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The Journal of Architecture
ISSN: (Print) (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rjar20
To cite this article: Dan Hill (2021) Slowdown city, The Journal of Architecture, 26:1, 67-72, DOI:
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/13602365.2021.1883306
Published online: 16 Feb 2021.
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From the perspective of architecture and urbanism, 2020 quickly laid bare the
emptiness, fragility, and waste in much property development, in much phys-
ical retail, in centralised urban forms and homogenous commercial space, in
the many broader patterns of living and working that segregate and diminish
us in our abusive relationship with our natural environment. The year’s
events, from bushfires to Covid-19 to Black Lives Matter, played out vividly
on the infrastructures of everyday life around us. And it quickly became clear
that these spaces, under such duress, speak too loudly of our destructive last
four decades —perhaps even the last four centuries —rather than tomorrow’s
possible futures. This is not something we can simply build our way out of.
In fact, the quintessentially 2020 architectural intervention may be a form of
un-building at the intersection of these events and these spaces: the retrofits of
city streets that peaked over the summer, in cities as diverse as Bogotá and
Berlin, Tel Aviv and Salt Lake City, Milan and Sydney. These interventions
look to open up, slow down, rework, and actively reverse those recent patterns.
These are not only the spaces to watch, but also emblematic of different pro-
cesses and cultures: editing, excising, curating, growing, protesting, discussing
—but not building.
The street has always been the basic unit of the city. The spaces between
buildings tend to tell the story of how our cities are changing, rather more
than the buildings. So we might learn much by observing that Covid-19’s
crass attempt to grab the limelight happened here. By briefly clearing the
streets, the virus enabled us to stop, look, and listen.
The year 2020 may be the first time, under skies free of air traffic and briefly
green and pleasant streets hosting radically altered patterns of living, working,
and shopping, that we could collectively ask questions about the accumulations
that have been happening for decades. The reason that those street retrofits
could happen, given only the briefest window, is because streets have been
quietly meandering away from the car as the dominant object for years. Yet
2020, briefly unlocked by the pandemic, saw city streets suddenly race
ahead in terms of retrofits, finally triggering discussions of a broader reorgan-
isation of the city. Most of these activities were already underway. It’s just that,
with honourable exceptions like Barcelona’s Superblocks, they were under-
funded, under-discussed, under starter’s orders, and with little understanding
that streets could be the primary acupuncture point for transformed patterns of
habitation and culture.
Whilst some schemes were quickly lashed together, some were well pre-
pared. Paris’s ambitious fifteen-minute city strategy was announced well
before Covid-19, yet is now increasingly de rigueur for urbanism, globally.
When seen in the same light as these Covid-fuelled retrofits, a broader
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awareness of environment and public health, and alongside tech-driven
impacts on urban living like Uber, Airbnb, WeWork, Amazon, and working
from home, it’s clear that these could all combine to suggest a different pat-
terning of cities, and a profoundly positive one. The key question is if —and
this is an ‘if’the size of London —these patterns elide to produce equality
for people and the environment they are part of.
Feargus O’Sullivan and Laura Bliss have questioned this aspect of the
fifteen-minute city, as ‘a utopian vision in an era of deep social distress —
but one that might, if carried out piecemeal, without an eye to equality, exacer-
bate existing inequities’.
Similarly, Timothy Morton points out that our exploi-
tative relationship with our environment, differentiating between human and
non-human nature, is really a form of racism.
Both these challenges are there-
fore linked, and both are architectural, if not exactly about joists. They provide
further imperative for architecture to engage more deeply with its context and
completely rethink what it is about.
Twenty twenty also revealed that the city is a set of Matryoshka dolls all the
way down: fifteen-minute cities sit within larger loops, built around foodsheds
and watersheds, logistics networks and distant commutes. But within the
fifteen minutes, they are composed of multitudes of ‘one-minute cities’,
enabling a tighter focus again. This zoom-level can be truly based around
new relationships between neighbours and neighbourhood, between the
street as a space and a set of infrastructures, and the street as a group of
people and living landscapes.
Vinnova’s work in Sweden, retrofitting streets in this way, is predicated on
architects as facilitators of a process within which the street designs itself —
both hosting dialogues as well as designing modular ‘kits of parts’for people
to draw from, to adopt and adapt. This requires architecture, and even built
interventions —but again, of a very different form, based around adaptive
design and open source platforms, repair and restore, community-building
rather than building-building.
There are different dynamics emerging that may support these shifts. Again,
Covid-19, with its forced slowdown, is a carelessly drawn sketch of a bigger picture.
