the question of the street, redesigning the conditions that produce the street.
There are numerous good technical guides to designing streets (my colleagues here in Sweden, Spacescape, do great work in this respect, including a 'Street Functionality Index' we're working with; NACTO's work internationally, albeit showing its roots in transport rather than public space or culture, is generally moving in good directions.) There are many brilliant landscape designers out there who could handle such an environment - and incidentally, it feels like landscape architecture, having been unfairly downplayed for decades, perhaps for obvious if unfortunate reasons, may increasingly be the most important strand of architecture moving forward, for those same reasons, reversed (maybe another post for another day). And there are many shining examples, like the well-known Dutch woonerfs, or learning from informal urban environments, or indeed the hundreds of programmes moved into place under Covid-19, which I partly collated here. Any decent urban designer and landscape architect could do the technical work of transforming a street into something more like a garden, or truly diverse yet shared urban space.
The challenge is that they are rarely given the chance, as the way that city governments imagine streets has become stunted, blinkered by narrow sets of vested powers. So it is a problem of cultural imagination - it is that kind of design problem. So as well as drawing from the work of Michael Sorkin, Saskia Sassen, Jay Pitter, Richard Sennett, Jane Jacobs, Liza Fior and many others, as well as my own observations and experience, I wanted to introduce an entirely different kind of voice into discussion of the street - someone whose cultural standing couldn't be ignored, but who wouldn't usually be considered at all in this context.
So I asked the artist and musician Brian Eno if he could kindly contribute some design principles for us. (For those that don't know Eno's work, he is one of the most important and influential artists, musicians and thinkers of the last half-century. And regarding my opening paragraphs and this desire to pull in culture, it's worth noting that Brian has also - perhaps implicitly - pursued a sharper, more inventive and informed approach to tech than most, as music often describes the potential of an interplay of technology and culture, just as cities are the product of culture, nature and tech.)
I'd got to know Brian a little in recent years, via my UCL work and at conferences, and I felt that I could ask him for a favour. He's been a guiding light in my thinking and work for decades, and I knew he would have an angle or two. We'd previously joined forces briefly to add some richness to the thinking around mobility in the UK's industrial strategy, and we'd also chatted a little about cities, and particularly London mews houses, communal waste collection and shared gardens, at the DECODE conference in Turin in 2019 (back in The Days Of Flying).
After I'd explained the project a little, Brian very kindly sent back the following list of lovely, useful, thought-provoking and insightful principles, along with some typically humble and graceful comments.
Several of the principles were immediately useful, and put straight into practice; they either reinforced an earlier thought or opened up entirely new vistas. Several others are unfurling as we go. A few more are more broadly relevant, well beyond our street-oriented agenda. Here they are:
BRIAN ENO'S DESIGN PRINCIPLES FOR THE STREETS MISSION
Think like a gardener, not an architect: design beginnings, not endings
Unfinished = fertile
Artists are to cities what worms are to soil. A city's waste should be on public display.
Make places that are easy for people to change and adapt (wood and plaster, as opposed to steel and concrete.)
Places which accommodate the very young and the very old are loved by everybody else too.
Low rent = high life
Make places for people to look at each other, to show off to each other.
Shared public space is the crucible of community.
A really smart city is the one that harnesses the intelligence and creativity of its inhabitants.
• • •
Principles, in principle
The best design principles should have a sense of direction, accumulating to a clear sensibility and ethos - they must stand for something, greater than the sum of their parts - yet they should also be open, diverse and with more than a little wiggle room. They are supposed to be generative rather than constraining. They ought to immediately suggest patterns of thought and action, ways of being, even priorities. They should conjure images or environments as you reflect on them - yet also be a little oblique, capable of working as intuition pumps. They should reward close attention, interrogation and reinterpretation.
We have official sets of technical street design guidelines in Sweden, of course, but they are mainly used to preserve in asphalt yesterday's idea of what a street is. They do not help understanding of what streets really are, and what they can be. In contrast, and to their great merit, Eno's principles are not technocratic in the slightest, even if they address questions of technology.
As we move into phase two of Street Moves, learning from the successes and failures of the first phase, I thought I'd share how I interpreted, and continue to interpret, Eno's suggested principles. Yet the way they're written allows for ongoing adaptation, like an endlessly tasty smörgåsbord one constantly wants to return to.
