What is Synaptic Urbanism?

Urbanisation is not a new phenomenon. As our species transitioned from migrant hunter-gatherers to farming societies with permanent settlements, we started to build cities as centres of trade. Cities are a product of our natural human state.

“The city is a fact in nature, like a cave, a run of mackerel or an ant-heap. But it is also a conscious work of art, and it holds within its communal framework many simpler and more personal forms of art. Mind takes form in the city; and in turn, urban forms condition mind”    Lewis Mumford (from ‘The Culture of Cities’ 1938).

The challenge for our species is that we are increasingly dependent on accelerating city growth to safeguard basic necessities such as farmland and water supplies; we can no longer sustain a dispersed society. The UN projects that 85% of the world’s population will live in major cities by the year 2050.  The implications of the rapid acceleration in urban living are multivalent and demand a reassessment of our understanding, from practical considerations of infrastructure, transport, water, housing and public places to the broader socio-political and economic contexts in which the framework of physical infrastructure is set.

I use the term Synaptic Urbanism to describe an analytical approach and associated set of tools we may use as we begin to navigate this complex urban future in a manner that is specific to the local conditions, culture and climate of each place. Each city has competing priorities for investment, infrastructure, urban repair and social provision. The decision makers heretofore have prioritised investment based on a combination of fiscal objectives, political drivers and in many case as a response to unforeseen events.

Therefore many past investments in our cities are ineffective and incomplete. If we begin to add the overlay of spatial data that is currently available to cities then policy makers can make more informed decisions on investment priorities. We can identify the small investments that can complete previously disjointed strategies. The key component is that these Synaptic Urbanism interventions do not need to be large investments, they just need to be in the right place and they must do the right things.

Michael Hegarty RAIA RIBA AoU
National Practice Leader │ Australia + New Zealand


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