As we question the resilience of our cities and their ability to adapt to the global pandemic, ‘Procedural Liveability’ exposes the liveability metrics awarded to cities. Various aspects that constitute the liveability metrics of a city are explored in this videogame project which is intended to be an experimental tool to test the strategies that would alter the liveability level of a city. Videogame being an interactive medium is chosen for receiving the user’s perspective as the liveability of a city is determined by its inhabitants. The game critically questions the reliability of the globally accepted liveability ranking systems that primarily focuses on the spatial aspects and its universal implications, by illuminating the significance of context and the impact of city’s spatial alterations on the hidden social metrics. Reflecting on the strategies adopted by different global cities, the players acquire tools from these ‘scannable’ cities to apply and test the effectiveness of the strategies to transform a city by adjusting its spatial parameters to impact its liveability metrics by deploying a ‘liveability drone’. The project emphasises the need for redefining the criteria for ranking the liveability level of a city by focusing on the spatial and social metrics as well as the need for considering the contextual implications of the strategies before applying them on to the city.
KOOZ What prompted the project?
AF This project was conceived as part of the M.Arch Urban Design programme from the Bartlett School of Architecture. It was conceptualised during the global pandemic phase where all the cities across the globe were imposing measures to effectively tackle the situation. This made me question the resilience and liveability of our cities and their ability to adapt to these adverse conditions.
KOOZ What questions does the project raise and which does it address?
AF The project primarily questions the liveability of our cities and critically questions the reliability of the globally accepted liveability ranking systems. The criteria adopted for ranking the city’s liveability by the various organisations/ranking systems were found to be quite rigid and overly focused on the spatial aspects and its universal implications. There was a lack of consideration of the social aspects and the fact that some aspects are contextual and not universal. The project tries to expose these drawbacks and respond to it by illuminating the significance of context and the impact of the city’s spatial alterations on the hidden social metrics. The game comprises of three ‘transformable cities’ geolocated in different parts of the globe for the player to transform, each responding differently to the strategies applied by the player. These responses are drawn from real urban scenarios. The player can only see the consequences on the spatial metrics while applying the strategies. The social metrics are kept hidden until the end of the game when a spatially adjusted liveability rank combined with the consequences on the social metrics results in an overall liveability level. The game also throws light on some of the challenges faced by cities nowadays like congestion, sprawl, pollution, etc. resulting from certain actions by the player and the strategies that could be implemented to revive the city that are drawn from real urban revival projects.
The criteria adopted for ranking the city’s liveability by the various organisations/ranking systems were found to be quite rigid and overly focused on the spatial aspects.
KOOZ How do you personally approach and define notions of liveability? How has this changed in the last 20 years?
AF In my opinion, the ‘Liveability’ of a place is defined by the inhabitants. It is the people that bring life to a city and determine its success and liveability. We need an inclusive city that serves and satisfy the needs of all kinds of inhabitants. Layers of spatial, social, environmental, economic and political aspects influence this and need to be balanced. I cannot point out a single city that satisfies all the criteria, but different lessons could be learned from different cities. With the growing set of challenges and random events happening globally every year, the cities are challenged to be more adaptable and resilient adding more layers of complexity to the liveability metrics. Even though the number of challenges that the cities are faced with has increased over the past 20 years, especially environmentally, economically and politically, the criteria adopted by the liveability ranking systems remain the same which again adds to the inefficiency of the system.
The initial research revolved around the question of what makes a city liveable which made me look into the globally accepted liveability Indices and ranking systems.
KOOZ How did you approach the initial research phase of the project? How was this material then absorbed and implemented within the design phase?
AF The initial research revolved around the question of what makes a city liveable which made me look into the globally accepted liveability Indices and ranking systems. I looked into the criteria for ranking the city’s liveability by these ranking systems and also did some research on the characteristics of cities that are highly and poorly rated for its liveability by the people, also looking into the World Happiness Report and few other studies that took a more people-centric approach. This made me question the reliability of the globally accepted liveability indices. So, the game was conceptualised to expose the liveability metrics and to reflect on other aspects that are ignored by the metrics. The objective was to expose the strategies that would upgrade and degrade the liveability level of a city and to emphasise the need for redefining the criteria for rating the liveability level of a city.