Think like a gardener, not an architect: design beginnings, not endings
As I suggested in my Slowdown Papers last year, referring to work by Linda Tegg, Derek Jarman, Ron Finley, Emma Marriss, and others, the practices of gardening provide our most fruitful metaphorical terrain: the slower dynamic of organic growth; the sensibility of care, attention and cultivation; its regenerative potential; embodying systems and ecosystems, as well as cultural expression and social justice; the understanding that a garden can be planned, yet not controlled, and a thousand other things. I'm currently reading Leon Van Schaik's new book Doing, Seeing; Seeing, Doing, describing a lifetime of gardening and learning, architecture and urbanism, which only reaffirms my thoughts, as does Nadine Olonetzky's Inspirations: Time Travel Through Garden History. The great Spanish garden designer Fernando Caruncho, subject of a new Rizzoli monograph, says "For me, plotting gardens is an ancestral rite that man (sic) repeats over and over... It's an intimate and secret desire to give meaning to his own life. By transforming 'place' he seeks to understand that he is part of the cosmos and not alone before either history or the mystery of creation... A garden is where man recovers his whole being."
So this first principle suggests an entire body of practice - in fact a way of being - in those first four words: "Think like a gardener". Regarding the next three words, there are of course many architects who think precisely like this, and would like to act like it, too. Yet there are arguably many more architects who do not, in addition to a business model that traps much architectural practice. So, fair cop.
As with a garden, the principle of setting off in a clear direction or set of ideas, spatial, material and otherwise, yet not being overly concerned with the idea of An Ending, seems entirely right. A street cannot be finished, any more than a garden can be. Both require initiation, and then ongoing engagement, "repeating over and over", as Caruncho says.
This thinking also informed my contribution to NESTA's Rethinking Parks programme last year, in which I called for the end of parks - by beginning parks everywhere, turning streets into parks into gardens. The suggestion to 'end parks' is only half-serious - a good urban park is a thing to behold, and I do not really want to lose our grand botanic gardens or our small pockets of recreation ground. But it is half-serious. The grand civic park as lung of the city actually allows the rest of the place off the hook, whilst simultaneously outsourcing nature to a parks department, rather than a shared activity. Yet by turning every street into a park-like condition, but crucially as a shared garden, we unlock a different kind of city, a different relationship with biodiversity that must be direct, communal and shared - not 'managed', as with an outsourced process, but collectively designed and tended, as with a community garden.
Shared gardening in shared streets also implies engagement, participation, negotiation, and responsible shared ownership, which is core to the One-Minute City idea: that the space outside your front door is yours, as a citizen - even if it is not exclusively yours. It is the space you and your neighbours have an intimate relationship with, and can reasonably take ownership of, as long as this is not the exclusion of other uses, and ideally supports a diversity of other uses in the street. Hence the allusion to gardening, with its sense of contingency, interaction, negotiation, complexity, shared responsibility, companion planting by companions, and ongoing engagement. This begins to suggest a garden-centred design of the city.
As Jamaica Kincaid puts it, describing her own early epiphany, 'thinking like a gardener' means thinking about shared ownership of the city, about shared food, about shared identity, in shared spaces:
"Wherever I lived in my young years, in New York City in particular, I planted: marigolds, portulaca, herbs for cooking, petunias, and other things that were familiar to me, all reminding me of my mother, the place I came from. Those first plants were in pots and lived on the roof of a diner that served only breakfast and lunch, in a dilapidated building at 284 Hudson Street, whose ownership was uncertain, which is the fate of us all. Ownership of ourselves and of the ground on which we walk, ownership of the other beings with whom we share this and see that it is good, and ownership of the vegetable kingdom are all uncertain, too. Nevertheless, in the garden, we perform the act of possessing."
This 'gardener, not architect' principle is actually one of Eno's longer-standing ideas. I believe it even features in his Oblique Strategies cards from 1975, simply as 'Gardening, not Architecture', and a couple of decades later, he described the possibility of generative music using the metaphor of gardens.
"Thinking about gardens, and about why we like gardens, has been a fruitful tangent for me. People tend to imagine that making art is like making architecture - that you have a 'plan' or a 'vision' in mind before you start and then you set about making it. But my feeling is that making art can be more usefully thought of as being like gardening: you plant a few seeds and then start watching what happens between them, how they come to life and how they interact. It doesn't mean there's no plan at all, but that the process of making is a process of you interacting with the object, and letting it set the pace. This approach is sometimes called 'procedural'. I call it 'generative'. Just as a garden is different every year, a piece of generative art might also be different each time you see or hear it. The implication of this is that such a work is never really finished - there is never a final state." - From Brian Eno's notes on his Sonic Garden installation for Serpentine Gallery
Perhaps like Brian, I see that cities are analogous to music in many ways, making sense on their own terms rather than being reducible. Just as gardening is both literal suggestion and metaphorical allusion.
