Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Urbis Research Forum: Science of the City

The Urbis centre in Manchester has a research forum dedicated to the exploration of topics related to the city and urban life. It is a forum that includes talks, discussions, walks and other 'special events' on topics like urban planning, the history and culture of the city, and the influence of design practices on the city.

On Monday night I went to the third of the research forums in Urbis entitled Science of the City. In connection with the Manchester Science Festival our speakers were Prof. Trevor Cox (an Acoustic Engineer), Prof. Greg Keeffe(Professor of Sustainable Architecture) and Jon Porter (Technical Director, Countryscape). I missed the first talk by Mr. Porter on the uses of geo-mapping because the tram took longer than I had planned getting into Manchester (Metrolink, maybe that can be another topic one day!).

The next talk was given by Greg Keeffe on Synergetic City: Urban algae production as a regenerative tool for a post-industrial city. Mr. Keeffe specialises in sustainability, energy use and its impact on the design of built form and urban space. He currently holds the prestigious Downing Chair of Sustainable Architecture at the Leeds School of Architecture. This was an interesting talk that incorporated the productive use of nature in both the development of a city landscape and in its self-renewal. The point of Mr. Keeffe's vision was the development of 'redundant space' within the Mersey Estuary using the local natural conditions to create a sustainable environment that will "work synergistically to provide a carbon neutral solution, to the regeneration of the city". This will be done using algae, making use of the waste products of one synthesis in order to create a new process. He has put his 'utopian' vision better himself in his published paper:

"The paper describes the theoretical insertion of a series of glass factories, which produce glass tanks to house algae reactors, that themselves provide the energy to power the glass production. This allows for sustainable infrastructure to be self assembled in an iterative and carbon neutral manner, which once complete, provides more than enough energy to power the new city.

In Free Energy City, the city functions as an energy generator and thrives from its own product with minimal impact upon the planet it inhabits. Alga-culture is the fundamental energy source, where a matrix of algae
reactors swamp the abandoned dockyards; which have been further expanded and reclaimed from the River Mersey. Each year, the algae farm is capable of producing over 200 million gallons of bio-fuel, which in-turn
can produce enough electricity to power almost 2 million homes."

What I understood from this talk was the integration of at least three things: a renewable industry (glass factories for the production of glass tanks that house algae reactors, these will provide the energy that will power the production of glass), making use of a natural phenomenon (algae) and, thirdly using the synergy provided by the first two aspects to create a sustainable cycle of industry, power and food (cattle can be fed on the waste products of the bio-oil extraction).

What I also understood from this particular talk was the inherent structural problems within the "utopian dream": there is a sense that the plans for Liverpool that Mr. Keeffe dreams of makes the city rely too much on one particular procedure, all it would take is for one part of the cycle to break down (the collapse of the glass industry or problems with algae due to environmental problems) for the whole viability of the project to be destroyed. Never put all one's eggs in one basket.

The final talk was given by the acoustic engineer Trevor Cox where he discussed the importance of sounds and smells in the city, how they can annoy, how they can create an improved environment, but essentially how all city planning should incorporate the design skills developed in acoustic engineering: for example the way buildings are positioned in relation to the rest of the local environment can lessen the noise from adjacent streets.

One thing that came to me while listening to the speakers, especially Mr. Keeffe, was a general observation about the different attitudes between the Classical style of architecture, typified by the Doric, with its large stone columns and domineering crowding of the natural world, and the contemporary style which trys to incorporate nature in its design by the use of materials that leaves a softer impression on the landscape, yet both are monumental.


The Q & A session was trundling along when it was livened up by a questioner who took affront with the lack of historical perspective that he felt was given, by Mr. Keeffe in particular, towards the use of statistics and the 'development' of human societies, alluding to the Nazi's use of statistics to support their theories of eugenics. This is my interpretation of the questioner's point, I may be wrong, but it brought to mind a more general point that I proceeded to make: that there was something totalitarian about technology, about the way that it can restrict behaviour as well as extend it. Streets are planned which say 'this is the way', new technologies come about (usually by accident) that delineate the access to its treasures: the internet is a contemporary example that will increasingly be more and more necessary to complete everyday tasks that we do in person today (banking, access to social services, ect). Fundamentally though, I am at the conclusion that it is wise to be sceptical of the idea of 'progress': utopian dreams often end in nightmares. 

All in all the Urbis Research Forum project is very worthwhile, these are topics that need to be debated by us all if we wish to live in a tolerable environment, but I have reservations about Urbis holding these talks as the organiser of this event told me afterwards that he was annoyed about one questioner "hijacking" the event. This was untrue, but also, the event is defined as a public forum. Oh well, its typical of the management class to ignore their own rules.