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Thesis Blog

A semi-weekly blog outlining the research, findings, and design development of my master's thesis "Urban Nature - The Inhabitable Edge' at Kunstakademiets Arkitektskole in Copenhagen.


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I'm going to talk about the research and theory that I've been working on the past 2 weeks. I think that this research is highly motivating and is really helping me clarify my position on how to integrate the idea of 'planning' with the idea of evolution. 

Let's begin with this, my enormous concept web occupying a great deal of space [that really doesn't belong to me!] on the wall by my desk.

ou may not be able to read any of this, but it's based on a book called 'Evolution of Cities' by Stephen Marshall. It's a fantastic book that talks about perceptions of cities and how modernist city planning went so wrongly amiss. It's really a page turner, which is something you don't often say for books on architecture.

Marshall makes a major distinction in cities and the perceived desirability to live in certain cities over others. Cities that are perceived as desirable to live in are most often 'unplanned' cities--cities that have grown and changed over time. 'Unplanned', however, does not mean 'disordered' or 'disfunctional'. It simply refers to the amount of 'systematic order' that presides over the design of the city.

Systematic order at any given scale is evidence of design at that scale.

Cities that have evolved--let's say rather, 'emerged', are ordered on a micro scale. That is, the city is ordered in very small pieces over time. This is Order without a Plan.

Order without a plan: the interactions of individual elements may themselves be uncoordinated and chaotic, but the overall patterns are recurring and familiar.

This all sounds very similar to the theory of evolution, does it not? Except where cities are concerned, the changes that take place are operating on a principle of 'artificial selection' as opposed to 'natural selection'. Humans are actively selecting certain qualities that their cities should have. Since the Athens Charter of the 1930's, city planning has been decidedly 'selected' for automobiles and maximum profit. But we can choose to select for other qualities: street life, walkability, parks, safety, density, etc.

Artificial Selection: When humans intervene in the reproduction of a species to produce some benefit.

'Planned' cities often operate under the paradigms of...

1. 'city as work of art' (e.g., Brasillia, Canberra, and more recently, the Palm-shaped islands of Dubai), where the city plan itself is perceived as an artistic design, with 'city parts' fit in to a particular shape; Conceived in plan at a large scale, with little reference to the street-level perspectives experienced on the human scale.


2. 'city as a machine' (e.g., Chandigarh; the unrealized but heavily influential plans for La Ville Radieuse by Corbusier; and most modern 'suburb' type cities), where the city is perceived as having different operational 'parts' that are connected with infrastructure, and are designed for efficiency of transportation, often split into use-zones for commercial, industrial, residential, etc. An entire city can be built of existing parts in a short amount of time and will be functional as long as the correct pieces are in place.

These two paradigms are examples of 'complicated' design.

Complicated Design: Every single element is deliberately positioned with respect to each other and the whole.

'Unplanned' cities have sometimes been compared to 'organisms' that have 'hearts' (centers), 'lungs' (parks), 'cells' (neighborhoods), 'arteries' (infrastructure), etc. that work in an adaptable, flexible way over time. This is kind of similar to the 'city as a machine' paradigm, only it is much more sensitive and works on a smaller scale over a much longer period of time.

Finally, Marshall suggests a new paradigm for city planning: the 'city as an ecosystem.' The word 'ecosystem' is coined from the Greek 'oikos' (house) and 'sustema' (interacting components). So it rather makes sense that a city would be like a 'house of interacting components'.

Eco-System: The order of the whole arises from interactions between the parts.

Much like how 'ecosystems' are understood in nature, the city is composed of elements that interact, change, and grow. The city is composed of relatively selfish elements using the city as a vehicle for their own existence and reproduction. The individual elements do not see themselves as having a role in the survival of the city--yet they have a profound effect on what the city is.

These two paradigms are examples of complex design.

Complex Design: Something with many parts that are not pre-specified, and may be unknown to any single person, even if every part was deliberately placed there by someone.

I am choosing to place myself inside this paradigm of the city as an ecosystem, because I think that it works very successfully in providing a method of planning that is both realistic and sensitive.

The overall goal, then, of this research was to understand that it is possible to design at a small scale--using micro scale changes--that will have a positive effect on the large scale.


Purposive intervention made through local, incremental changes by artificial selection leads to 'emergent' cities that end up with a high level of order, despite not having been conceived of as a whole.

Let's call this 'Micro-Scale Urban Planning'

In my thesis program, I stated that I would make a schematic proposal for the entire site, including paths and lighting, and then move into a specific focus area where I could propose a sequence of design that could be carried out all over. i.e., a prototypical edge. As I want to follow the idea of micro-scale urban planning, I had to make a thorough analysis of the existing site conditions. This includes things like major thoroughfares, space use, nearby public spaces, green space along the edge and in the nearby city, way finding, sun and wind studies.

