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Crowd source your new town

New town and cities can be designed organically, through role-playing using open-ended online computer games such as The Sims or Minecraft, says Anthony Hudson

The announcement of a new ‘garden city’ at Ebbsfleet was one of the more depressing announcements in the 2014 budget statement. George Osborne could have used his speech to take real steps to address the UK’s housing shortage and encourage new ways of creating well-planned and well-designed communities. Instead, we were offered a half-baked idea that, rather than offering an exciting new development and a worthy successor to the garden city movement, represents the worst excesses of top-down planning.

Let’s be under no illusions - the chancellor’s plans represent the antithesis of the original garden city movement. Ebenezer Howard’s vision was one of co-operative development in which residents had a real stake in the new communities, designed around their needs. At Ebbsfleet George Osborne is placing top-down planning powers in the hands of an undemocratic urban development corporation to drive decisions over the heads of local people.

Rather than creating new and beautiful places to live, the concept is more about rebranding planned development in the Thames Gateway and reverse-engineering a purpose for the absurd Ebbsfleet International. At 15,000 units, the poverty of the government’s ambition is embarrassing, and branding it a ‘garden city’ is the final insult - a fig leaf for successive governments’ collective failure to address the country’s housing shortage and a clear piece of spin designed to disguise a developers’ free-for-all with a nostalgic sop to the nimby brigade.

Top-down planning, particularly over the past 50 years, has been unable to adapt to changing times and has been misguided by behavioural theories begetting unviable, unloved and dreary places. The devastation wrought by planners and highway engineers through cities such as Birmingham, Newcastle and Norwich, or the failure of new towns such as Harlow to adapt to economic and societal change is well-documented.

We have forgotten how to make successful cities. The dominance of top-down planning since the 17th century has eroded the collective memory of a more organic, self-regulating way of doing things. Historical cities, such as medieval cities, show an alternative, more human approach to place-making. Here, simple interactions between people have led to complex physical and governance structures, allowing thriving settlements to emerge that adapt and evolve - and are, consequently, fit for the purposes of the day. In her critique of simplistic, top-down planning The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs observed: ‘Cities happen to be problems in organised complexity, like the life sciences. They present situations in which half a dozen or several dozen quantities are all varying simultaneously and in subtly interconnected ways … the variables are many but they are not helter-skelter: they are interrelated into an organic whole.’

How can we re-discover this lost art of city-making and adapt it to 21st century and future needs? As Jacobs suggested, similar processes occur under our noses in self-organising biological systems where complexity is generated not by executive top-down control but from the bottom up. An example would be the process by which ants build a termite mound: a complex structure without blueprint or plan, formed instead by the random distribution of dirt particles by ants until a critical number coincides to trigger more building - a pattern that continues until another trigger stops them.

In his book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software, Steven Johnson describes how simple rules can use relatively simple data to create highly sophisticated organisms and structures, capable of resolving problems and inherently fit for purpose. If these processes are being applied in nature, can we not harness them ourselves to rediscover bottom-up, organic place-making?

The internet is already demonstrating how we can begin to understand, predict and apply the complex patterns that exist in nature to the development of towns and cities. The web connects thousands, if not millions, of individuals, who, though working alone, co-operate on ventures and push the boundaries of knowledge forward - from Wikipedia to the discovery and classification of galaxies. Millions also create virtual worlds by playing games such as The Sims or Minecraft. Playing games has extraordinary possibilities for harnessing, in a bottom-up self-organising way, the desires and knowledge of many people to grow and develop new towns and cities. It turns on its head the current practice of professionally led design and community consultation. The contrast with the chancellor’s plans for an Ebbsfleet Urban Development Corporation could hardly be greater.

Cities can be designed through role-playing, mimicking real life situations using methods of tried-and-tested commercial ‘open-ended’ games such as Minecraft. Through their initial virtual existence, ideas for cities and neighbourhoods can be tested, rejected or adopted before a brick or drain has been laid.

Indeed Minecraft has already been developed in collaboration with the United Nations to help redesign real-world places around the world. Carl Manneh, managing director of the game’s developer, Mojang, writes: ‘It has proven to be a great way to visualise urban planning ideas without necessarily having architectural training. The ideas presented by the citizens lie as a ground floor for political decisions … It has also been recognised as a new way to do urban development planning.’ Why cannot similar software be developed to allow virtual communities to collectively design and organise their own city, before the outcome takes form on the ground?

Only a few years ago the collaboration between built environment professions offered by BIM was a distant dream. It is now one of the dominant building design mechanisms, allowing people to agree designs and reject unworkable or inappropriate ideas. It doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to apply that process to the larger scale and to open up its mysteries to ordinary people and communities.

As players compete and collaborate, good solutions will develop, while others are abandoned as patterns emerge. Infrastructure can be tried and tested, neighbourhoods formed with schools and shops, decisions made on where participants can afford to live and the kinds of houses and amenities they can achieve.

Governance and finance could also be structured in the virtual world too, using the mutual model (like the original garden city movement) to offer participants a stake in the development of their new community and rewards for their commitment as it takes shape on the ground. By encouraging a long-term, collaborative approach, the city would respond to the needs of its citizens, rather than being offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, depending on the short-term financial interests of volume housebuilders.

Take this approach one step further, and technology could capture the wisdom of crowds to determine the location of a new city. This will emerge from participants’ role-playing, informed the by the economic, geographic, topographic, infrastructure, environmental and physical context. It would be presumptuous to predict where it would be, but it’s hard to imagine such a bottom-up approach choosing a scruffy patch of flood plain on the north Kent coast. An organic city could be a garden city in the fullest sense of the phrase. Of the people, by the people, for the people - you could even call it Gettysburg.

Anthony Hudson is the founding director of Hudson Architects

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