thoughts on our urban future

Looking at the future: thoughts on the National Conference on Urban Design

The Laban Dance Academy building, where this year's conference took place

Apparently, there is a future in which cars are fitted with a device that stops them from going over the speed limit, not allowing the driver to increase velocity using GPS. Another one, more interesting, is where cars drive themselves whilst we play driving simulation games, the real vehicles part of a self-organised, intelligent system which does away with the idea of congestion and individually controlled vehicles. Both these ideas were presented at this year’s National Conference on Urban Design last week, which had the theme ‘Cities 2030’ and took place last week in London.

The event started with a presentation at the University of Greenwich where student work was presented in the context of a futurist narrative of doomed cities where technology and ecologic disaster had completely re-shaped our lives. It may not sound like so, but it was fun. Like watching a film.  It was interesting as reminder of how hard we have to work to avoid getting anywhere near that kind of future. With the world’s population growing to over 7 billion in the next few weeks and most of those people living in cities, getting the balance right will not be an easy task.

Back to the conference.  The full day of seminars was arranged around the idea of looking at the future. The talks ranged from the very immediate future such as the Olympic Village (and its legacy) to a presentation, in hindsight, of the development of the docklands in London about 30 years ago by the London Docklands Development Corporation. It made me think how long it takes to really see change in urban environments, a key idea to keep in mind when developing proposals at an urban scale. On that thought, it really will be great to have the opportunity to see how East London looks like in 30 years and how much the Olympics will have had contributed  to it. What will the legacy be really like? I think these were perhaps the most interesting presentations of the day.

Various presentations touched upon the various ways in which technology impacts on urban life and urban form. Rather than focusing on how this is already happening, the focus was on what may be coming – how can we use technology to our advantage in a more conscious way, in all the processes that take to deliver and manage buildings and public spaces? Whilst these thoughts were not developed in any great level of detail (not enough time for that, nor was that the focus of each particular presentation), I thought it was interesting how technology was present in the way practitioners think of urban design and the city. Even more interestingly, these technologies have the potential to influence our processes of thought, or how we get to decide on a particular solution, both directly and through conceptual interpretation.

Another running theme of the conference was devoted to the more immediate issues that concern us in our everyday life. Whilst it seems far apart from futuristic speculations it isn’t as much in the sense that we are already taking the steps that are going to get us there. We still have to get the streets and public realm right, and we need to find ways to pay for it. Not least, we need to convince others (politicians, investors, etc.) that they are worth paying for.

The emerging changes to the Planning System were mentioned, but not a lot of time was spent on the subject. Some scepticism was expressed, but that was it – the subject which would have taken over the day if explored properly. In fact, almost every subject touched would have merited a whole day on its own, but as it was, the conference was  good opportunity to see where are some of the trends and what other people are doing. It was really difficult to sum up, as the presentations were so varied. Barry Shaw, who presented the Docklands ‘legacy’ right at the beginning of the day, talked about the need for great amounts of optimism in urban designers. I think that kind of does it for me.


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