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This may look like unprofessional crap to you, but I assure you it pleased my tutor greatly to see me move away from 'diagramatic' methods of representation, to more artsy-collagy methods of representation. Hopefully this image speaks for itself.

You see the white spots represent 'functioning public spaces' on the city lakes. These are places where there is a great deal of activity and people use these spaces for recreation and leisure. On the other hand, you see that at two of the major crossings, there is a lack of white dots... indicating 'missing' public spaces. These are places where I feel there should be a great public space, but there isn't. This is mainly due to the fact that these two crossings are fairly large, 6 to 9-lane roads that have prioritized cars over people. I have often visited these two crossings during 'rush hour' (ha ha ha ha... *cough*), and I can assure you that there is absolutely no need for roads this big.

I therefore make 2 suggestions: first, that there should be public places at these two crossings, and second, that the crossings should be reduced in size respectively to 4 and 5 lanes. This gives more space for pedestrian/bike access, imitating the successful crossing found at Dronning Louises Bro (white spot in the centre) which has only 2 traffic lanes, huge 3-4m bike lanes, and 5 m pedestrian sidewalks on each side.

Right now, the city lake edges are like very long 'corridors' with a few interesting 'rooms' at each end.

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There is really nothing wrong with this set up, except that at the moment it means there are a lot of extremely long, boring edges with nothing to look at. I think it would be a good idea to expand on this existing concept, to make more rooms along the corridors.

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And, it would be a really good idea of some of those rooms became places of transition: between the buildings and roads to the paths and water, creating edges that become interesting and inhabitable for both people and nature.

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At Fredensbro, the northernmost 'missing' public space, I suggest that there should be a beach. This follows a proposal done by a local architecture firm, Christiansen and Co, who have proposed a constructed 'bath' at this point.


See more from CCO here.

I see absolutely no need for a constructed swimming zone. I mean, we're dealing with a shallow lake here, not a harbor with large boats going through. It really irritates me the way architects think you can't swim unless there's a designated zone.

You'll notice in this proposal that they've suggested there will be no traffic at all on Fredensbro. I think this is rubbish. They've proposed that the major crossings should be made into car-tunnels, essentially removing the lakes as a point of contact for drivers in the city. I think this is wrong--to 'punish' drivers by forcing them into tunnels. Street traffic is a perfectly normal and healthy part of any lively city, as long as it is not given free reign over the infrastructure. I can't imagine denying commuters or bus drivers a view of the city lakes in the city. The more you remove people from looking at the city, the worse off you will be (in my opinion).

I think it is better to limit traffic--give them 2 or 4 lanes and make more space for other modes of transport (LRT, biking, and walking), or reduce the speed of the roads rather than bury them underground. Besides, when you start proposing to turn these roads into huge green spaces, I just know that they won't be as idealistically populated as they show them in renderings.

Anyways. A beach. This place is actually the best for a beach because at the angle it's located, it receives full sunlight the most out of any spot on the lakes. It also has a fairly high level change, so with more trees planted, the noise level from the road can easily be reduced. The hill provides a level of shelter from the wind, and brings enclosure to the space.

The second proposal for public space is at the southern crossing of Åboulevard. Here I would reduce the lanes from 9 to 5, and change the rather heinous Søpavilion which is currently used as a shady discotek for fourth rate Danish DJ's. The building is historic, if you count the 1830's as historic in Europe, but it hasn't served any useful public function since the 60's and takes up a great deal of space on the water.

I propose to either change the function of the building to house something like a kayak/sailing club, or tear it down. But either way, the two sad little gardens on either side will be converted into a wildflower meadow with small hills. This will encourage pollinating species to grow, provide birds with vital nesting areas, and increase the bee population in the city. Not to mention, it will look really beautiful and be a great picnic area.

My next 'micro-urban scale' proposal will deal with Søgade on the western perimeter of the lakes. This is a 'thoroughfare' of between 2 and 4 lanes. You can see on the site plan the City Campus of Copenhagen University. Right now it just has a 3 lane road in front, and a small, sad path next to the lake. I propose that the traffic is reduced to a residential level (i.e., 1.5 lanes, with possible street parking), from the corner of Fredensbro to Dronning Louises Bro, and with the leftover space, to provide a large 'front lawn/front steps' for the campus facing the water. The front steps establish the university campus as a public space in the city, a hub for students (the university administration is located here), and also open up an interesting 'parochial' use on the water.

Thus ends my 'micro-scale urban planning' for now. I have been preparing a digital presentation of all these ideas, with much better graphics, which I hope to upload to issuu this week in anticipation of my first midterm critique on Friday. Then you will see the ideas laid out in full. At the moment, I'm into 'production' mode on visualizing all these strategies and possibilities.

The next stage is working closer with identifying new edge criteria: how do the edges operate both for the benefit of nature and people? I've already begun this process, but haven't yet organized the ideas.

Okay then... til next time!