Unsupported browser

For a better experience please update your browser to its latest version.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Book review: Are we seeing a new epoch of urban design?

  • Comment

The use of digital fabrication technology to foster people-centred, bottom-up development is championed in Recoded City: Co-creating Urban Futures, writes Alan Gordon

In this formidable body of research, the campaigning co-authors - regeneration architect Thomas Ermacora, and historian and writer Lucy Bullivant - boldly announce a ‘new epoch’ in urban design. It is their ambition to challenge traditional modes of urban development with people-centred alternatives, exploiting digital fabrication technologies.

‘Recoding’, derived metaphorically from computing and genetics, is Ermacora’s term for participatory placemaking; an approach, he says, ‘motivated by a civic duty to help the 90 per cent, and not the privileged 10 per cent’, which actively engages citizens and users in decision-making, and fosters local productivity and sense of ownership.

The emphasis is on bottom-up rather than top-down, DIY rather than developer, liveability rather than profit

The book showcases 43 projects from around the world, exemplars of grassroots placemaking achieved through a high degree of participation by local residents and users collaborating with professionals. Often these are in economically deprived or disaster-hit areas, and make use of new technology. The emphasis is on bottom-up rather than top-down, socially informed architecture rather than mega-planning, DIY rather than developer, liveability rather than profit.

The studies, or stories as the authors prefer to call them, describe a highly diverse selection of projects, among them the rescue and transformation into public space of Manhattan’s derelict High Line; an upgrade of an anarchic South African township using self-build systems; the courageous defence of Istanbul’s Gezi Park from top-down development in the teeth of violent state opposition; and multi-modal interventions in public consultations on the development of Bishopsgate Goodsyard in London’s Shoreditch. Each scheme is awarded – with scientific rigour – points out of five for impact, scale, design, replicability and engagement, while clear charts map some of the processes of engagement and development.

EF Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, with its stress on the importance of sustainable development and use of appropriate technologies, evidently runs through Recoded City’s DNA. But much has happened in science and technology since he published his pioneering economic philosophy in 1973. Recoded City puts the theory into practice by showing how the power of today’s global, ubiquitous information technology can serve the interests of the hyper-local, through data sharing, open source design and fab labs (small-scale workshops offering digital fabrication – Ermacora set up London’ first fab lab, the Machines Room, in Hackney in 2012). The book features an outstanding example of open-source design in Alastair Parvin/00’s WikiHouse, a high-performance, low-cost home design that is free to share under a Creative Commons licence and is adaptable to local materials for self-build.

Leika Aruga running workshops with families in Hariharpur Village

Leika Aruga running workshops with families in Hariharpur Village

Leika Aruga running workshops with families in Hariharpur Village, India

Recoded City champions a broad, diversified, holistic approach to urban design which simultaneously commits to social responsibility and local engagement. The needs and ambitions of communities and stakeholder groups are the focal point of Ermacora and Bullivant’s vision and, stepping outside the studio and workshop, Recoded City also shares inventive ways in which urban realm projects have attracted and encouraged social activities and participation, or have collaborated with community activists.

Recoded City: Co-creating Urban Futures by Thomas Ermacora and Lucy Bullivant is published by Routledge, £36.99 paperback, 320 pages.

Recoded City cover

Recoded City cover

  • Comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions.

Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.