KOOZ When abstracting the cities to their core what informed the choice of 'features' used to explore and represent these urban metropolises?
AF I relied on Kevin Lynch’s concept of Imageability to abstract the city. Some of the key elements that add to the imageability of the city were considered for abstraction. For instance, the grid layout and palm tree flanked boulevards very much add to the imageability of LA, whereas radial roads, squares, terraced houses and the iconic red bus are few elements that adds to the imageability of London and the iconic towers, urban shrines and Mount Fuji in the background add to the imageability of Tokyo.
Cities lose their identity and uniqueness almost becoming characterless due to over-simplification which seems to be a common theme in most of the cities these days
KOOZ What are the advantages and disadvantages of the over-simplification of the sites we inhabit?
AF Over-simplification of the built form may be advantageous economically and may reduce visual tension. Over-simplification of the spatial configuration can be advantageous in terms of way-finding and orientation. But cities lose their identity and uniqueness almost becoming characterless due to over-simplification which seems to be a common theme in most of the cities these days making them look no different than the other. Sometimes it also leads to the elimination of considering contextual aspects in the design.
KOOZ What informed the game as a design and speculative tool?
AF Game is a medium that allows for user interaction in an effective way by immersing them in the act of play. As I mentioned, the liveability of a city is determined by its inhabitants. So, it’s important to know people’s perspectives or ideas of a liveable city. Their perspective could be received by the way the game is played, by knowing the tools and strategies applied to alter the liveability level of the city. Various speculative scenarios could be created in the game for which the player is liable to respond which then lets us know how people would react to certain design decisions, making the game a powerful speculative tool for designing.
KOOZ What is the potential of this being distributed and played by a wide audience of individuals?
AF The M.Arch Urban Design programme culminates in a B-Pro show in which the game will be exhibited and could be played by the visitors. But this year, the show is going online. So, once the show opens, the game will be distributed through online videogame platforms so that it reaches wider audience.
The pandemic has definitely impacted the way we live and interact with others. Our urban spaces are being reconfigured to accommodate this new way of living.
KOOZ How do you envision our cities changing as a result of the current and future pandemics?
AF The pandemic has definitely impacted the way we live and interact with others. If social interaction was the need of yesterday, social distancing is the need of today. The way we perceive public spaces is not the same anymore. Our urban spaces are being reconfigured to accommodate this new way of living. People are reducing the use of public transport leading to increased use of private vehicles which is adding pressure on the environment. This calls for more sustainable modes of transport. Increasing urban density becomes a core issue. The need to live in less dense neighbourhoods can lead to increased suburbanisation which could again lead to issues of sprawl and rising pollution levels if not dealt in a balanced way.
KOOZ What is for you the architect's most important tool?
AF Any tool that helps to design and effectively communicate the design to the people is important. The success of a designed space is determined by the users. Hence their opinions and perspectives are crucial for designing. The conventional tools and methods like sketching, two-dimensional drafting, three-dimensional modeling and filming help to design and communicate the design effectively. But none of these tools and methods can be used to receive user feedback or people’s opinions and perspectives quickly and effectively. The ability to receive people’s perspectives by making them respond to specific scenarios by engaging them in the act of play makes videogame a very interesting speculative tool for designing. I consider videogame as a creative and unconventional tool for designing which has a great potential for exploration.
Drone's journey through the game.
Aafreen Fathima is an architect, landscape architect (SPA, Delhi) and an urban design student at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. Aafreen was recognized as the Best Outgoing Student in the Bachelor of Architecture (2016) from CET (India) with her final project ‘Commercial bridge-an urban connect’ selected as the best thesis. Her works have been recognised on several National and International platforms including National Award for Excellence in Architectural Thesis (Top 10), Asia Young Designer Award (Top 5) and Archiprix International. Her research on ‘Defining interaction generation capability of a space’ which was selected as the best paper from the school was published in the ‘Journal of Indian Institute of Architects (JIIA)’.