The necessity of specific vagueness

By Pehr Mikael Sällström, KTH School of Architecture

Urban design is a key to the local implementation of global and national sustainability goals as it anchors them in geography and make them agreeable and practical to people.

How does urban design facilitates the implementation of sustainability goals in municipal urban development projects?

The urban design demystification maze.
©Pehr Mikael Sällström, KTH

I have studied the urban design process as reflected in the planning directives of planning documents including urban design guidelines and environmental quality programs. Planning directives as a genre includes both written acts and design acts. Therefore I have consulted the general theory of communication where both words and images are considered as signs that mediate communication in different functions as speech acts and the similar (Searle 1969, Jakobson 1956).

The planning directives of the urban design process reflect design acts that result from interactions in several different psychic and social contexts: the introspective conversation of the individual designer with herself; the exchange of ideas in the design team; the interaction of the design team with other expert groups in the cross-disciplinary urban planning process; the negotiation among the stakeholders in the urban development process and the political deliberations among the decision makers.

Planning directives are therefore a category of linguistic and design acts with an intermediate degree of determination between policy goals and building permit. They are used to facilitate the detailed development planning process in large urban development districts with 1000-10.000 housing units.  They are found in Comprehensive land use plans, Amended comprehensive plans for geographic areas and Programmes for detailed development planning.

Urban planning is conceived as a hierarchic decision process from vague initial visions to specific directives in the Code of planning and building (PBL/SFS 2010:900). Environmental qualities are gradually being integrated with other qualities in the planning process since 1998, but mainly with other legal instruments such as MKB, MKN and exploitation agreements.
The contradictions resulting from different perspectives on social planning objectives in a pluralistic economy (the ’wicked problems’) cannot be resolved with scientific engineering methods. (Ritter & Webber 1973)
The complexity and contingency of the urban development process makes it necessary to have a hierarchic decision process based on gradually increasing degree of determination of the directives where each level has a certain degree of autonomy to deliberate on both ends and means as long as its external functions in relation to the next level are maintained. (Luhmann 2002, Simon 1996, Nussbaum 1995)

Provisional model of sustainable urban development based on the case of Lomma harbour.
©Pehr Mikael Sällström, KTH

In the case of Lomma harbour the decision process was parcelled into 4 distinct levels of decision that can be differentiated into policy and strategy directives on the general planning level (often called global among practitioners) and in tactical and operative directives on the specific project level which is geographically and spatially defined. (Tornberg 2008)

The semantic content of planning directives include both functional, technical, aesthetic and spatial properties as well as requirements for procedures. The form of the planning directives combine written statements and images which have an equal status that vary on a semantic scale from general to specific. The syntactic modality of the directives can be both open, closed and ambiguous. The directives are negotiated in stages resulting in a gradually increasing degree of specificity. But the change is not linear. Se diagram 1.

Diagram 1.
©Pehr Mikael Sällström, KTH

In the case of Lomma harbour the decision process was parcelled in 4 distinct levels of decision that can be differentiated in policy and strategy directives on the general planning level (often called global among practitioners) and in tactical and operative directives on the specific project level which is geographically and spatially defined. (Tornberg 2008)

Entrance to the urban design demystification maze.

The existence of all kinds of directives on every level indicate their degree of autonomy. E.g. The planning program resulted in some significant additional policies such as consideration of children’s need.

Four groups of actors were involved in the planning program: architects, planners, environmental experts and developers. See diagram 2.

Diagram 2.
©Pehr Mikael Sällström, KTH

Each expert group follow different conventions for the syntagmatic ordering of information (Chandler 2002). Each expert group use different terms and gives different meaning to the same words, which implies that they are based on different epistemic theories and assumptions, so called epistemic paradigms or regimes of knowledge (Foucault 1969). Function and Space dominate the discourse among the planning directives.
All the actors share a concern for the categories of function, technology and procedure. Only the planners and architects share a concern for Spatial and Combined directives.

Enclosure of light (the pink sunrise): A space of light for identification of shared criteria.

The understanding of the Developer is that design can make the building less costly and more buildable: the episteme of know how, (Molander 1996).

The understanding of the Environmental expert is that the design can contribute to the function and usefulness of the building and place in terms of comfort, security and limited use of resources: the episteme of utility (Arendt 1958).

The understanding of the Architect is that the design should be expressive in a meaningful way and be properly done according to the function of the place: the episteme of sense making (Weick 2015).

The deliberations among the actors resulted in the emergence of the differentiating dichotomies of big vs small town, identity vs anonymity, safety vs insecurity and efficient vs wasteful.

