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Masterplanning the Adaptive City

Tom Verebes (ed.)


2014. Routledge. New York

The book Masterplanning the Adaptive City is a speculation on what can happen to cities and
urbanism in general in the nearest feature. It is an interdisciplinary attempt to bring ideas of
adaptability and computation - which is getting accepted by the mainstream architecture - into
the field of urban planning and design. The paradigms and the ideas discussed in the book
originate from architecture, urbanism, economics, natural sciences and computer science. The
author examines historical and theoretical context, analyze current situation, overview
technology and methodologies, and review prototypical practices of computational urbanism in
the age of rapid urban growth and globalization.
Computation is defined as the processing of information and interactions between elements
which constitute a specific environment. In design, computation is applied for customization of
performative criteria in buildings and/or cities. Design object can modified through dependent
relationships of its elements and relevant data. This model of design process is argued to be a
major shift from the copy-and-paste mode of design.
To underline the importance of the subject, Verebes starts his argument by addressing nowclassical question of Jane Jacobs - what type of problem the city is. He maps the history of
ideas of understanding and building cities from the ancient times till today. Both theoretical
thinkers and practitioners of the twentieth century were usually ignoring the evolutionary nature
of cities and the fact that the process of globalization (tightly linked to the planetary
urbanization) is not a recent phenomena and nor did it happen suddenly. Understanding of the
city as a finite and a completed project based on clearly defined principles lead planners to
invention of the two-dimensional master plan, which - as we now know - did not pass the
resilience test. By assuming that the behaviors of the mechanisms deployed in the city are
sensitive, responsive, and adaptive, Verebes suggests that adaptive masterplanning - based on
rules of interrelationships rather than static principles should lead towards the sustainable urban
future.
Resilience became a dominant theme in the field of urban design as it more and more
frequently appears in both governmental and corporate agendas. Flexibility of post-Fordist
production, new labour patterns and heterogeneous geographies question old traditional ways
we designed and utilized spaces. Verebes argues that acknowledging the uncertainty of
markets and social forces questions the way we produce development plans. One of the
example he discussed in the book was a development of new city district in China, for which he
proposed three different plans that were shaped by different amounts of capital investment and
possible needs on property markets.
Although the core of the idea is not to tackle Modernist industrial paradigm of monotonous
mass-production because the book deals with the urbanization process in general - Verebes
sees computational urbanism as a tool to create more identifiable/unique cities rather than
indistinguishable/generic settlements.

Living in the age of near-infinite connectedness and uncertainty highlights the paradox
between planning and emergence. If plan can be described as a control mechanism to
organize future construction and emergence has always been about giving up control, letting
the system govern itself as much as possible, letting it learn from the footprints, these two can
be considered opposites. But the bigger the scale of the plan, the harder to control every event.
This is when emergence happens. Thus, Verebes concludes that a masterplan can benefit from
contamination by the mechanisms of informal urbanization, which operate at multiple spatial
scales and speeds, never finished, nor pretending to completeness. Emerged city is the result
not of a luck of overall design but rather of smaller, local decisions with amalgamate to create a
whole which exceeds the sum of its parts.
Verebes argues that design for emergence can be achieved through self-organization,
democratic participatory processes and mass customization. Self-organized, emergent systems
in biological and physical processes parallel the ways in which collective human activity unfolds
in real time. However, the question whether we have such complex system to compute such
processes on city level is still valid. Also, if cities can learn and adapt based on the feedback
information, how can we determine the relevance of the data? There is an ethical question as
well - how much feedback information from the citizens, who became so sensitive about
personal data can we collect?
The oxymoron in the books title - juxtaposition of the words masterplanning and adaptive
reveals other contradictions addressed by the book as well. For example, mass-collected data
used for customization of individual/local needs. Another concern is an illusion of freedom and
personal liberties guaranteed" by the neoliberal policies. Computational urbanism first of all will
be beneficial for investors and developers (and the author underlines this in the book), meaning
that it will award capital even greater control over the space.