The Spontaneous City

Forced by the economic slump, architects as well as urban designers are searching for new approaches. With the publication of The Spontaneous City the office Urhahn Urban Design wants to offer a manual to redefine the profession. A book is not a city, but all the same this pleasant collection of contributions does provide proof that collaboration between many parties within a clear framework can produce fine results.

The term ‘spontaneous city’ has existed for longer than today and can be explained in lots of different ways. In addition to a manifesto from Urhahn Urban Design itself, the book therefore contains no fewer than forty columns, project descriptions, analyses, interviews and essays (some pictorial) by other parties involved in development.
Taken together, they amount to an appeal ‘to make the modern city according to a new set of principles (…) in which the emphasis on urban coherence and safety should be replaced to accommodate a contemporary culture that demands flexibility, sustainability, participation, and surprise’, explains Brendan McGetrick in the prologue. According to him, many planners have an inflated view of their profession, and they should search for new coalitions and become aware of its limited ‘European view’ of the world.

The time is ripe to break with the customary practice whereby big parties run the show. But the end of large-scale area development does not mean that the Dutch planning tradition should be thoughtlessly cast aside, the authors from Urhahn Urban Design emphasise. Major players in development will be forced, out of sheer necessity, to operate on a smaller scale and admit other parties into the process. It is time for a new concept.

The concept of the spontaneous city seeks to establish a link between the city and its residents. Important principles are: more space for residents’ initiatives, mixed programmes, and small-scale initiatives. Designed to feel like a spontaneous collection of contributions, the book even hails the bicycle once again as an alternative mode of transport. The book also calls for deregulation, claiming that all we need are a few simple, clear rules. An obvious solution is a grid framework within which freedom and flexibility prevail. The government may then facilitate the different initiatives and processes. According to game designer Ben Ceverny, one of the interviewees in the book, there are even analogies with video games in which you can select a certain basic character and then clothe with the aid of a set of options.

‘Spontaneous’ also means learning to live with uncertainties. Carefully organised master plans in which the final image is cast in stone are a thing of the past. Since the Netherlands boasts a rich planning tradition and, moreover, places heavy emphasis on freedom — at least that’s what the authors from Urhahn Urban Design claim — the Netherlands is the perfect place to experiment with a new form of spatial planning: ‘the concept “Spontaneous City” offers new opportunities, even though something is bound to go wrong now and again’. Urban planners are called upon to adopt a flexible attitude and make clever use of the input from private initiatives to create a lively and sustainable city. The urban planner should adopt the role of ‘searcher’ (here the book quotes from development economist William Easterly) instead of planner. A searching attitude ensures that people can adapt more easily to changing circumstances.

The manifesto by Urhahn Urban Design opens with the statement that there are many producers in the spontaneous city, in particular residents and business people. That calls for another attitude and way of thinking. Above all, more than one captain on a ship demands exceptional helmsmanship. Urhahn Urban Design defines four key principles. The first is ‘zoom in’, taking local needs into account and working in small stages. The second is ‘supervise open developments’, an appeal for adaptable buildings. The third is ‘create collective values’ and refers to the continuing importance of collective investments. For this, a sturdy framework administered by the government is necessary. The fourth principle is ‘be user-oriented’. According to the authors, the spontaneous city is designed by its residents in an endless process of growth and adaptation. The new (?) role of urban planners is to connect individual wishes to common interests.

The book then puts forward numerous references, varying from projects by Urhahn Urban Design itself to classic examples like the grid in New York, the canal belt in Amsterdam, the Statenkwartier district in The Hague, the slums of South America, and even ancient Rome. But weren’t the Amsterdam canals and the Manhattan grid constructed with the help of big capitalists during periods of economic prosperity? And in the slums isn’t it the mafia that supply the water and electricity and even narcotics and intimidation?
Neither scenario seems to be directly applicable in the Netherlands. The examples by the office Urhahn Urban Design itself offer a better indication of what scenarios are capable of generating new values in the city. The art is to mobilise small change on a big scale. The lack of major investors means that small projects will be deployed as catalysts to achieve spatial changes.

The concept of the spontaneous city is, above all, a brave search for a better balance between collective values and individual freedom. The urban planner can contribute to this by devising conditions within a simple but strong framework. Freedom reigns within that framework. Before 1900 the government largely pressed for infrastructure and not for public housing. Now it seems that we are once again heading in that direction.

The question remains whether the Netherlands should in fact be a laboratory for the rest of the world if we can look elsewhere and find numerous examples that are inspiring to greater or lesser degrees. Development on a plot-by-plot basis offers potential as a temporary (?) solution for the economic downturn. This form of ‘spontaneity’, however, is not an opportunity but a necessity. In the Netherlands the profession will no doubt focus more and more on repairing the existing city in the near future. And in that process far fewer regulations are indeed required. But don’t we then run the risk of lapsing into uncontrollable chaos? Can we actually apply this concept in the post-war housing districts? And, more importantly, is Dutch planning culture capable of changing? Gert Urhahn believes it has to. ‘It is high time for another approach to space for many parties and a government that facilitates,’ he argues.

The book closes with an interview with Urhahn. For him the spontaneous city is a reaction to the ‘man-made’ (modernistic) city that, he adds, is characterised by sterile housing environments that are too inflexible, that ignore existing structures, and that rely too heavily on the car. This is unmistakably the case, but wasn’t the modern city a reaction to the poor living conditions at the start of the previous century and a way of guaranteeing a basic quality of life for everybody? Will the ‘spontaneous city’ become the exclusive preserve of the propertied class? Time will tell.

By way of a supplement to the book — which calls on us to broaden our ‘European view’ of the world — it is perhaps worthwhile to consider the possibility of exporting our ‘old’ knowledge and experience in the field of public housing in an adapted (i.e. less rigid) form. Large parts of the world are currently in drastic need of adequate and affordable housing for large numbers of people, which need to be built fast and on a large scale. That, too, is not an opportunity but a necessity.