Tool: 4/7 COMPLEXITY | Measurement Criteria for a Mediterranean Sustainable Urban Model

If until now we said that density was some sort of previous condition to reach ecological urbanism, today we are going to see to what extent just density by itself is useless to make our cities more sustainable. Let’s imagine that you live in a neighborhood as the one above.

We already know that your neighborhood is not really dense. Detached-houses (even though they are small and the swimming-pool looks like a bathtub) occupy too much land, so there are not a lot of people living there. We have also noticed that public space is not hospitable (asphalt, pavements and fences) and you end booting your car for any reason. Nevertheless, the fact that you live in a low dense area does not mean that you spend your whole life in a dreamy village. Your alarm clock rings at 7.00 am, so you wake up and have a quick shower, put your laptop in your bag and walk to the front door because Roberto is picking you to go to the university. In a while you arrive to the campus, a “special” area of the city which is truly dense.

Here there are a lot of buildings with many people inside them. Some years ago, some “wise” persons (irony) decided to place universities outside town in order to centralize better their uses, facilitate connections between buildings… (“Or maybe it was just due to lower land prices”) rather than placing them downtown, surrounded by streets, shops, cars, squares and kiosks (or what is the same, people with shopping carts, elders walking around and children in their way to school). So now the buildings where you attend your classes are in a peripheral location, surrounded by a fence that has nothing, or almost nothing interesting in the other side (just a highway, an industrial estate or some crop fields). In your way to class, in your lecture room or in the canteen, almost all the people you came across look the same (more or less): middle-class students coming from the same area of the country…

Generalizations are not good, and even though there are some exceptions this is what is known as mono-functional area. But that is not the only mono-functional area in your city, there are many more. When you finish your classes, you drive your car again and go playing football to the sports area of the city… once again you come across with people that look similar to you. When the match is over, then you boot your car again, go to the shopping centre, have dinner, go to the movies and drive back home.

This is exactly the opposite of what we understand by complexity as each area that we mentioned before has clear boundaries, defined policies and is populated by really look-a-like people.

Nevertheless, this other city is truly complex yet it is dirty, noisy, it does not smell as disinfectant and has colored lightning:

Just to be true, living here is not as easy as we described in previous posts. As long as it is dense you have neighbors, lots of neighbors that are different to you, have another habits and different lifestyles. You can go almost everywhere walking or taking public transport, but parking a car can be an odyssey besides really expensive. You haven’t got a huge variety of parks where going to with your kids, but when you arrive there is easy to find them joining one of the three simultaneous matches that are being played there (it is easy to be blown with a ball too). Living there is a matter of principles; it represents an urban attitude, as well as if you live downtown or in a peripheral neighborhood. Living in a city (like the one described in the second neighborhood) and not in an urbanized area (the first one), allows us enjoying complexity, cohabitation with diverse people and activities and unexpected situations.

The first city we have described is the result of how cities were made for decades all over the 20th century. Areas with predetermined uses physically separated between them and linked by highways that allow us to move fast from one to another by car. So this was a brand new model, invented and imported that refused traditional, dense and compact city known until then, which was occasionally dirty, stinking and even insalubrious.

The answer to those problems was bringing air inside the city, but maybe too much. The areas, even they were truly dense, became monofunctional in opposition to initial versatility and took too much distance between them that turned out to be impossible to link them through the occasional pedestrian walk, so taking the car came to be necessary. A new unsustainable city appeared as a result of all these facts. With this text we do not mean that we should go hundred years back in time and start living in that kind of cities, but we do mean that this could be the aim of our future efforts, making our cities kinder, cleaner and healthier but simultaneously maintaining its complexity, liveliness and versatility.

(Just to be truthful, these cities will still smell worse than the Little House on the Prairie, and maybe it is that characteristic aroma the reason which makes so special some of the neighborhoods we love to visit).

After today’s small story, let’s talk about why a complex, compact city as the one we previously described is more sustainable than others:

ENVIRONMENTAL SUSTAINABILITY. A city that enables a mix of uses inside, so that the place where you live can be close to your workplace or to the areas where you usually go shopping or spending some time out with your friends. This undoubtedly reduces car use and therefore energetic demand.

SOCIAL SUSTAINABILITY. In opposition to monofunctional areas, differenciated uses that appear in complex cities or quarters will foster the emergence of multiple kinds of people. Moreover, if public space does also promote encounter it will encourage social interaction and conviviality.

ECONOMIC SUSTAINABILITY. Versatility means that a city can be used in multiple ways and for lots of different purposes, which clearly has an economical condition: rather than creating a specific urban area for each function, maybe they can all take place in the same area of the city. Thus an identical result is being obtained without the need to duplicate edification or urbanization.

CULTURAL SUSTAINABILITY. This is perhaps the clearest one. Traditional cities and urban developments during the 19th century are enormously versatile areas. They have traditionally hosted the most of the possible functions. Therefore, tending to a complex city means in fact learning about how our cities have evolved over centuries.

As always, we will see now how some of the SUSTAINABILITY INDICATORS of ECOLOGICAL URBANISM measure the level of complexity of our cities. In other words, which different activities are happening in the same area of the city and how it is the physical space that links them as a condition for diverse people to meet simultaneously:

One of the most typical monofunctional areas in our cities are residential areas, that is areas that only contain housing, dormitory suburbs, from where population leaves early in the morning in their way to work or to the university, and where they do not return until evening. In opposition to this, the center of many of our cities suffer from the contrary effect, being full of people during the day but turning into ghost towns when people come back home. Thus one way to ensure an accurate mix of uses is achieving a BALANCE BETWEEN ACTIVITY AND RESIDENCE. To achieve that, it is estimated that 15% of the built areas should have a different use than housing in at least more than half of the surface that neighborhood occupies.

In the same way, the fact that the place we are living in is CLOSE TO DAY-TO-DAY COMMERCIAL ACTIVITIES will ensure that we are not depending on the car for buying bread, fruits and vegetables, meat, fish, newspaper or pharmaceutics. The existence of this commerce will assure commercial activity that fosters local economy. Therefore, this condition of proximity is accomplished when in a neighborhood 75% of the population only needs to take a 5 minutes walk to get to at least 6 of the above-mentioned activities.

Finally, it is important to highlight the fact that public space’s quality will promote a busier economic activity and consecutively a higher presence of people in the streets, because we cannot forget that people attracts people. This is nothing but creating and empowering typical commercial streets that combine a strong commercial activity with a proper pedestrian accessibility. Thus we are talking about assuring the SPATIAL AND FUNCTIONAL CONTINUITY OF THE STREET. To achieve that, it is estimated that at least one out of four streets in our neighborhoods should count with more than 10 activities per each 100 meters of street.

To get more technical information about these indicators you can look up pages 521-527 and 533-535 of Guía Metodológica para los Sistemas de Auditoría, Certificación o Acreditación de la Calidad y Sostenibilidad en el Medio Urbano.