In his book Slowdown (2020), written pre-Covid, the Oxford University
geography professor Danny Dorling uses rich and diverse data to validate a
thesis that human progress, generally, has been slowing down since the
early 1970s. He describes how fertility rates, growth in GDP per person,
increases in life expectancy, the frequency of new social movements, even
the rate of technological progress, have all steadily declined over the last few
This fundamental dismantling of the primary economic engine undercuts
most things, not least the idea of property as investment. In a casual aside,
Dorling points out that demand for buildings, as with economic growth
generally, is largely linked to population increases. Without that demand —
and Dorling is in little doubt that population increases are slowing down
everywhere —there is reduced demand for architecture as traditionally
68 Slowdown city
The slowdown does not fit the dramatic narrative of a pandemic, nor the
orthodoxy of the growth doctrine. It is an idea that is difficult to engage
with, as major cities base their prognoses on continued population growth,
with all that that entails. Equally, 2021’s economy may rebound hugely, dis-
tracting us with bubbles. Yet, Dorling’s data runs to decades, well beyond
assessments of this year or next. Such deep patterns are quite clear. Dorling,
cautiously, sees a possibility in this rejection of the ‘growth at all costs’
mantra. ‘Slowdown is not an end of history or the coming of salvation. We
are not heading toward a utopia, although life for most people may be less pre-
carious, with better housing, education, and less onerous work than in the
recent past. We are heading for stability.’
As I wrote in my own Slowdown Papers for much of last year, we could see in
the first waves of Covid-19 a rough simulation of these slowdown patterns:
those streets describing a broader emptying of city centres, a pruning of prop-
erty value, a decimation of physical retail and shift in consumption online, a
rediscovery of neighbourhoods and community resilience, a rebalancing
between centre and suburb, an intensified version of mixed-use space at the
scale of the home, a sudden regrowth of biodiversity and increasing awareness
of non-human life, yet more innovation in digital spaces and interactions, a
concerned focus on food resilience, social justice activism becoming main-
stream, an emphasis on essential services, even an awakening of interest in uni-
versal basic services …
All of these directly affect our patterns of living and working, and thus our
cities, our spaces, our built fabric. As with Slowdown dynamics generally,
there are positive patterns here, clearly, as well as negative ones.
Slowdown dynamics, once we are past Covid’s flare-up, could enable us to
conjure the space and time for ‘community-building’rather than ‘building-
building’to work. Transforming streets into gardens and meadows that are
curated, cared for, and owned by people is a powerful act, particularly given
the current context of streets regulated and maintained by abstract others.
Such shared gardens and meadows actively necessitate engagement. They
require care. Usually, these things are avoided. Maintenance, which is really
a form of care, is usually a variable to diminish, an easy way into value engin-
We might want to rethink this, and instead foreground the value in mainten-
ance, of using the city rather than making the city. Such increasingly biodiverse
environments create a positive pull on people, actively drawing us into our
other forms of nature, which can only be fulfilled by reorganising the way
we live, by flattening time and power relations, by slowing down.
Australian artist Linda Tegg’s installation ‘Infield’was commissioned well
before 2020, yet immediately made sense during the pandemic. An apparently
simple meadow, grown from seeds in modular plugs of native soil and plants,
and tumbling over the vacant car park outside ArkDes, the Swedish national
centre for design and architecture, ‘Infield’was gently radical. Kieran Long,
ArkDes director, notes that it quietly yet powerfully asked fundamental ques-
tions about our relationship with our environment, about how we must
69 The Journal
‘work with nature instead of against it, making space for non-human species
and sharing the city with them’.
In this small, discreetly delightful intervention in a car park, we see a possible
future for architecture which is spatial, material, cultural, social, and political,
exerted through natural processes requiring tending and care, a dynamic
closer to that of gardening than fire-and-forget construction, and which
implicitly asks broader questions of social and environmental justice. Again, a
different form of architecture is implied.
These different distributions of space, material, and time, across everyday
infrastructures like streets and car parks, allow for a far richer, more textured
tapestry of urban fabric to emerge. This may not only shake our existing
blunt economic logic but also our myopically human-centred understanding
of technology and design. We have many reasons to restore and regenerate
biodiversity at scale, in all its forms, locally and globally, including preventing
further versions of the virus that has deleted much of 2020. Yet beyond
that, for the broader challenges of climate crisis, public health, and social
justice, we will need to reorient around forms of ‘nature-based design’
rather than simply human-centred.
Indeed, some of the most powerful contributions this year have been in intel-
lectually exploring this rebalancing of human and non-human life: the work of
designer Anab Jain, ethnographer Anne Galloway, and landscape architect
Claire Martin, as well as the inventive collation of indigenous architectures
and nature-based technologies by architect Julia Watson in her book Lo-TEK.