This imperative - beginnings, not endings - led to another core design principle in my Designing Missions playbook: the Half-Step. With transformation of streets in mind, the Street Moves kit is no more than a half-step - perhaps even a quarter-step - towards the true transformation required. It is a kind of benevolent insurgency force, moving into streets, parking space by parking space, enabling residents and users of the street to explore what they want to do with it. It is not the end, but the start. At some point, ideally soon, trees will need to put roots in the ground, not live in a box. We'll need to devote the central road space to micromobility and other needs and desires, rather than mutually-excluding cars. But it's too hard to jump to that in one go. Given their relatively radical nature, these changes must happen over time, at a pace that the street - its residents and users - is comfortable with.
It must be a deliberative process, and the Street Moves kit is really a platform for that process. It is not the end result. Once its work is done, it moves onto other streets, to start the process there. And then moves on again. It gets the game moving, and starts a forward movement, like a good, probing central midfielder. There is a clear arc, a sense of direction (in fact, enshrined in a broader mission), and institutional ownership, so although it wears the same clothes it is no pop-up (a pop-up often being an easy intervention without a strategy for further development.) But it is a small step forward, absolutely a beginning, not an end.
We commissioned Utopia Arkitekter to do some drawings for the project, including an articulation of this half-step process, which demonstrates this 'design beginnings, not endings' sensibility in a Swedish street context.
This design process was played out more fully in our Daylighting Melbourne work, moving from small, simple changes to a fuller transformation over time. I described that sensibility as Not-Planning.
Unfinished = fertile
This follows on from the previous point, continuing to inhabit the terrain of gardening, and these associated ideas of ongoing engagement, nurturing and cultivation, with the sense that the street is never 'done', no more than a garden is ever done. Where the previous point was explicit about 'the beginning', this point is about the 'what next?': the ongoing, the unfinished.
I've been particularly interested in the idea that leaving something unfinished means that it continues to adapt, as long as it is purposely designed with this in mind. This idea is core to adaptive design, which is perhaps the primary design sensibility I work with, but was also explored in an urban design context in the Incomplete City studio formats I worked on in London at the Bartlett and in Michigan at Taubman, with Grima + Ferrari and Boyer respectively. We got architects and urban designers working explicitly with this idea of ongoing iteration, deliberate incompleteness, and thus ever-present fertility and fecundity. This also clearly relates to the idea of Open City, as described by Richard Sennett (drawing on Jane Jacobs and many others.)
That allusion to 'fertility' also suggests the informal, deliberately unfinished and sometimes forgotten liminal spaces, such as those running alongside train tracks - which turn out to be effective seed carriers - or the biodiverse Swedish 'infields' that hover indeterminately between urban space and tilled agricultural land that inspired the artist Linda Tegg's ArkDes installation of the same name, and are amongst the most species-rich plant communities on Earth. Further, and crucially: a slower, regenerative form of organic growth.
Artists are to cities what worms are to soil
Another delightful reference to soil and earth, and their associated dynamics, but this principle also clearly foregrounds the preeminent role of culture in the city, rather than the overly technical worldview that usually manages streets. (Of course, the word 'culture' emerges from 'cultivate'.)
Having read Suzanne Simard's Finding the Mother Tree over the summer, it may be that the mycorrhizal fungi networks are a better candidate to represent these hidden substrates at the heart of all life. Yet the wriggling, exploratory, and more mobile worm perhaps captures the artist better.
Note also the clear inversion: the worm (in English, one is almost obliged to use the adjective 'lowly' in front of the noun) repositioned from the lowest creature to the highest, through its association with both art and soil, essential ingredients in all human life. This suggests the power in transforming what is seen as mundane in the city - a parking spaces, a side street, a bike rack, a patch of grass - and recognising its meaning; that such infrastructures are cultural, and can then also become the site of art, aesthetics and cultural expression. It also places a human instinct - many animals clearly perform acts of cultural self-expression, but none to the same degree - in the context of 'more-than-human' actors - worms, soils - which points to some of the most powerful debates presently running through design.
This sense of the generative power of the worm also recalls the Georges Bataille quote: "Pleasure only starts once the worm has got into the fruit; to become delightful, happiness must be tainted with poison." So this principle suggests a few things: questions of value (how would streets be designed if 'delight' was the 'key performance indicator' and how might that be done?); of the city's ability to produce dynamic arrays of emotion and expression rather than monocultures or single functions; of a more complex critique of often banal, if well-meaning reductions - like Happy Cities - which suggests a deeper engagement with what makes people and places tick (or not); and to foreground the near-infinite array of diverse roles that streets must play out, recognising this balancing act between infrastructures and structures, between necessary life-support functions (soil) and culture (the fruit it can produce) and artists as the infrastructure in-between.
