Should Cities Have Guiding Principles?

by | Jul 16, 2011 | Education, Uncategorized

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A friend sent me a link the other day to an article about the Dutch city Almere, a new city built on reclaimed land near Amsterdam. I’d read about Almere—a fascinating place from an urban planning and development point of view—before, but now I discovered that the city has hired American architect and urbanist William McDonough to help craft a set of principles that will guide future development. These have been called, logically enough, the Almere Principles:

1 Cultivate diversity

To enrich the city we acknowledge diversity as a defining characteristic of robust ecological, social, and economical systems. By appraising and stimulating diversity in all areas, we can ensure Almere will continue to grow and thrive as a city rich in variety.

2 Connect place and context

To connect the city we will strengthen and enhance her identity. Based on its own strength and on mutual benefit, the city will maintain active relationships with its surrounding communities at large.

3 Combine city and nature

To give meaning to the city we will consciously aim to bring about unique and lasting combinations of the urban and natural fabric, and raise awareness of human interconnectedness with nature.

4 Anticipate change

To honour the evolution of the city we will incorporate generous flexibility and adaptability in our plans and programs, in order to facilitate unpredictable opportunities for future generations.

5 Continue innovation

To advance the city we will encourage improved processes, technologies and infrastructures, and we will support experimentation and the exchange of knowledge.

6 Design healthy systems

To sustain the city we will utilize ‘cradle to cradle’ solutions, recognizing the interdependence, at all scales, of ecological, social and economic health.

7 Empower people to make the city

Acknowledging citizens to be the driving force in creating, keeping and sustaining the city, we facilitate their possibilities for them to pursue their unique potential, with spirit and dignity.

McDonough is best known for developing, with chemist Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle Design. Wikipedia describes C2C as “a biomimetic approach to the design of systems. It models human industry on nature’s processes in which materials are viewed as nutrients circulating in healthy, safe metabolisms…Put simply, it is a holistic economic, industrial and social framework that seeks to create systems that are not just efficient but essentially waste free.[1] The model in its broadest sense is not limited to industrial design and manufacturing; it can be applied to many different aspects of human civilization such as urban environmentsbuildingseconomics and social systems.”

What I find interesting about the Almere Principles is that they are descriptive, not prescriptive. They do not say what can or cannot be done; they don’t concern themselves with zoning or land use; they are not rules or plans, but rather—as the name says—principles. They define an ethical perspective, a filter of sorts through which all future development must pass. When proposals are put forth they can simply be evaluated in terms of whether they adhere to these principles or not. The Almere Principles could potentially streamline development while directing it towards ends that benefit the city in both the short term and the long term.

A document such as the Almere Principles also raises a discussion as to the responsibilities of local government. Should city officials simply be representative figures doing the bidding of their constituents? Or are they also stewards responsible for the long term health of a city? We call early civic leaders our founding fathers…should government still play the role of civic parent?

A document such as the Almere Principles makes me wonder whether Sarasota would benefit from a similar endeavor. Why wouldn’t it? What would these principles be? Do they already exist, unwritten? Who should decide which make the final cut? And how much authority should they have?