Tag Archives: city

Parasitic urban housing

Here’s a nice little slice of near-future urbanist architecture-fiction; Australian architectural outfit Lara Calder have come up with a speculative scheme for “parasitic” urban housing, designed to recolonise otherwise unused vertical surfaces in the urban landscape. Architects tend to have a grasp of bombastic language far superior to my own (no, really!), so I’ll let the words speak for themselves:

To achieve sustainable densification the dwelling attaches itself to blank building fabric found in the city. It grows on empty facades, rock faces and bridges. It finds value by turning dead public space into lively private space.

prefab parasite housing - Lara Calder Architect

The Prefab Parasite is a parametric dwelling which incorporates many considerations into its flexible design. The facade reacts to orientation. The footprint can be wide or narrow depending on the site and always maintains its 36 square meters. The structural ribs are tuned to the exact building form using an algorithmic modeling system.

The fabrication and construction of the prefab parasite rely heavily on digital methods. The facade paneling system is designed and sent to fabrication to be machine cut out of an eco solid surface material consisting of compressed bamboo and recycled paper. The structural facade members are all controlled parametrically, as are the main structural ribs. The integration of the structure with the design system increases efficiency and accuracy of the construction process.

While it’s not completely implausible to imagine cities ordering the construction of buildings like this, it’s much easier to imagine them being a “favela chic” development, thrown up by guerrilla architects in the parts of big cities where the authorities no longer dare go… or just can’t be bothered to control any longer. [via Inhabitat; image ganked from Lara Calder Architect, please contact for immediate take-down if required]

Imagine for a moment a rogue city-state cordoned off from the country surrounding it; with no way of expanding horizontally, and insufficienct engineering power to expand vertically, all that’s left are the interstitial spaces. Slowly the city becomes a hive, the line between public space and private dwelling blurring to a point where the two terms become meaningless synonyms… and J G Ballard is worshipped as a visionary prophet in the hollow concrete temples of bridge piles and skyscraper foundations.

Domed cities and super-squellettes

Here’s another classic science fiction trope being upgraded to serious proposition: the domed city. The Discovery Channel has apparently been doing a program about mega-engineering, and one of the subjects was a proposal to hide Houston beneath a dome to protect it from the effects of an increasingly erratic climate.

Houston dome concept

Sadly there’s not much detail about the hows and whys (they want you to watch the program, natch), and the sheer overload of Flash content on the DC site keeps crashing my browser. But the dome sure looks pretty – from the outside, at least. [via Technovelgy]

Meanwhile, if you want a more gritty and realistic look at the city landscapes of the near-future you should be tagging along with Bruce Sterling, who’s currently obsessed with emergent, repurposed and interstitial urban spaces and is producing a quality stream of links as a result. One of the latest nuggets is about the favelas of Caracas, Venezuela – built in and around a failed Modernist tower-block project and almost entirely maintained by its residents without government support or funding.

Zipf’s Law – modelling the megalopolis

Taipei urban skylineMore statistical sensawunda in the urban environment. Remember us mentioning that guy who suggested that cities can be considered  as super-organisms? Well, a mathematician chap called Stephen Strogatz dropped into the New York Times blogs to talk about Zipf’s Law and other statistical phenomena that surround our urban environments:

The mathematics of cities was launched in 1949 when George Zipf, a linguist working at Harvard, reported a striking regularity in the size distribution of cities. He noticed that if you tabulate the biggest cities in a given country and rank them according to their populations, the largest city is always about twice as big as the second largest, and three times as big as the third largest, and so on. In other words, the population of a city is, to a good approximation, inversely proportional to its rank. Why this should be true, no one knows.


For instance, if one city is 10 times as populous as another one, does it need 10 times as many gas stations? No. Bigger cities have more gas stations than smaller ones (of course), but not nearly in direct proportion to their size. The number of gas stations grows only in proportion to the 0.77 power of population. The crucial thing is that 0.77 is less than 1. This implies that the bigger a city is, the fewer gas stations it has per person. Put simply, bigger cities enjoy economies of scale. In this sense, bigger is greener.

The same pattern holds for other measures of infrastructure. Whether you measure miles of roadway or length of electrical cables, you find that all of these also decrease, per person, as city size increases. And all show an exponent between 0.7 and 0.9.

Now comes the spooky part. The same law is true for living things. That is, if you mentally replace cities by organisms and city size by body weight, the mathematical pattern remains the same.

It looks as if there’s a lot of things that mathematical analysis could tell us about the cities we live in. The question is, are these properties inherently emergent, or could we design our urban environments more effectively and adjust some of those efficiency values in the process? [image by tylerdurden1]

The city considered as a very large organism

Roads - the veins of the living city?A few days ago Cosmic Variance was plugging a talk by a chap called Geoffrey West, a complex-systems boffin, which sounded like it had some very interesting angles. Here’s an extract from his abstract:

to what extent are cities or corporations an extension of biology? Are they “just” very large organisms? Analogous scaling laws reflecting underlying social network structure point to general principles of organization common to all cities, but, counter to biological systems, the pace of social life systematically increases with size. This has dramatic implications for growth, development and particularly for sustainability: innovation and wealth creation that fuel social systems, if left unchecked, potentially sow the seeds for their inevitable collapse.

Man, I love this sort of stuff; that’s the sort of question that pushes the same buttons as good science fiction, at least for me. So much so, in fact, that I’ve spent much of the holiday weekend here in the UK expounding similar ideas to inebriated friends, accompanied by brisk hand-waving. There’s a certain innate logic to the analogy that I feel anyone who’s lived a long time in one city – or maybe many – would instantly glom onto. Of course the city is alive, of course it is a system, an organism – how could it be anything else? [image by Nrbelex]

Once that assumption is agreed, though, the challenge is to work out what that actually means in human terms – which is more of a book-sized challenge than one suitable for a blog post, I suspect[1]. But I’m leaping ahead here, assuming that everyone feels the same way; maybe it sounds daft to you.

So, tell me: do you think cities can be considered to have a kind of life of their own, an organismic existence of emergent phenomena? Or is this a case of anthropomorphic projection? Or maybe both at once?

[ 1I’m imagining some sort of hybrid authorial chimera of Jeff VanderMeer, Geoff Manaugh and Mervyn Peake, with a sprinkling of Bicycle Repairman-era Chairman Bruce for the techno-weirdness element… ]

Global warming and our urban future

ghg-tables1Worldchanging reports on yet more evidence of urban living being less carbon-intensive than suburban living:

The authors of this study, published in The Journal of Urban Planning and Development, quantified the emissions from building materials and construction, home heating and power demands, and transportation energy, in both urban suburban neighborhoods in the Toronto metro area. And they found that downtown residents use radically less energy, and consequently emit about two-thirds less climate-warming CO2 than their suburban counterparts.

I had been vaguely aware that the suburban lifestyle produced more greenhouse gases, but the extent is surprising.