More directly, it also reinforces that artists should be more involved in our streets projects, and thus streets themselves. We've had a few good discussions with Statens Konstråd, the Swedish public art agency, to this effect. This is also a role ArkDes can play within the project, hovering in that indeterminate space between art and design, as demonstrated by their powerful and helpful incursions into public and shared space, such as Utomhusverket, Infield, Dansbana! and more, as well as Street Moves.
A city's waste should be on public display
An immediately interesting statement, of course, and another inversion of the common assumptions behind shared resources like 'waste'. Equally though, this phrase is not only associated with the technical aspects of circularity, but also, in the use of the word 'display' - notions of performance, self-expression, confrontation, transparency, and a balance of individual and collective. As any viewer of police procedurals knows, rubbish is revealing.
Walking around the Stockholm neighbourhood I live in, Marco Steinberg once suggested to me that it might be better if our communal recycling bins were made from translucent glass or plastic rather than opaque metal, intrinsically revealing what the neighbourhood was made of. That may or may not be a good solution, but either way, in a country leading a recycling revolution (well, either 99%, or a lot less, or not at all), this is a great design brief.
What if this very Swedish ritual of 'performative recycling' was celebrated through the design of these spaces and infrastructures? What if these utilitarian metal boxes were more expressive of their intriguing contents, or accompanied by a coffee kiosk, or aligned with e-commerce delivery points, or - in the future - up-cycling and repair facilities, tools, and services?
In Stockholm at least, the small amount of remaining waste that heads to landfill is put out with 'wheelie-bins' once a week, dragged out into the street by residents (along with garden waste bin) as elsewhere. But because the communal recycling point works well, the impact of these bins, spatial and otherwise, is low - unlike in the UK, where a less communal culture, baked into both the design of streets and patterns of living, apparently leads to over 5.8 million people annually engaged in 'bin wars'.
However, the same country that has built out this amazing distributed recycling culture - which foregrounds and performs recycling in public, via robust low-tech kit in shared spaces, around which we could build these social contexts (even as a kind of public luxury - there is also a push towards constructing new urban developments with integrated vacuum waste systems, usually under some fatally misplaced 'smart city' agenda.
This feels totally the wrong approach, in that it locks extremely expensive hardware deep inside a building (from where it will be very difficult to adapt) whilst encouraging an 'out of sight, out of mind' sensibility around waste, reinforcing an individual/private rather than shared/public relationship. With Jevon's Paradox in mind, such systems may even encourage more waste in the first place, lacking the natural inhibiting factor of having to carry your waste to the local recycling bins (which, I will repeat again, turns out to be perfectly fine for almost everyone, even with a winter as cold as Sweden's). Occasionally, one hears the spurious argument that we need to more waste to power our waste-to-energy heating plants, a 'perverse incentive' typical of building overly-large, technology-led centralised systems over small, distributed non-grid social infrastructures.
We are yet to get near these questions in our street projects, even though it would be easy to see how small-is-beautiful distributed waste recycling points could fit neatly into the Street Moves kit-of-parts. The thoughts above (and more) are triggered by Brian's clear, concise yet provocative principle, which effortlessly reverses a lazy assumption about both waste and infrastructure - that both should be hidden - in favour of a more engaged relationship with shared resources and shared spaces.
Make places that are easy for people to change and adapt (wood and plaster, as opposed to steel and concrete)
Another clear adaptive design principle, though this focuses on material qualities rather than dynamics. By referencing the softer, more malleable wood and plaster, Eno not only directly foregrounds adaptation and participation, and evokes a different materiality for the street, but indirectly queries the value of steel and concrete.
Occasionally, the aesthetic qualities of the latter will be a selection criterion, but generally the imperative to use steel and concrete is in reducing maintenance, and thus maintenance costs. This material choice prevents change, which means the street is cheaper and easier to manage. If you build in steel and concrete, you get it done once, and rarely, if ever, have to go back to maintain it, observe it. Easy. Because you cannot easily alter it, you do not alter it. On purpose.
So Eno's principle implicitly asks What do we value? Is it more important to keep maintenance costs low, by preventing change, or to enable ongoing adaptation and participation? Given the preceding points, and the clear suggestion of the value of adaptation, of encouraging ongoing change and refinement, through participation, it's clear where our principles lie.
In my original sketches for the Street Moves kit, I was clearly thinking timber. Building in wood is something I've been involved with for years, from Low2No to several projects at Arup, to advocating for it here and elsewhere. For Street Moves, Lundberg Design specified glulam, sturdier, weightier wood elements, suitable for streets, produced from Swedish timber, and fabricated to fit particular streets.