Introducing darkness (the pale black sky): The act of differentiation among options and choice of perspective.

From this fundamental differentiation and definition of the project emerged the first principle of the small conspicuous town.

The act of signification of the differentiation resulted in several symbolic design features among which the specific detail of the ‘mayor stone’ is one of the most memorable when reading the documents. A ‘mayor stone’ used to be a protruded flat stone that was used by the mayor and his likes to be able to walk more comfortably and dry footed on the pebbled and muddy streets of the towns in older times.

The Hologram column: The act of signification of the first principle of action (naming and framing) that satisfice the criteria and make best use of the options. The idea of the ‘mayor stone’ as a symbolic (and practical) feature of the local streets.

The architect’s sketch of an alley can be categorized as an analogue iconic representation of an idealized imagined typical alley section. Not the built result nor a specific alley. (See diagram 3) The text on the drawing indicate a frame of reference for the intepretation. The details add a specific emotional dimension. The icon can also be interpreted as a symbol and stand for the overarching goals of a ’small town’ and streets where cars and walking people can coexist. The kerbstone of teh ‘mayor’ type anchor the image in a discourse about dignity as exemplified by the accessibility for all policy. The specificity of the sign makes it memorable and convincing as a rhetoric technique.

A sketch from the Urban design guidelines for public spaces at Lomma harbour.
©Kjell Forshed, ark SAR/MSA Brunnberg & Forshed arkitektkontor
A built alley at Lomma harbour towards the beach which exemplify how the planning directives had been interpreted during the building permit stage. Photo: PM Sällström

Only 4 out of 35 design directives in the program for urban design quality (QP) are concerned with ecology. The ecological issues are local treatment of day water, climate adaptation with plants, taking advantage of fillings on the ground and taking care of desolate areas with design. The most significant ecological design principle is that: “The design – ground treatment and choice of plants – in the public places must contribute to that the local climate becomes as good as possible in the sea-close environment.” (QP 5.4.10)

The developer also include some 11 design principles that are mostly concerned with technical design issues. One directive of the developer is concerned with spatial design: “Windows are designed and planned according to the quarter to make use of the natural daylight. Design related aspects shall be prioritized.” (EAP 6.2.3)

Other observations: ’Mixed use’ is the only shared directive among all actors. ’Green environment’ had a low penetration in the initial directives, but was added later in the process. The developer is the only actor that show no concern for ’aesthetics’. The developer and environmental expert only disagree on bicycles, renewable energy and local infiltration of rain (LOD). Only the architect and planner are concerned with spatial properties. From this I conclude that the environmental expert interest in aesthetics and mobility bridges the developer with the planners and architects.

An analysis of the relative proportion of Open, Ambiguous and Closed directives on the different levels of decision indicate that they are relatively more open on the intermediate decision level of the Planning program and the Amended comprehensive plan.

This imply that the willingness to negotiate directives are at their highest in the Planning program. A deeper analysis of the differences among the actors imply that the they are more open on different levels of decision.

Specific vagueness is a characteristic of the genre of planning directives. To implement sustainable goals in local projects it is necessary to follow the logic of specific vagueness. This implies among other things that: 1.Environmental goals should be adopted as first principles for the design and be embedded in the specific expression. 2.The policy goals should be open to re-definition of both ends and means during the programming stage when the spatial and aesthetic potential of the site is disclosed with specific expressions. 3.The actors should be informed that their different competencies are complementary, but based on different regimes of knowledge. This means that they have to give time to discussing the project specification interpretation to develop a temporary project specific shared frame of understanding. 4.The different objectives should be discussed at the outset of the project and the planning process must include sufficient time for resolving conflicts in the program and adapting general directives to the site specific conditions.

The contingency of urban development result in that initial action to start urban development is governed by a different logic than the fabrication implied by management by objectives.

The absorption of uncertainty, which is a necessary condition for action is instead dealt with by making qualified guesses with the assistance of specific design expressions that are given the authority to establish a principle for priority among all available options.  This limit the risk of the actors and make them willing to contribute to the development. Initial planning of urban development belong to the logic of action which according to philosopher Hanna Arendt is ruled by the ability of humans to make treatises based on mutual trust. This establish frameworks of relations that make society prosper. The role of design is to mediate the initial vision that start this process of value creation and make it credible by qualified guessing rather than inferencing from previous known facts.

In 2014 Lomma habour was evaluated and it was confirmed that the planning program had contributed to establishing the new concept of eco system services.