Adaptive Urban Design

People adapting to environment

What makes a place being out of order?

About 5 years ago I noticed a vivid pattern in Moscow: paths that cut through grass in public spaces. Numerous desire lines were like subtle illustrations of mismatch between design intent and the reality of how people used the space.

Local authorities’ typical reaction to desire lines was ignorant: instead of using them as hints for efficient passages in busy areas, maintenance workers erected fences and cultivated land to preclude pedestrians from using them.

This simple case shows two fundamental problems of urban design:

  • At design stage priority may be given to visual order rather than behavioural understanding of how people prefer to move in space.
  • At maintenance phase there is a tendency to attribute problems to misbehaving people. Thus blocking unexpected (i.e. undesirable) behaviours either by physical interventions or enforced policing.

Untold assumption at both design and maintenance stage is that people should adapt to pre-determined environments. And we may find traces of similar decision-making in some photogenic places too.

Ignorance of visual order

What do ideally ordered spaces and negligently maintained infrastructure have in common?

Desire lines or similar symptoms may be mistakenly considered eyesores and simply a visual, rather than methodological challenge. Defining such issues in terms of visual order, often leads to visual solutions and patching.

Visual-order driven attitude may often be promoted by officials, masterplanners and ever by design media. Common signature of such solution is a render of interior or public space in its “purity”, i.e. without users.

Photogenic place may look deceptively good, just like desire lines may look deceptively out of order.

Environment adapting to people

What if there was no contradiction between order and chaos in urban design?

Our designs often do not work as envisioned and thus visual order does not necessarily represent a natural order of human-habitat interaction.

People behaviour may change over time due to numerous factors and rigid designs often fail to anticipate or adapt to them.

Screen shot of Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

William H. Whyte, an american urbanist, researched patterns of uses in small urban spaces: he videotaped successful and failing spots in NYC to understand how one could make spaces better suited for common behaviours.

Movable chairs in Tuileries park, Paris

One of Whyte’s findings and suggestions was requirement of more embedded adaptivity. For example, movable chairs have proven to be an exceptional tool in making a space more flexible to accommodate different use scenarios. People personalise space by moving chairs around.

Does allowing people to move chairs or adjust other elements of space bring chaos to the space? Or may be the natural order just looks somewhat chaotic?

This is why desire lines are natural even though they might be visually out of order, while a visually perfect and polished space may be out of order with natural chaotic human behaviour.

We arrive at a curious contradiction: visual order may bring seeming chaos into space because it precludes natural tendencies. Chaos is the natural order.

Adaptive technology

Can technology help us make urban design fully adaptive?

Realisation that we can never fully predict how a space will be used and changed over time implies there’s a strong need to develop new methodologies for adaptive hardware design and adaptive maintenance and operations.

Urban design deals with interface between human and built environment. Thus, in development of these methodologies we may learn from IT where there’s been extensive development in interface design methodologies.

Successful growth and evolution of web and mobile apps is largely driven by embedded ability for feedback loop. User interface development is largely an iterative process of A/B tests and user behaviour observations. Web-sites or apps are increasingly being developed with learning and adaptivity in their DNA.

That gives us a possibility to look at urban design as an algorithm rather than a fixed visual and physical product: How would design methodology change if we applied IT practices to it? How would A/B test of new designs conducted? How could hardware evolve to allow for truly adaptive spaces? How would maintenance policies change if spaces allowed for more UGC (user generated content)?

to be continued…



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Fed Novikov

Fed Novikov

Co-founder Apt Buildings, Inc., previously Airbnb Samara and Asmbld