Of course this draws on a supremely rich and diverse tradition of working in wood in Sweden, which I knew we could deploy. We decided to use the metaphor of the boardwalk not only because it described a safe way of walking out into a flow, and not only as they are so artfully integrated into the landscape, but also because they're made of wood. That short-circuited any discussion about wood not being appropriate for the Swedish climate, as people still regularly walk on the boardwalks through winter, no matter how damp, or even snowy and icy, the conditions are. As a natural material, wood is just fine under these circumstances, for obvious reasons.
We have only begun to scratch the surface of what a softer, more porous, regenerative street environment might be. This is moving beyond the excellent advances globally around SUDS (sustainable urban drainage systems), urban forests, and 'sponge cities' - although we must recognise that these are still outnumbered by business-as-usual - and substitutes wood and other biomaterials in for structures that we currently use concrete and steel for. These new textures for the street may even have new performative capabilities, as we begin to understand our materials with increased granularity (a question explored by the installation Subculture: Microbial Metrics And The Multi-Species City, by Kevin Slavin, Elizabeth Hénaff, and David Benjamin/The Living.)
As indicated in the Slowdown Papers, which contextualises the One-Minute City, I'm also drawing heavily from traditional Japanese sensibilities for both material and time. I wrote about the wooden temples at Ise, and the value in regular rebuilding - the quote "wood rots as we do", capturing that sensibility. Importantly, working with wood, and other biomaterials (as with gardens above), creates the positive need for care in a One-Minute model. This reverses the traditional dynamic around maintenance, suggesting that 'cost' is actually just 'investment'.
As Brian later commented in this lovely conversation between him and the philosopher Simon Critchley, this is a question of economy:
"I'm very attracted by economy, by the idea that you can make things that feel magical from very simple materials."
Ironically enough, under current conditions timber is relatively expensive compared to steel and concrete, despite the positive carbon impact of the former and the awfully negative carbon impact of the latter, largely because the latter steel and concrete has been subsidised and optimised over decades in extractive economies like Sweden's. That, combined with the higher cost that initial prototypes always bring, means that the first Street Moves prototypes are relatively expensive. Or at least they can appear so, to a traffic office in a Swedish municipality.
Our role at Vinnova is partly to close that initial funding gap, enabling prototypes, but the longer term picture will be resolved with subsequent iterations of design and production, as well as economies of scale.
But the real question this suggests is how Swedish wood - local, regenerative, circular and recyclable, job-creating, participative, healthy, enabling carbon sinks and biodiversity via 'New Forest' strategies - can possibly be more expensive than carbon-intensive steel and concrete? How are we valuing these materials? That is the interesting question to go after. Brian's principle started with an impetus for adaptation, which is already powerful enough - but it may end up generating even more interesting impacts than perhaps he realised.
Places which accommodate the very young and the very old are loved by everybody else too
Hot on the heels of this material set-up that allows for participation and adaption, quickly follows the question, But who is participating?
The initial designs for the streets, in our first iterations in Stockholm, were produced by school kids. As described previously, they were facilitated by architects from Spacescape and White Arkitekter, who used (and modified) simple paper cut-outs of hand-drawings I'd produced, suggesting a diverse set of 'street kit' elements, as a base for discussion. But the kids were holding the pens. The kids were the designers.
This follows the core idea that the street designs the street. When explaining this publicly, I usually note that the initial set of prototypes streets were selected in discussion with Stockholms stad (the local municipality) after Spacescape's analysis work. Alexander Ståhle at Spacescape suggested the interplay of schools and streets would be fruitful.
So with these streets spatially and actively 'dominated' by schools, in the best sense, it follows that the lead designers should be the schoolchildren. (This was also counterpointed with a resident-based participation programme led by Stockholms stad, of course.) If the street had an aged-care home on it, it would be eighty-year-olds in the pictures holding the pens, rather than eight-year-olds. If the street was largely oriented around student housing, it would be eighteenyear-olds, and so on. And in reality, it's often a mix of people. The street designs the street.
But in this case, it was great to be able to demonstrate this principle right away. The image of very young schoolkids drawing on the street layouts also helps shift the discussion about who decides away from technocratic experts, and towards the everyday expertise of those that use the city. It's particularly pleasing that the kids are using variations on the participation kit that we'd used in workshops with professionals a few months before, uncovering the possibility of the project.
By all accounts, the kids were apparently delighted to see their work transformed into material reality in front of their schools - or at least, close enough (in conversation with them, they always wanted more swings - and why not?).
Although the results were hardly perfect, and in some cases moved on months later, that these young people learned that they could change their city - that it is their city to change - at such a formative age may be one of the more powerful aspects of the project over the longer term.
