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Can planners design disorder?

Planning tends towards order and rigidity. But a little "positive disorder" can generate informal, people-friednly spaces that ar emore widely used, says Pablo Sendra 

Is it possible to design urban spaces that encourage informality and unplanned activities? One of the main issues with this question is its contradictory nature; urban designers have the ambition of shaping human behaviour through their designs, which results in introducing order and control in urban places.

The 20th century and the start of the 21st have seen urban renewal schemes that try to remove disorder from cities, ranging from slum clearances and construction of modernist housing estates post-war, to recent renewal schemes in social housing that build on Oscar Newman’s ‘defensible space’ principles to provide safer and more controlled urban areas, removing any space that could lead to antisocial behaviour. But removing disorder from urban environments can result in overplanned places with no vitality that disencourage social interaction or spontaneous activities. Sociologist Richard Sennett, in his first book The Uses Of Disorder (1970), said “certain kinds of disorder need to be increased in city life”, so people become more tolerant of difference and are better prepared to face the unexpected. He criticised modern planning for creating over-rigid environments. Today such schemes still aim to remove disorder from neighbourhoods.

My research recently published in the Journal Of Urban Design proposes taking Sennett’s notion of positive disorder into urban design. Rather than trying to plan those places where informality is already happening, my research focuses on introducing disorder in over-rigid environments such as modernist social housing areas. 

removing disorder from urban environments can result in overplanned places with no vitality

It proposes designing ‘infrastructures for disorder’ – urban design interventions in the public space of social housing neighbourhoods that create conditions for the unplanned use of the public realm and foster social interaction to encourage actions from the bottom up. Some estates may not have an appropriate context for these types of bottom-up urban actions to take place and initial interventions might be vital to motivate them. 

Urban design should encourage stronger relationships between people and their surroundings. 

To propose the strategies, the paper uses common terms from architectural and urban design practice – surface, section and process. While the strategies on the surface and section look at how people interact with the materiality and spatiality of the public space, strategies on the process explore how to build a public realm where the final output is the result of people’s actions and experiences.

Dr Pablo Sendra was shortlisted for the Early Career Researcher Award in 2016’s RTPI Research Awards. He is a lecturer in planning and urban design at the Bartlett School of Planning


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