In 2005, sustainable urbanism professor Michael Neuman, PhD, stormed the citadels of established urban design theory by challenging the fundamental notion that compact cities are the sustainable form for future civic planners. In his essay, “The Compact City Fallacy,” he critiqued the popular notion that compact cities are more healthful, community-oriented, and more energy efficient because people can bike, walk, or take public transportation to go to shops or to work. Neuman brought forth a litany of scientific evidence that suggested this is not the case: “Preliminary evidence testing the compact city vis-à-vis sustainability suggests that the relation between compactness and sustainability can be negatively correlated, weakly related, or correlated in limited ways.” Essentially, he argues that the concept of “compact cities” isn’t inherently good or bad. It just misses the point.
It’s been eight years since “The Compact City Fallacy” was published. I wanted to see if Neuman still ascribed to this point of view because as many of us are well aware that compact cities in various forms continue to be the de rigueur sustainable design solution for a host of projects across the globe. I caught up with Neuman via Google (which he points out in his lectures is a massive consumer of global energy) as he is now a professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.
I thought his opinions might have mellowed over these years. Instead, they’ve become sharper. “Since 1960, while human population has doubled, the global economy has quadrupled, and resource consumption quintupled,” he says. “Thus, we are getting less efficient and less sustainable as we move to cities, not more, contrary to popular belief and professional dogma. This is the ultimate compact city fallacy.” Neuman’s data demonstrates that cities are becoming less sustainable as they grow. He says the rate at which people living in cities consume is the real problem, which won’t be solved by using more energy, money, or technology as these will only dig us into a deeper hole.
If there is a culprit that causes this inefficient use of resources, Neuman calls out designs where processes of human activity aren’t truly well integrated or understood. “The modern linear approaches in planning, architecture, and engineering since the industrial era all are based on closed systems,” he says. “And look where they have gotten us—to the point of needing 1.5 planet Earths to support our profligate lifestyles right now. What’s more troubling is the rates of consumption are increasing worldwide, and planetary population growth is still at the rate of about one billion more people every 13 years.”
But what does he think of Norman Foster’s Masdar City? Does it support his ideas or refute them? “Any high-tech and high-density city in a desert is folly, no matter who designs it,” he says. “The overall costs, including embodied energy costs, if calculated comprehensively, will likely turn out to belie its supposed sustainability. It would be a valuable exercise to conduct a truly comprehensive and long-term life cycle analysis based on all the processes used to construct, maintain, operate, inhabit, and renew such a city. We have the algorithms to do so.”
“Since 1960…the global economy has quadrupled and resource consumption quintupled. Thus, we are getting less efficient and less sustainable as we move to cities, not more.”
Michael Neuman, University of New South Wales
Instead, Neuman advocates biomimicry as a planning and design solution, where we use models of open, interconnected loops of processes as nature does. In nature, the outputs of one process become the inputs of another process, and all the processes are connected.
“Reconnecting nature and culture in and though our cities in simple yet smart ways are the way,” he says. “Simple and naturally smart materials are a tool. Simple structure and simple order needs less energy and less information to keep it together, to keep it alive.”
But don’t compact cities do this? I wasn’t understanding what he was getting at, he said. A form is like a snapshot of process, he told me. It is a fixed condition at any point in time. “Asking whether a compact city, or any other form of the city, is sustainable is like asking whether the body is sustainable,” Neuman says. “The proper question is not if the body is sustainable, but rather, does the being that inhabits the body live sustainably? In the end, it depends on design, not density—the design of the processes that make urban form.”
His work challenges a designer to deconstruct the starting point of civic design where they tendency to rush to form rather than understanding processes. He says that the more we study and use examples of open-loop systems in nature, the more sustainable all developments, including cities, will become. “We have a long way to go if we want to approach the efficiency and sustainability of nature,” he says. “That is understandable, considering nature has a several-hundred-million-year head start on humans.” A compact city can be sustainable if it is truly born out of a more careful integration of living systems. Perhaps it is in the fundamental human processes of striving to improve and perfect where we will achieve this goal.