Of course this specific principle is core to the work of groups like 8-80 Cities, Lego Foundation, Natalia Krysiak's Cities For Play, Tim Gill's Rethinking Childhood, and many more like them, as well as projects for the elderly - this lovely project in Funabashi, Japan springs to mind there, for the intergenerational interplay (thanks to Re:Public's Fumiko Ichikawa for the tip, there) along with Riku Café in Rikuzentakata designed by Naruse Inokuma Architects or Jikka retirement village by Issei Suma architects, and a thousand other intergenerational projects in Japan, in what can be seen as a positive product of their slowdown sensibilities.
There's a lot more to say about participation generally, not least from the experiences of the charity I'm a trustee for (Participatory City). But many of those ambitions are outlined in the original One-Minute City post, which draws from Sennett/Jacobs Open City, Saskia Sassen's reversal of expertise and Michael Sorkin's Sidewalks Of New York framework amongst others. Vinnova's Civic Tech programme is also part-funding an augmented reality citizen participation toolkit - Stadslabbet - with Utopia Arkitekter. Such tools can be highly engaging (a previous team of mine helped with similar concept design for Ericsson R&D, as part of a UN HABITAT initiative) but 'pen and paper' has its own untouchable merits, when it comes to collaborative drawing. (Reinforcing the value of drawing, as hand-craft, is covered in Sennett's The Craftsman, and something to keep putting on the table in a world of BIM, GIS and digital twins. Another value of drawing is captured in Le Corbusier's line, "I prefer drawing to talking. Drawing is faster, and leaves less room for lies." Though given that the outcomes of Corb's work did not always delivery truth-to-drawings, perhaps another quote, noting the context, and Robin Evans, who said "drawing... occupies the most uncertain, negotiable position of all, along the main thoroughfare between ideas and things.")
The practices of meaningful collaborative drawing can often, though not always, stretch pleasingly across the 'very young' and 'very old' range that Brian's principle speaks to. And the imperative to engage this diverse age range immediately suggests questions of other forms of diversity. This would draw in the so-called 'edge users' of the street, whilst recognising that there many different forms of spectrum here - many different kinds of edge to be counterpointed and collided - and that each could design the street, own the street. With social justice as a core 'grand challenge' - How just is this street? - this principle will clearly reward repeated unpacking and exploration.
Low rent = high life
A follow-on question of social justice, and similarly direct, here addressing the affordability of the street, and thus the accessibility to meaningful life on the street. But in its delightful counterpointing of high and low - reversing many of the assumptions about rent and quality of life in four words - this is both a question of justice and generating capacity for invention and adaptation, by producing diversity. By keeping space affordable, and not only in housing but in shops, studios, workshops, community centres, storage, and so on, the street can build a capability and capacity for ongoing change at its core.
This runs counter to the unethical pursuit of rising property prices from many, perhaps most, economic development functions in city governments. Deliberately keeping rent low ensures a vitality to the street, and thus to the neighbourhood. The value of this has been clear from Jane Jacobs onwards (even if, ironically and sadly, some of her own principles and practices have been 'gamed' by property markets to now produce entirely unaffordable cities, which are largely grinding to a halt - see the trajectory of Jacobs' beloved Manhattan over the last two decades.)
There is more, though. In our context in Sweden, this principle also effortlessly makes clear that the edges of the street are not bound by traffic department's jurisdiction. Clearly, the way that the street works is dependent on the buildings and structures that define its edges, and shape the activities of people that inhabit them, and thus the street. Clearly, this relationship is blurred, symbiotic and overlapping. Yet in Swedish towns and cities, the traffic functions look after mobility, whilst other functions look after the buildings. There is an uneasy silence about what happens in-between.
So a principle about affordable rent cannot really land on the desk of trafikkontoret (the traffic department) who largely govern the street, despite its fundamental impact on the street - what it does, who does it, and what it feels like. The One-minute City concept inhabits this indeterminate blurred space, rejecting the idea of a substantive difference between building and street, and instead recognises their interdependency, their symbiotic relationship.
Make places for people to look at each other, to show off to each other
I like this principle very much. It somehow feels a counterpoint to several of the others, which I've bent towards entirely worthy pursuits, like gardening, electric mobility, local democracy, and kids being architects. But this principle clearly concerns a different sensibility: showing off, self-expression, the soft city of malleable public identities, the city of desire. A city of fun over function.
It evokes questions that Eno often gets at - Why do people make art out of haircuts, or food? Why do people like music? - in his thinking about art and culture. And indeed, that is another facet of my earlier statement; that the city is about culture, and in which case, our streets can act as an "index of social vitality", the unfurling canvases spooling through our shared electrocardiograph of society and culture:
"Art is always the index of social vitality, the moving finger that records the destiny of a civilisation. A wise statesman should keep an anxious eye on this graph, for it is more significant than a decline in exports or a fall in the value of a nation's currency."
