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Creating a Civilised City

Chris Williamson

When Chris was asked to work with Andrew Weston for group projects at Leicester School of Architecture (for no other reason than they were next to each other alphabetically) he discovered that their skills dovetailed perfectly. Their shared ambition made for a perfect business partnership.

During the Covid-19 lockdown many of us have had the chance to appreciate nature a little more than usual. Maybe for some spending time in their gardens, others the local park or walking round the local streets. For others spending time by a river trying to focus on the sunlight glinting on the water in Durham before starting a long journey home.

With nowhere to go (for most) we have time to look around and think, appreciating the change from Spring to early Summer without the drone of airplanes or hum of traffic. And I hope whilst appreciating the beauty of the natural world we have time to contemplate its delicate balance and our own influence on it.

Despite the usual conspiracy theories it would seem that this pandemic, like SARS and Ebola previously, has stemmed from interference in the food-chain through cross contamination. Hopefully this will make us reconsider our eating habits, lifestyle choices and hygiene practices, and live in greater harmony with the natural world.

There is much to learn and I’ve been looking at the leaf of a Tetrapanax Rex which originates from China. It has evolved over thousands of years for maximum efficiency for photosynthesis and translocation moving phloem and nutrients to the tips of the leaves. Efficiency in circulation and distribution is one of the factors for city planning. So I started looking at how we might be able to incorporate aspects of the leaf’s structure into our proposal for a model Transport Oriented Development based around a High Speed Station. I don't think the city is dead but we do need to adapt the urban model to create more civilised cities.

Having Studios in Australia and Canada and being on regular video calls with them, has bought a sense of togetherness against a common enemy and a realisation that the world is a small and fragile place. For a time in mid-May it looked that 2020 would turn into a second ‘Summer of Love'. I was 11 at the time of the first one and it was a truly inspirational time. I was completely oblivious to the influence of drugs and promiscuity behind it but loved the bells, the togetherness, the music, the attitude, the newly discovered interest in the environment. But most of all the colour.

Then, like now the youth were driving change. In mid-May we had all that. The clapping, the rainbows, the sunshine. Children out walking and cycling in their communities and local parks, taking a break from home schooling. But the anger in the UK over Dominic Cummings and the death of George Floyd in the USA has sadly dissipated that sense of togetherness. Unperturbed I’ve continued with my painting over the Bank Holiday weekend just as Leonardo did in the turbulent times of the Renaissance, which was similarly affected by disease and constant battles between families, cities and regions. It appears that the countries with more empathetic leaders have done better in controlling the effects of the virus.

Riel Miller, Head of Foresight at UNESCO, talks about the difficulties of understanding and predicting what happens in the future. He argues that individuals, institutions and governments fail to grasp its profound unpredictability, where the only certainty is radical change. He’s calling for a programme of future literacy, designed to challenge present complacency and improve preparedness for what’s on the horizon. He says “our vision of the future is profoundly affected by events in the present” and cites the pandemic as a catalyst for great change. Perhaps a virus which has killed so many will teach us how to live.

I’m not advocating that we all start basing our designs on bio-mimicry and realise that it is not a new concept. Frie Otto is one recent example. Leonard da Vinci one of the first. I just think that we should use this opportunity to reflect on nature, to appreciate the delicate balance which something as simple as a virus can effect. How we treat animals, the environment, our place in the natural world and the responsibility we have. How we garden, how we can green our cities.

As a species we haven’t changed much in 2,000 years and Covid-19 is a reminder just how delicate we are. We have however had an enormous influence on the world, and now need to harness our ambition and power to right the wrongs we have heaped on the planet. We owe it to the youth to leave the planet in a better state than we found it and we can start by learning from nature. Speaking to our studios in Canada and Australia I was reminded that their native inhabitants had and still have a much better understanding and respect for the natural world.

So the emerging plan for the new city shows walkable neighbourhoods based on a 3/4 story urban layout with a density similar to that found in Islington with approximately 140 people per hectare. But affordable, and a better mix of uses including work and studio space. Probably the Cerda grid in Barcelona is a better model. Each leaf could be different allowing choice and variety. So with that sort of density each section of the leaf, approx. 250m x 500m, a 20 minute walkable neighbourhood would house 1,000 families together with shops, schools, medical facilities and plenty of open space. Creating communities.

On my lockdown cycle rides I have been studying the spaces created in the social housing in North London. It is not edifying. The pandemic and the disproportionate toll on BAME and key workers is a reminder of the social change necessary to create a fairer society. The Chinese Belt and Road project is providing an ideal opportunity to explore these initiatives with a high speed station at the heart of each city and no privately owned vehicles to be found. The future need not be the dystopian vision of Blade Runner but a green and pleasant place. A Civilised City.

Chris Williamson

When Chris was asked to work with Andrew Weston for group projects at Leicester School of Architecture (for no other reason than they were next to each other alphabetically) he discovered that their skills dovetailed perfectly. Their shared ambition made for a perfect business partnership.

How can we help?

Please get in touch if you’d like to know more about us and how we work with our clients, consultants and colleagues.