The City as Laboratory: Experiments in Urban Development

Oxford Road, Manchester

Andy Karvonen (Manchester Architecture Research Centre) and James Evans (Geography) discuss the re-emergence of the ‘urban laboratory’ term and how it is being implemented in Manchester.

There is growing recognition throughout the world that cities are some of the largest contributors to climate change while simultaneously offering multiple opportunities to realise low-carbon futures. Cities have high population densities, an inherent emphasis on the sharing of resources, unique local and regional storylines, and various legislative and cultural resources that can be leveraged to transform the global discourse on climate mitigation and adaptation into concrete, on-the-ground actions. But how should these local actions be undertaken? Through government regulations and incentives, third sector and citizen initiatives, public/private partnerships, or a combination of measures? And where do university researchers fit into the various low-carbon urban development strategies?

In the last few years, many climate change initiatives have emerged under the title of ‘urban laboratories’. Those who are familiar with the history of urban studies will recognise the term from the highly influential Chicago School of Sociology at the beginning of the twentieth century and the attempt by urban researchers to apply scientific principles to the study of urban evolution. Today, urban laboratories involve a wide variety of motivations, ranging from creative sector development to economic resilience, and cutting edge technology trials to environmental protection strategies. Most of these projects emphasise the creation of bounded spaces of innovation where experimentation and learning serve as the central focus of urban change. In short, the urban laboratory promises a significant break from development as usual in the face of extreme challenges posed by climate change as well as other wicked problems in cities such as resource depletion, economic inequality, unemployment, and cultural conflict.

The idea of the city as laboratory is incredibly enticing for researchers and policymakers alike but it also comes with risks. Many urban laboratories use the rhetoric of experimentation and innovation to mask business as usual or even worse, to further exacerbate existing inequalities or political structures, while others ground their experiments in narrowly focused future visions. However, the emphasis on learning and experimentation presents a genuine opportunity for university researchers to direct their research and teaching activities towards local projects. The laboratory provides a real world classroom where ideas can be tested, data can be collected, and resulting knowledge can be applied at multiple levels.

A perfect example of how climate change has spawned an urban laboratory is right here in our backyard on the Oxford Road Corridor. The Corridor Manchester partnership includes an urban laboratory where University of Manchester projects such as EcoCities, iTrees, and the Low Carbon Observatory are trialling new strategies of urban development while creating new social and physical relationships between the campus and its social and material surroundings. These projects tap into the increasingly urgent calls for ‘impact’ and ‘engagement’ in academia, improving the relevance of university research while recognising the city as a primary resource for teaching and learning. The urban laboratory suggests that universities can be more than just in cities but of them and academic research can be directed towards studying climate change and other pressing issues while also catalysing improved urban futures.

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