- Herbert Read, To Hell With Culture (1962)
Or from an urbanist's perspective, it directly suggests flâneurie. The boulevard that the flâneur is most obviously drawn from is surely one archetype for the streets that populate a One-Minute City.
"What about the street, however? It serves as a meeting place (topos), for without it no other designated encounters are possible (cafes, theaters, halls). These places animate the street and are served by its animation, or they cease to exist. In the street, a form of spontaneous theater, I become spectacle and spectator, and sometimes an actor ... The urban space of the street is a place for talk, given over as much as to the exchange of words and signs as it is to the exchange of things. A place where speech becomes writing."
- Henri Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution (1970)
For me, the boulevards implied by this 'showing off' principle evokes the open streets I walked through in Berlin's Schöneberg a decade ago - the site of communal gardening, informal governance, and gentrification struggles all at the same time, and a direct influence on my thinking here.
All good streets, whether Shanghai or Sheffield, have the characteristic of a stage, the "spontaneous theatre" that Lefebvre describes.. For our project, it suggests social spaces and cultural environments, the kit-of-parts alluding to the generative and playful systems of Lego, Minecraft and Unity - or indeed stage sets and film craft - rather than the inert, numbing and negating catalogue of concrete bollards.
But also, in attempting to proactively rather than reactively address e-scooters - spending many hours discussing with Voi and Tier in particular - the Street Moves kit implicitly recognises that such things are probably not going away because they are fun, possibly even cool, at this point in their evolution. This is why they are popular, which makes them tricky for traffic departments to really comprehend, never mind manage. (Of course, the reasons that people drive cars are also to do with showing off, and complex cultural questions of status and distinction, cultural expression, and presentation of self. They are managed as if a technical matter, when in fact they are cultural and political objects.)
I asked Utopia Arkiteker to convey some idea of these highly social spaces in the drawings they did for us. We spent many hours working together over these drawings, as I often like to embed ideas into small details (the birds are everywhere in these pictures, suggesting the street as a natural environment, setting up a small subsequent link to my review of the Utomhusverket installation at ArkDes, currently - but I think I suggested deer and wolves at one point.)
I was happy to see the Street Moves/Framtidsgator kit in the evening, particularly the elements outside the school on Tjärhovsgatan on Södermalm, being taken over by groups of kids on the cusp of teenagerdom, doing precisely this casual, studied showing-off. There's more to do here, in terms of enriching the kit over time - and what a great design brief: how might we design a street for the casual, everyday acts of showing off?
Shared public space is the crucible of community
This principle recognises, and positively reaffirms, that the street is our most potent, complex shared public space - and that one of the goals of such environments must be to generate community, as if a crucible.
This, again, is a fundamental switch in outcomes and drivers of decision-making. The next phase of Vinnova's street missions includes new forms of 'value model', suggesting we should be a little more specific about the broader range of value that a good street can produce. We are constructing models and practices for better understanding - and prioritising - biodiversity, sustainability, public health, social fabric, and economic outcomes, working with university researchers, public agencies, and consultancies to track multiple variables, positively collided in a 'model garden'. These outcomes must be linked to both material and spatial alterations - what forms of architecture and design can create such a crucible? - as well as new kinds of ownership, operational and governance changes.
Counterbalancing all this necessary technocracy, however, is this principle's emphasis on community, and the kind of spaces, places and activities that might create community.
Perhaps my favourite encounter from the first phase of Street Moves was quietly observing a family group - possibly several families meeting, by the look of it - enjoying a Sunday afternoon picnic on the Framtidsgator 'beach' on Halsingegatan, and using the Street Moves kit across the street a few metres away as a smörgåsbord, a table to lay out the picnic on. The family groups were pleasingly diverse, chattering away over shared food, and it was lovely to see this social interaction taking place in the street, in what had previously been only a car parking space.
Car parking is a way of privatising public space, albeit temporarily, due to to its mutually exclusive condition. Although the parking space is formally public, if one puts a privately-owned car in it, the space cannot be used for anything else. The car privatises that space through its mutually exclusive occupation, at least while parked.
Such a space certainly cannot be truly al masha, that's for sure. Al masha is a more advanced understanding of what shared public space must mean; that it must be collaboratively produced, not simply be formally logged as public space in the state's spreadsheets. I've written more about al masha and 'truly public space' recently, regarding Studio Ossidiana's Utomhusverket 2021 installation for ArkDes, and so I won't dwell on this here. But in selecting an Eno quote to mark the end of that piece, it should be clear that these ideas are variations on a theme.
