Cities of Dispersal

After the ‘What can we learn from China?‘-lecture at ZeZeZe Architecture Gallery, Tel Aviv, February 29, 2008, we briefly met with Els Verbakel. Along with Rafi Segal, Els Verbakel edited the March 2008 issue of Architectural Design, entitled ‘Cities of Dispersal‘. Questioning the traditional boundaries between cities, suburbs, countryside and wilderness, Cities of Dispersal explores emergent types of public space in low-density environments. While functionally and programmatically, dispersed settlements operate as a form of urbanism, the place of collective spaces within them has yet to be defined and articulated.

This issue of Architectural Design focuses on ways in which urban sprawl – areas of unstructured development with constantly expanding low-density housing – can be redesigned and rethought by interventions from architects and urban designers. Looking particularly at the issue of public place and the way that collective space can be redefined and articulated, this highly topical issue responds to the need for architectural design to engage in social issues and existing urban forms rather than attempting to create idealized conditions or merely iconic buildings.

Cities of Dispersal – Extract from introduction essay

by Rafi Segal & Els Verbakel

The traditional distinction between the urban and the nonurban relied on a hierarchical organisation of density. Cities at the centre were the densest, most concentrated, moving to less dense areas towards the suburbs, the countryside, and yet further to the wilderness. These different types of environments not only presented different degrees of human intervention and habitation, they also developed different ways of living. The opposition between negative and positive attributes of city and countryside has long been supported by clear boundaries between one and the other, be it through walls, ring roads, green belts and the like. Yet over the course of the 20th century, whether due to economic, industrial, military or technological developments, the distinctions
between city, suburb, countryside and wilderness have become blurred.

In their currently advanced state of dispersal, cities have lost their traditional boundaries. Due to a redistribution of urban activities and intensities, we can no longer recognise a clear pattern of high density in the centre and lower densities at the periphery. In this process, programmes that were previously associated with the city centre, such as commerce, office work, leisure and entertainment, have been transplanted to suburbia and have taken on a different shape. Suburbs, new towns and satellite cities, initially designated for housing, have gradually become multifunctional environments, independent of the city. The distinction between the city as a centre and suburbia as its subordinate kin has become, in many cases, neither accurate nor appropriate. Low-density environments have ceased to be sub-urban, no longer relying on the city as their centre, or raison d’etre.

Macau (China) and Saint Nazaire (France), Cities of Dispersal | Architectural Design, March 2008

Many of these low-density environments (also outside the European and American context), despite their increasing integration within urban systems, are generally not viewed as urban or as cities. This is mainly due to their lack of density and centrality, the absence of a coherent urban fabric or distinguishable boundaries, and a ‘damaged’ relationship between the pedestrian and urban space. More importantly, they are seen to lack the conventional forms and uses of urban public spaces to which we have become accustomed. Current attempts to qualify dispersal usually refer to the loss of these characteristics. Yet when we look at examples of sprawling cities such as Los Angeles and Mexico City, or larger, spread-out areas such as the Veneto region in Italy or the state of New Jersey, we find different urbanities that have emerged from such apparent losses. Dispersal has led many to paint a sombre picture of an irresponsible ‘non-urbanity’, from which the only escape is a move back into the city.

However, if we are to accept Rem Koolhaas’ claim that the city is dead, or Mark Wigley’s statement that the city has ceased to be a useful idea in planning, we are left in confusion, with losses on both sides.

about the authors

Rafi Segal established his own architectural practice in 2000 after working in partnership with Zvi Hecker on the design of the Palmach Museum in Tel Aviv. His theoretical and practical work gained him the Young Artist Award and, later, the Young Architect Prize from the Israeli Association of United Architects. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Architecture at Princeton University.

Els Verbakel is founding partner of Derman Verbakel Architects and she is currently pursuing a PhD in Architecture at Princeton University. Els has taught architecture and urban design at Columbia University, Pratt Institute and KULeuven and is currently teaching at Technion University and Bezalel Academy of Art and Design.

ISBN: 978-0-470-06637-9; Paperback Original; £22.99/32.20 EUR

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *