Exploring the concept of “resilience,” the 2011 International Urban Design Conference held on the Gold Coast featured more than one hundred presentations from speakers from all over the world.
Resilience in Urban Design was the fourth in a cycle of conferences organized by AST Management, and brought delegates for the third time to Surfers Paradise in Queensland for a three-day program of lectures, papers, poster presentations and tours in September 2011.
The first lectures of the event delivered the firm message that nature is out to get us and that while we need her more than ever, the interaction between nature and the city will determine the quality of the human future. Enter urban design, the practice – some say profession, others discipline – most invested in a holistic idea of the built environment spanning nature to building, and culture to psychology.
The term “resilience” was steadily emptied of all meaning across the span of the conference, but the spectre of natural disaster and the consequences of climatic and, to a lesser extent, economic challenges, informed many of the keynote and paper presentations. Familiar images of floods, hurricanes, tsunamis and earthquakes prefaced many a presentation. The keynote lecture by London’s David Marks set the tone in this respect, the image of a flooded riverside town in Pennsylvania paving the way for his presentation of a suite of opportunities in which architects, landscape architects and urban designers might turn professional competencies to environmental, and therefore social, problems. David Singleton, global planning leader at Arup, firmed up Marks’s observations under the demand for redundancy and co-benefit in these practices, acknowledging the innate complexity of the city, its population and systems, and the need to build limited system failure into its governance.
The growing sense that urban design offered a series of checks and balances that might inform an increasingly regulated and predictable design practice concerning the city was tempered (not only, but not least) by a report by urban designer Tim Williams on the Sarkozy “consultation” on Paris, which commenced in 2010. This project saw the French president Nicolas Sarkozy invite selected architect-led multidisciplinary research teams to offer “blue sky” solutions to the problems of poverty, racial inequality, poor ex-urban infrastructure, and the challenges of an exploding metropolitan population, weighing up the balance – not at all obvious – between densification and expansion. The long-term future of the city, runs the logic, is safeguarded by periodic upheaval.
Where is urban design in this? The answer partially lies in the matter of where one sits on a continuum of views that starts at one end with the claim that urban design has a body of knowledge, objectives and tools not shared with other fields, its own disciplinarity, and the attendant plea for professional specificity. At the other end of the spectrum, it describes a fluid situation around which all manner of disciplines, professions and stakeholders gather in search of solutions to moving problems, whether they are concerned with amenity or atmosphere. Sometimes we write it as Urban Design, other times as urban design.
This kind of professional ambiguity is productive, insofar as it allowed, here, for an uneven mix of speakers and topics around the theme of resilience. But those who preferred their Urban Design written with capital letters tended definitively towards an entrenched position in which increased control of the city makes for a better environment. Sara Stace, director of national urban policy in the Department of Infrastructure and Transport’s major cities unit, spoke on promoting the idea of a national policy framework. For those who share her views on the ills of the city – those regrettable moments in which architectural intentions and provision of furniture, amenity and infrastructure miss those values cast as “urban” – the answer rests in more robust policy with sharper teeth, more tightly defined models of best practice, more obvious rules, and more rigorous, insightful and penetrating community consultation.
As Williams, climate adaptation specialist Rob Roggema and some other speakers demonstrated, the city as a kind of nature resists the over-determination that an entrenched idea of urban design might bring to it. Investment in thought and reflection serves the city as well, perhaps better, than investment in data collation and analysis. The two are not separable, of course, but the shift in priorities demonstrated by some of the more adventurous schemes shown here was easily appreciable.
“It would be extraordinary,” said Williams, quoting French architect Yves Lion, “to improve the ordinary.” To what extent are shorter commuting times, increased security for cyclists, happier children and healthier food urban design matters? And to what extent are they the domain of urban designers?
This, on balance, was the unanswered question of the event. It is safe to assume that morning tea and after-session drinks were where the business happened, and that the Gold Coast City Council has an investment in offering a recurring venue for this work. It seems less safe to assume that what happens in the parallel sessions is not simply a parade of projects, models and techniques, but also the part of the conference where the thinking happens, where the positions are tabled and firmed up, where the audience is forced into moments of reflection, and where the content has pride of place. It did happen, but you needed to keep your eyes open.
In this, Resilience documented a professional anxiety and a thoroughly mixed message over the identity, role and responsibilities of the urban designer, whoever he or she might be.
The International Urban Design Conference 2011 was held at the Surfers Paradise Marriott Resort and Spa on the Gold Coast, Queensland, 21–23 September 2011.