But rather than all these words, here, in this previously inert space on a sunny Sunday afternoon, a picnic! And the lovely touch of the tablecloth under the plates and cups, laid out over the wooden Street Moves kit, is somehow unbelievably touching, a domestic touch that implicitly describes shared ownership by the community. The space is a crucible indeed, albeit wooden. I did not imagine that people might do this with these simple forms, but the offer of sociality by the designers at Lundberg had been taken up in the most delightful way. How the design evolves in the next stage, diversifying the design to produce a richer range of communal outcomes, is the next challenge. This principle should ensure that the creation of community drives the decision-making about the street, rather than it being a crucible for generating traffic.
A really smart city is the one that harnesses the intelligence and creativity of its inhabitants
Finally, another examples of these principles vaulting on each other, as this follows on from the previous. Eno subverts the smart city rhetoric very clearly and directly, simply highlighting the true smarts in the collective creativity of the city's inhabitants, and positioning that to the fore. (This is an approach I've long-espoused, for what it's worth.) Note that this doesn't deny technology's transformative potential. It simply makes our priorities clear.
By emphasising the role of a city's inhabitants rather than a vendor's technology set, Brian places value and trust in people. This simple act, particularly important in the context of 'smart cities', actually reveals the almost misanthropic culture that has come to sit at the heart of much urban planning. Perhaps we can understand how traffic departments might have come focus on the certainties of vehicles rather than ambiguities of people and other forms of nature - we might expect it, but not excuse it - but planning generally has built cultures of decision-making around abstract modelling, simulation and now algorithm, rather than participation, collaboration, and the messy complexities of agonistics and 'hard cooperation'. To let the street design the street, as described above, requires faith, trust, engagement, and careful support.
Finally, it is usually necessary to point out how we must move beyond people or 'users' as the focus - at least having got to that stage of development - by now pointing out the need for greater emphasis on biodiversity, and other forms of nature.
And yet, it's interestingly useful that Brian chooses the word "inhabitants" for this principle, rather than 'people' or 'citizens'. This opens up the possibility of a more-than-human-centred approach to designing and running the street. Perhaps it recognises the many inhabitants of the city that are other forms of nature, non-human, and that they too have forms of intelligence, even creativity. What if we followed Simard's work on collaborative mycorrhizal networks and their ongoing regenerative forests ecosystems, and applied this to urban design for streets? What might come out of that discussion? What would be a new form of community, based on collaborative, regenerative relationships between human and non-human nature? What kind of street is that? What might that feel like?
• • •
At high-level, this is how Brian's principles initially played out in the Vinnova-led mission to retrofit streets in Sweden, or at least how I interpreted them for our work. Actually, each time I look at them, and as time passes through the project, they keep generating further thoughts.
Many of these principles will be familiar to those of you who know Eno's career, and the way he thinks and works. As noted, there even are trace elements of Oblique Strategies in there, never mind the rich array of other artworks, writing, speeches and discussions since the mid-1970s.
More directly, there are echoes of the principles in Eno's spoken word contribution to the opening of William Doyle's Design Guide (2019). He must have been pondering them at roughly the same time, though they perhaps suggest a neighbourhood scale rather than a street. Have a listen at Bandcamp or Spotify, but here they are:
"Distinctive and positive identity; An understandable layout; A sense of place; Informal interaction among people; Locally distinctive; Safe; Welcoming; Create visual interest; Active street frontages; The presence of gateways; Adaptability within the open space: Decreasing dependency; A sense of community."
• • •
The trick with design principles is not to see them as if law, as if a set of un-bending, precise strictures which must be followed at all costs, or ticked off like checklists. I prefer to see them as ingredients, like the 'staples' that sit under the Masterchef kitchen benches: the oils, vinegars, seasoning, fats, herbs and spices that you can combine and recombine, challenged with new ingredients and contexts, to create many different kinds of dish, old and new. These principles should provide a clear sense of direction, but they should also be broadly generative, and applicable to a variety of contexts.
Again, there are numerous guidelines and practices for balancing the complex web of pavement widths, building set-backs, sustainable materials, planting programmes and so on. Yet few open up the starting point of What is the street for? What are streets about? Those questions are what these principles address, and hopefully they might prompt many, designers or not, to start putting them into practice, through careful, engaged and open designing and organising.
Huge thanks to Brian for these principles, which he so generously contributed. I've used his thinking directly in our One-Minute City ideas, as described, but they could clearly apply to numerous other things. Use them as you see fit! I'm sure he won't mind.
And as Groucho Marx said, "If you don't like these principles, well, I have other ones".