Spatial Design Literacy

The world is trying to figure out urbanism for the urban era: green-, new-, crowd-, smart-, adaptive-, etc. The most fundamental problem to address is physiological deprivation — water, food, shelter, clothing, heat, sleep, security, etc. — not only for the people currently on Earth, but for all future people as well.

In South Africa, for example, the basic food and non-food necessities of life are not being adequately met for 63% of the population1The Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit — South African poverty lines: a review and two new money-metric thresholds. Here, as in other places, most of the government’s top-down approaches to problematic urban form have aggravated the situation. Subsidised housing has neither reduced the backlog nor integrated cities2Western Cape Infrastructure Framework 2013; The overall effect of public housing is a worsening of the apartheid space-economy of segregation, division and fragmentation3Edgar Pieterse, African Centre for Cities; Malnutrition is high and contributes to 64% of all deaths in children under the age of five4Unicef South Africa; Food security is deteriorating52016 Provincial Economic Review and Outlook; We have a carbon-intensive dirty economy, as does everyone else; etc.

User-centered, everyone-driven creation of the built environment is required. It is essential only that the people of a society, together, all the millions of them, not just professional architects, design all the millions of places6Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way Of Building. There is consequently a worldwide move towards bottom-up, community-driven urban (re)design initiatives. These are aimed especially at the informal urban sphere as the world’s population is increasingly urban and the poor are the major producers of houses7SA SDI: South African Shack/Slum Dwellers International Alliance meaning informal is the new normal8Alfredo Brillembourg, Informal is the new normal.

However, it will not profit to focus on crowd-sourced urban planning solutions if the crowd is illiterate — in the sense that we, as individuals and society, evidently lack a placemaking ‘language’ with which to reason about, ‘read’ and ‘write’ wholesome urban form.

A bottom-up approach must also take place in a design for — so as to move towards — a built environment that is wholesome in its entirety: not just wholesome parts (lexicon), but wholesome relating of the parts (grammar), and wholesome expressions in a given context (semantics). What we need is a holistic, top-down design of a language that then enables guided bottom-up expressions in that language — we need to design wholesome urban organisms, as well as their DNA, to guide the processes and relationships of the individual cells toward the intended wholes.

Yet now it has become clear that the organism is formed purely by the interaction of its cells, guided by the genetic code.

… The growing cells alone, communicating with each other, and guided only by the instructions programmed into them by the genetic code, act correctly, with respect to one another, in such a way that they create an entirely individual whole, not predictable in detail, but recognizable in species.

And this is true for a town too.

At one time people believed that a town had to be planned by a planner who made a plan or blueprint. It was said that if the order of the town is not created from above, there will just not be an order in the town. And so, even in spite of the most obvious evidence of all the beautiful towns and villages built in traditional societies without master plans, this belief has taken hold, and people have allowed themselves to give up their freedom.

As in biology, though, it is becoming clear now that the structure of a town can be woven much more deeply, more intricately, from the interaction of its individual acts of building within a common language, than it can from a blueprint or a master plan9Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way Of Building.

We need universal literacy in a ‘creation-language’ with which we can all reason about and ‘write’ wholesome urban form — a language that facilitates a culture of self- and community-reliance; that leads to an environment that meets the basic needs of every single person; that results in not only circular design that simply sustains, but first an upward spiral of regeneration reaching mutualistic symbiosis, where the built environment itself actually benefits the natural environment.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. The Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit — South African poverty lines: a review and two new money-metric thresholds
2. Western Cape Infrastructure Framework 2013
3. Edgar Pieterse, African Centre for Cities
4. Unicef South Africa
5. 2016 Provincial Economic Review and Outlook
6, 9. Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way Of Building
7. SA SDI: South African Shack/Slum Dwellers International Alliance
8. Alfredo Brillembourg, Informal is the new normal