The Self-Building City and Urban Resilience Av Jan Rydén

Can the city as ecosystem be more than a mere analogy? Can we find a fruitful overlap between the natural and built environment? Taking his cue from Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language and one of Jane Jacob’s most neglected texts, Jan Rydén, curator at Färgfabriken, sees the bottom-up self-building city as a way to create a more adaptive and sustainable city. Fixing Stockholm’s malfunctioning housing market might be combined with addressing a few other challenges along the way: climate, segregation, traffic, and lack of innovation.

In the long term, Stockholm is facing very similar challenges to other cities: climate change, ethnic and economic segregation, and ever-increasing transportation needs. In the short term the Stockholm region faces somewhat different challenges to many other European cities. Not having been hit so hard by the recent economic downturn, Stockholm still experiences a roaring real estate market. The combination of a rapidly growing population, an annual increase of 30,000 inhabitants, and years of insufficient housing construction keeps real estate prices high. In theory the market would meet the demand by building a lot of housing, especially since there is plenty of land in Stockholm. In practice, it doesn’t happen.

This is where the idea of ‘resilience’ springs to mind. It is a notion that was first defined in the realm of ecology, to describe how ecosystems understood as complex systems continually adapt to changes and shocks, yet remain within critical thresholds. Scholars from a variety of fields are now exploring how resilience thinking can be transferred to overall urban planning, as it is showing so many non-resilient traits in face of other challenges than the climate.

To the surprise of many foreigners the Swedish situation is a far cry from its international reputation as a social democratic welfare state. The economic crisis that Europe has experienced in recent years hit Sweden in the early 1990s, with the interest rate peaking at 500%, bank bailouts, privatizations and harsh austerity programs. Since then, Sweden has a very market-driven housing policy, without subsidized housing. Despite this market –orientation, developers do not seem to be able to, or willing to, meet the demand for housing. Construction is dominated by a handful of large corporations who prefer large projects with economies of scale. Developers also maintain that the planning process is just too long and too complicated. The way the city of Stockholm is built today is obviously not responsive and adaptive. The role of the citizen is reduced to that of a customer, a prospective owner of a really expensive condo. Being unsubsidized, but with rent control still in place, the rental market is virtually nonexistent.
Sweden has a long tradition of self-building when it comes to detached single-family housing. This has resulted in vast areas of suburban catalogue villas with well-tended gardens. However, in denser urban contexts or inner cities, Swedes have traditionally relied on the state, the municipality or large corporations to build. The Swedish community is extremely individualist in its values, but it has been an individualism where the state has stepped in to take the place of family and community. It is a society where you put high trust in the authorities, and it is built around consensus rather than conflict. The inhabitants of Stockholm went from being pampered by the welfare state to being taken care of by the building corporations, only to awaken to the fact that the latter version doesn’t come with any income redistribution. If you compare the situation with that in other northern European protestant countries like Germany and the Netherlands, Swedes have been less rebellious when it comes to urban matters. There was never a strong squatter culture in Stockholm. Unlike Dutch or German politicians, no Swedish politician ever introduced any laws to encourage squatting of empty buildings in the city. Not even in the decades when people where leaving the inner city, as opposed to now, when the inner city is the norm.

Today it is commonplace among planners to talk about the mixed-use dense city as ‘green’. Since Färgfabriken had its first urbanism exhibition in 2002, the debate in Stockholm and the rest of Sweden on how to plan cities has shifted. We now live very much in a ‘Death and Life of Great American Cities’ paradigm. Jane Jacobs is mostly known for her 1961 book by that title, which has been paramount in forming the discourse on the mixed-use dense city during recent decades. At least on the surface. What is being built in Stockholm is very much an image of the mixed-use city. Typical new residential districts have the occasional corner shop, café or gym. Blocks of houses have façades in varying colors to give the impression that they are different houses, even though the whole block is one huge building, built by one developer. However nice it may look from afar, the underlying function doesn’t nurture true differentiation. Underneath the façade, it is large scale and corporate. And usually, it is all condos, and really expensive. We should be able to go beyond this trompe l’oeil diversity.

