The solar system with the world at the centre. Illustration from the star atlas “Harmonia Macrocosmica” by Andreas Cellarius (1660).

Decentralised Urbanism
By Bernd Upmeyer

When in 2007, almost ten years ago, we conducted an interview with Floris Alkemade for MONU’s issue #7 on “2ND RATE URBANISM” about a Dutch city called Almere that was founded in the 1980s as a decentralised town with multiple centres, he explained that once, when he tried to find a place to have a beer there, he passed by an endless number of similar-looking houses but could not find any centre where a bar or café might have been, as the city never became dense anywhere. He described this experience to us as being dumped somewhere close to hell. In the interview, we fittingly called “Dumped in Almere”, Alkemade, who was at that time one of the partners of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) and today is the Chief Government Architect of the Netherlands, further stated that at one point Almere realized this situation was the result of the decentralisation of the city. Thus, decentralisation became viewed as a problem at a time when the city grew to around 80.000 inhabitants; it needed a recognizable urban identity with one single, clearly identifiable centre.

However, the eventual failure or unsustainability of the decentralisation of Almere does not necessarily mean that “Decentralised Urbanism” in general is a bad thing. Particularly in relation to politics and with a focus on more than one city, “Decentralised Urbanism”, which in this case means giving individual cities more autonomy and freedom, could help cities thrive. For example, England has applied that thinking recently and initiated the softening of the power of its capital London in order gradually to get rid of the country’s extraordinarily centralised situation. Empowering cities such as Birmingham, Liverpool, or Manchester, would probably represent the biggest change to the way Britain’s cities are organised and run since the Second World War. And what works on the scale of a larger region – or even nation – would probably function within singular cities, and particularly within singular big cities and their metropolitan areas, as well.

Nevertheless, things do not appear to be that simple when it comes to singular cities instead of groups of cities, as the case of Almere demonstrates. The city of Paris currently discusses whether the city’s metropolitan areas should become politically less autonomous, as their autonomy offers challenges when it comes to, for example, establishing common infrastructure or implementing housing regulations. Paris actively contemplates making the city and its metropolitan areas more centrally organized. The case of Paris clearly shows that there can be as many advantages as disadvantages to a “Decentralised Urbanism”. Our recent issue #19, entitled “Greater Urbanism”, already touched upon this topic, which means that in this new issue we wish, to a certain extent, to continue the discussion on how metropolitan areas of cities should be organized in terms of governance, politics, space, architecture, sociology, ecology, and economics, but now with a focus on “Decentralised Urbanism”.

The moment we start talking about metropolitan areas we need to bring topics such as sprawl and suburbia into the discussion as well. This will offer a great chance to look at and re-think issues that have been discussed exhaustively over the last decades with a fresh eye through the perspective of “Decentralised Urbanism”. This means also that “Decentralised Urbanism” is not a topic that merely focuses on big cities and metropoles – typically London, Paris or Moscow – but also on smaller cities. Furthermore, investigations on “Decentralised Urbanism” should not be reduced to Europe and European cities, but include cities in the rest of the world too. Because in the emerging world – Asia and Africa, and do not overlook South America – almost every metropolis is growing in size faster than its population. Despite the recent tendency of people and companies, at least in the Western world, to move back to the city centres, it becomes ever more obvious that our planet as a whole is gradually becoming more suburban. Thus, with this new issue we aim to discuss to what extent “Decentralised Urbanism” could help to organize cities around the globe in a better way, creating and planning the right kind of sprawl, orchestrated in an advanced and sustainable way, providing enough space, infrastructure, and affordable housing for a dignified life for everybody.

But we would also like to explore how we have to judge “Decentralised Urbanism” in general, as a strategy to plan the growth of cities and their metropolitan areas today. As the organisation of cities in a decentralised way is nothing new and has been envisioned and executed in the past, this issue should look into the history of urban planning too. One could think of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City or Frank Lloyd Wright´s Broadacre City.

Title: Decentralised Urbanism
Author: Bernd Upmeyer
Date: October 2016
Type: Call For Submissions for MONU
Publications: MONU – Magazine on Urbanism
Publisher: Board Publishers
Location: Rotterdam, The Netherlands