We are tasked with the incredible challenge of managing change when many places are not sufficiently equipped to do so. The unimaginable cost of optimizing, specializing, and stretching thin our urban environments over the last seventy years has only begun to emerge, forced from hiding by the 2008 financial crisis, energy speculation, climate change, demographic shifts, and the like. Great disruptions like these are not new to us (ie Richard Florida’s Great Reset) but as the effects of such unexpected events have become increasingly more pronounced in our communities, we are led to believe that what we’ve built during our most explosive period of growth lacks a basic resilience to change. Consequently, a large portion of our physical plant is simply unable to adapt, innovate, and thrive.
Our struggle is the product of a blip in our human history that has mesmerized the design community in the industrial era, creating a divide between Creationists and Evolutionists. Creationists hold that the designer creates whichever universe he or she sees as responsive to current or fantasized social needs (for example, housing in 30s, single-purpose highways in the 50s and, most recently, simply trying anything yet untried) or satisfactorily self-differentiating in the media. It neither connects to the patterns that came before it nor allows for adaptation to follow. It is necessarily tied to cheap energy, industrial process, the proliferation of academic influence and our profession's lobby.
Evolutionary design, on the other hand, grows out of centuries of trial and error–what biologists call adaptive morphogenesis–that imbues what we build with a great robustness to failure. Evolutionary design, while by definition not perfect, gives our neighborhoods, towns, and cities the inherited back-stopping redundancies that necessarily allow them to anticipate and embrace change. It is built on a foundation of thrift and solving for pattern.
If we come away with anything from these economic doldrums, it appears that it will be the discrediting of the Creationists. With scarce resources (both capital and energy), we can no longer afford to hire those who treat human environments as a blank canvas, seeking an irrelevant and irreverent intervention. The Creationist Experiment is now several generations old and we can now empirically say that it has failed us. It not only failed us during its active stage but does so now, as we demand of it a repurposing it cannot provide.
We turn to evolutionary design with great need. Once again we must be students of what has survived the stress of time in the hopes of developing further these patterns to respond to current needs. Doing so will not only provide places that serve our programs well now but will allow those purposes we cannot predict to take what we have done and adapt it to future conditions.