Jane Jacobs herself claimed that her most fundamental insight was not found in the famous book of 1961 but in her largely unnoticed book The Nature of Economies (1999). Her fundamental insight is the difference between how development and expansion work in urban economies. Their respective roles have everything to do with the idea of creating more variation and diversity in cities. And in the long run: resilience. Jacobs maintains that economic theory has confused development and expansion.

The two processes are mutually dependent, but they are two separate things. Development, says Jacobs, in both economy and ecology, is a qualitative change: mutations within a species, or a human being having an idea. From the simple progress towards greater differentiation, from simple life forms to more complex, from simple economies to greater diversity. One could imagine that each new unit (idea, species) would push out an old one in a zero-sum game. Instead, we get more and more species. Each development step presumes co-development with its environment. A company, innovator or species exists as a part of a larger network. The more diversified the economic environment is the better. It is the economic diversity that links economic development to economic expansion, according to Jacobs. Thus zoning should be a really bad idea, and science parks at least questionable.

Stockholm went through a rapid geographic expansion in the 1950s-70s when the subway system was built with its adjoining suburbs. This created an island-like regional structure. An urban archipelago. Zoning heaven and the opposite to what Jacobs purports in The Nature of Economies.

Jacobs compares economic expansion with the growth of biomass in an ecosystem. The solar energy that enters the ecosystem can go through many changes and metamorphoses. The greater the diversity and differentiation, the more kinds of organisms that can transform solar energy into different forms of life and redistribute it in different circuits. Solar energy hitting a rain forest or a desert will produce very different results. Expansion, as in quantitative growth, will depend on the quality of diversity. The more ways to collect and redistribute energy within the ecosystem, the higher the growth. Differentiation, which depends on development, is the prerequisite for growth. Any energy going into the Stockholm region hits, if not a desert, at least something similar to a plantation with “each crop in its own place”. Since the 1990s segregation in Stockholm has increased, not only in terms of ethnicity but also in economic and geographic terms. The poor are more geographically concentrated, so are the rich, and income differences are larger, according to a recent report from the University of Uppsala (“Social segregation I Stockholmsregionen”. Demografisk rapport 2014:09, TMR/SLL). The result of all this is that it becomes increasingly rare to meet someone who is not like you in your everyday life. Different groups of the population are being pushed apart.

Changing this will take creating more diverse neighborhoods and districts, but also rethinking the organization of everyday life. How do we move about, where do we do our daily chores, what is the mental and social infrastructure of Stockholm?

What is being built in Stockholm is still complete, finished suburbs or districts, without integral mechanisms that allow for a continued development on a social, economic, ecological or spatial level. Furthermore, one does not try to achieve the greatest amount of social and spatial differentiation, to allow for Jacobs’ ”development and co-development through differentiations and their combinations; expansion through diverse, multiple uses of energy; and self-maintenance through self-refueling”.

Suburbs in general seem to have a certain volatility. For instance they do not withstand demographic changes very well. A complex system must have a certain degree of diversity to cope with shocks and changes. A sustainable development presupposes a diverse system with built-in feedback loops, and an ability to evolve. Most suburbs are too much of monocultures; they lack the equivalent of biodiversity.

Within environmental studies, the concept of adaptive governance describes necessary components in human management of the complexity of nature. Adaptive governance includes continuous learning by close feedback loops of knowledge within and between management levels and large flexibility in the institutional landscape. It implies being able to deal with both uncertainty and abrupt change, and hence is crucial in resilience building.

In urbanism too, we need a method that goes away from controlling and predicting to supporting urban systems and their inherent tendency to develop. To support participation and multilevel cooperation would be a way to go. There is a fascinating overlap between the ideas coming from the environmentalists and from urbanists such as Jane Jacobs and Christopher Alexander. The latter came up with the concept of design patterns and pattern languages in the 1970s. His concepts apply to dealing with problems in different types of complex systems.

The trick was to document the pattern on a medium level of abstraction and to link the solution of a certain problem to a certain context or environment: “Each pattern describes a problem which occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to that problem, in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice.” (Alexander et al., A Pattern Language, 1977).
As opposed to detailed planning, the same pattern produces different results every time. It would be a way of combining a certain amount of control from the planning side, but ensuring variation and co-creation from the citizen and practitioner’s side. And above all, it would fit very well with small-scale incremental growth.