Each of these sketches is also a trajectory for a new architecture. Each
emerges from design cultures that existed well before 2020 —in the case of
Watson’s examples, perhaps 50,000 years before. Yet, each is powerfully repo-
sitioned by the short-term events of this year, and perhaps emboldened by the
longer-term slowdown dynamics that they exist within.
That this work concerns ethics, in the sense that Watson and Jain might
describe a more-than-human design,
or that Morton might perhaps
frame Tegg’s work or Ron Finlay’s appropriation of Los Angeles vacant
parking lots for gardens, reveals one of architecture’s truly unique facets:
its ethical foundations. And this year has been about ethics as much as
epidemiology —about who suffers, how, and why. Before and beyond
Covid-19, architecture’s responsibilities have been framed via its capabilities
for our living environment, our settlements, the way that public life is articu-
lated (or not) through its built form. Its role, as with design more broadly, is to
give form to ideas, and in turn, those forms shape what activities and ideas
can continue to emerge.
These higher-order capabilities for purposeful connectivity, once unmoored
from the heavy weight of building, can do just this: make different things
happen, transform car parks into farms, streets into meadows. Architecture
can be the crucible for different forms of knowledge to collide, moving produc-
tively between and across boundaries, specialisms, and perspectives. Buildings
are one of the ways that this sensibility might exert itself, but certainly not the
only way, nor are they always the most potent. Architects from Cedric Price to
70 Slowdown city
Liza Fior have pointed out that the answer to every question cannot be a
However, architecture’s broad and transformative potential for society will
not be easily guided from the cul-de-sac it has backed into. The development
industries that architecture is wedded to are strong and influential, even
after Covid-19. Despite the massive collapse in value that cities like London
and New York have witnessed, their sunk investments in legacy ideas will be
difficult to simply write off.
Yet, put directly, doubling down on architecture engaging with such extrac-
tive practices will only continue its trajectory into irrelevance. That would not
only be a waste, but worse, an abnegation of duty and capability precisely
when the world needs architecture’s true potential. The last decades of the
Great Acceleration can aptly be captured in the noise, pollution, waste, and
expense of all that building. Yet the next decades, as population growth tails
off and the dust settles, may be largely about un-building, re-building, and
Rem Koolhaas once wrote: ‘Liberated from the obligation to construct,
[architecture] can become a way of thinking about anything —a discipline
that represents relationships, proportions, connections, effects, the diagram
Koolhaas says so many things that one has to carefully sift
out the false positives, yet this ‘liberation’seems highly apposite in 2020.
Facing climate crises and biodiversity degradation, it is clear that we need a
radically diminishing amount of construction —much of the world is done;
that which needs to be re-done requires the greatest of care; and the Slow-
down suggests that the rest needs less than anyone thought. The corollary
of this is that we clearly need new ways of understanding ‘relationships, […]
effects, the diagram of everything’more than ever.
At its best, architecture is a practice that acquisitively draws together dispa-
rate and colourful threads of experience and culture, artfully weaving them into
new patterns and conditions that help imagine and define diverse ideas: per-
spectives, politics, places. Like any design discipline, architecture is political: it
concerns decisions and directions. We must now point that immense capability
at an entirely new set of questions regarding human and non-human nature,
for social and environmental justice.
Architects have more to offer in this mode than the outdated ‘master
builder’: as collaborators, integrators, listeners, translators, makers. Last
year’s forced slowdown provided an unintentional early glimpse of this, a pro-
totype or diagram of almost everything that a more intentional slowdown
world might be. We should not try to move on from 2020, but learn from it.
And then get to work.
Notes and references
1. Feargus O’Sullivan and Laura Bliss, ‘The 15-Minute City —No Cars Required —Is
Urban Planning’s New Utopia’,Bloomberg Businessweek, 12 November 2020
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coming-to-an-urban-area-near-you> [accessed 4 January 2021].
2. Timothy Morton and Marco Petroni, ‘Nature is a Racist Concept’,Domus, 2 March
[accessed 4 January 2021].
3. Danny Dorling, Slowdown: The End of the Great Acceleration and Why It’s Good for the
Planet, the Economy, and Our Lives (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2020), p. 10.
4. Julia Watson, Lo-TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism (Cologne: Taschen, 2019).
5. Anab Jain, ‘Calling for a More-Than-Human Politics’<https://medium.com/@anabjain/
calling-for-a-more-than-human-politics-f558b57983e6> [accessed 4 January 2021].
6. Liza Fior, ‘Whose Voice Counts?’,inArchitects After Architecture, ed. by Harriet Harriss,
Rory Hyde and Roberta Marcaccio (London: Routledge, 2020), p. 45.
7. Rem Koolhaas and Office for Metropolitan Architecture, Content (Cologne: Taschen, 2004),
72 Slowdown city