The way we design cities is the main cause of the emissions that have caused the environmental crisis. Pandemics are a symptom of this crisis, and to avoid them we have to abandon instant projects and create systematic visions, also based on informal urban settlements

* Alessandro Melis, architect, Cluster for Sustainable Cities director (University of Portsmouth, UK), Curator of the Italian Pavilion at the 2020 Biennale

For some time now, we have known about the impact of climate change on health. And we know who suffers most. According to the UN, the worst impact will be on settlements lacking in adequate infrastructures for potable water and hygienic-sanitary services, with low quality of life. Namely the poorest areas, those not based on the design efforts of urban planners and architects.

It is a case of dramatic injustice. The planned city – the “evolved” concept of the urban settlement – contributes to the environmental crisis, but those who feel its effects live in informal settlements. Which are then indicated as a problem, rather than the consequence of the problem. Instead, we should pay closer attention to them.

In informal urban development, we can find creative and unexpected solutions and behavioral practices of low impact, including coexistence with non-human species. As in the Algerian El Houma, the historical center of Mexico City, or the suburbs of Akure.

Obviously the idea is not to put a positive spin on infrastructural shortcomings and social pressures. Instead, we need to think about the dynamics of adaptation activated in these places, analyzing their value as a possible antidote to design determinism.

Why should we look at slums to think about and cope with major global crises?

The answer comes from the study of evolutionary biology.

Little of the work of evolutionary biologists has found its way into architecture. Yet what they have to tell us can be important for those who design. Stephen J. Gould, for example, has explained that evolution uses the redundancy and variability of forms to respond to unpredictable environmental conditions. The classic example is the sixth finger of the panda, a previously existing bony growth that becomes a tool when the animal – originally a carnivore – wound up handling bamboo to gain its nutrition.

The proliferation and redundancy of these forms is defined with the term “spandrel.” The possibilit of using them to fulfill an unforeseen function is called exaptation (functional coopting).

These two concepts of redundancy and variability of use offer incredibly practical applications in the design of resilience seen as adaptation to unexpected conditions. What might happen if like the panda we began to use tools that we already have (and now consider useless) to cope with the great problems of the present?

To do this, we have to think in an associative, non-linear way. Many knows how to do this, science explains. Creative systems – according to the geneticist Ewan Birney – are characterized by the proliferation of forms and interconnections and by the ability to generate non-linear thoughts that do not necessarily have a preset use, since they rely on association. The paleoanthropologist Heather Pringle has shown that creativity is the result of a survival mechanism that is activated in crisis mode, with respect to the standard mode of linear thinking. Biological evolution, in short, has not been a gradual process, but a series of radical, innovative and seemingly illogical adaptations on the part of organisms in moments of crisis.

What does all this mean for architecture? It means that an informal kind of design, based on functional cooptation, can teach us a lot regarding alternative, non-anthropocentric processes of colonization of the biosphere. And it can teach us that our salvation involves putting true creativity back as the central focus. Which in evolutionary terms is the opposite of the linear logic of planning, and thus is able to advance through radical ideas.


Cover photo: skyline of the suburbs of Mexico City. Ph. PxHere.