The description of a design pattern is generic enough to be reproduced, but specific enough and with enough practical relevance to be useful for practitioners. In Alexander’s original book the practitioner was someone who wanted to build their own house. In the decades since, this practitioner has been a software engineer. Christopher Alexander’s early ideas never really took off in architecture and urbanism but became really influential in object-oriented software, systems engineering and enterprise architecture. Using design patterns and pattern language to document collective knowledge has proved very fruitful in systems engineering. Above all, they proved to be a great way to deal with complex systems and ‘wicked problems’.

Through a weird twist of fate, with all the talk of ‘smart cities’, pattern language may now be re-entering the urban discussion from the side of the software developers. It is ironic since Christopher Alexander’s stance has always been very low-tech; all about co-creation, community involvement and building without large corporations being involved. Now it is the promise of creating ‘smart’ sustainable cities with the aid of information and communication technology that gives the people that used to work with the enterprise architecture of corporations the possibility to work with the information architecture of whole cities. The idea is to use data to find ways to operate city services, supply chains and infrastructure more efficiently. Supposedly, it will also make cities more resilient in face of climate change.

One could certainly take a critical stance towards this high-tech way of defining urban smartness, and question if this really is the best path towards sustainability. This said, maybe the software engineers can push mainstream urban planners and developers into thinking about the city as a complex adaptive system of incremental change rather than seeing it as something we build as a linear project with planning, production, start and finish. The pattern language has proved its worth when dealing with complex software; perhaps now the time is ripe for it to be used for what it was originally intended for: helping practitioners co-create their own houses, neighborhoods or even districts.

The role of the planner and the municipality would go from planning and predicting in detail to applying suitable pattern languages that support participation, development and multilevel corporation. The role of the Stockholmer could go from being a customer to a builder and maker. Increased reliance on self-building and grassroots initiative could address both the housing shortage and increasing social segregation.

Today, in Stockholm not everybody can afford to live in the central, attractive districts. The promise of a revamped planning process that allows for more self-building and incremental change is to break this gridlock. There are a number of reasons for this, but mainly that self-building could be cheaper, and it could create a smaller scale urbanity in Stockholm that just will not happen otherwise. Large developers are not interested in small-scale development. And even if they would build a smaller project it becomes more expensive, since they have to cover their overhead costs. The self-builder that uses a small contractor to build the house has no huge overhead cost. Two more factors push down the price: the self-builder doesn’t have to cover for the risk of not selling, and doesn’t have to make a profit. You could call this ‘the inverted economies of scale’, even though we are used to thinking that mass-production and large-scale always make things cheaper. That industrial analogy is why the Swedish planning system up until today has been so geared to the needs of large corporations.

Introducing small lots for self-build in many different areas in Stockholm could allow for a very different socio-economic mix. But it also has a value beyond the economic side. You would give a lot of people the opportunity to directly influence their own living environment. ‘Self-build’ is a very vague notion that could need some clarifying. It could mean a family or individual actually building their own home, or using a contractor to do it for them. But in this discussion self-building could also designate pretty much any model where the initiative to build, and the power to decide, lies not with a large construction company, but with a group of citizens or with just one citizen. A model that is very much studied in Sweden at the moment is the German Baugemeinschaft model, the building communities that construct and own a house collectively. There are a few that have been built already, but interest in this is really surging. The new social democratic and green political majority in Stockholm has opened up to the idea.

With its large-scale urban planning and building culture, a heritage from the social democratic gone neoliberal history, the Stockholm region is facing the challenge to find a new functioning urban model: a mix of individual self-expression and consensus to fit the Swedish mind. Hopefully it will be one whose inherent structure is about diversity, incremental growth and multilevel co-creation.

Denna artikel har tidigare publicerats i tidskriften Volume nr 43 som har temat ”Self-building city”.

Läs mer om temanumret och tidskriften här.

* Jan Rydén vill tacka Sara Borgström, PhD, Stockholm Resilience Centre för värdefulla kommentarer.