Human Settlements as Ecological Systems

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Ian Bentley is Emeritus Professor of Urban Design at the Joint Centre for Urban Design [JCUD]at Oxford Brookes University. He was lead author of Responsive Environments (1985, since translated into many languages), author of Urban Transformations (1999) and, with Georgia Butina Watson, of Identity by Design (2007). He is currently leading a team producing a new settlement-design manual entitled EcoResponsive Environments, and is writing The Art of EcoDesign with Becky Kiddle. He is a Director of the International Network on Settlement Design.

Professor Bentley’s abstract for the presentation focuses on the urgent need to meet the challenges of our time by integrating the systems and practice of ecology and settlement design. The interface between systems is a key area of focus for a practice which is robust, and relevant. In this context, a form of practice which seperates the rational and scientific community of research from the practice of design, fails to allow us to really work with the systems that shape our world, the systems that are the key to meeting current environmental and social challenges.

Drawing on over 40 years of practice, as a developer, architect and educator, Professor Bentley set out his case that settlement design is about understanding the structures that govern how we shape the world. These structures have two key properties; designed action, the consequence of deliberate decisions, and emergent properties, the unintended or unimagined consequences of systems coming together.

Bentley began his argument by inviting reflection on why and how research and practice do and do not come together. Sometimes, research feels design practice fails to adopt the rigour of research and evidence. Sometimes design practice feels that research is not relevant to the outcomes this community are trying to pursue. These communities of practice, in seeing themselves separately often end up in a ‘blame game’ where impact, or lack of it is the fault of others.

Bentley argues that all knowledge is framed around structures, and understanding the how of these structures is important. We need to see design and knowledge as an iterative, cyclical process, in time and space. For him, ecological systems point to how we should frame our understanding of how to design and act. In ecology, there are systems within systems. They overlap and connect at key points. These interfaces are key, as they are both points of change, and points of management.

Using the idea of ecological systems, Bentley looked at the systems, and sub systems of urban morphology, in terms of their structures and rates of change. He considered landscape, natural infrastructure, human linking systems, plots, buildings, and components. Each system works at different scales, and has a different rate of change. Systems sit within systems. Natural systems last a long time. Buildings and components change regularly. The connection between all these elements then is not about style; it is about understanding structures and properties necessary to make places work, how the systems adapt and interact with their wider contexts, how systems enable change. Processes like space syntax point to a systems method of understanding the properties that connect systems in a settlement, and how we talk about these properties in design terms.

Moving through the scales, Bentley focused a lot of his presentation on the interface between the systems, between streets and buildings, between buildings and spaces, between blocks and plots, between form and architecture. For him, there are key principles that emerge when we think about place, design and settlement in these terms. The idea of the connected street system and perimeter block for example emerges as strong ideas, regardless of cultural context. He illustrated this point with reference to an urban block in Greece, and form studies by MRDV. These properties he argues are transcultural. They contextualise to places, people and environments. The underlying principles are universal.

A podcast of Professor Bentley’s presentation is available here, and video with the podcast and presentation slides is here. The session was chaired by Diarmaid Lawlor.

Headline Image: Sangath Architects

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Place and leadership

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