Year one in review and looking ahead

It has now been a year since I started blogging about urban complexity. While I originally wanted to use this blog to translate the things I had learned while in an intensely productive period writing my Master’s thesis on the Parisian business city of La Defense, it has since then grown to become much more profound and, from the comments visitors have left, more important. Now that I have written about the implications of wiki technology upon urbanism, coinciding with the concluding paragraph of my thesis, I have fully translated all the ideas I had covered, leaving me open to undertake a new chapter in my professional life as I move back to Canada in November. Since the subject has become so sprawling that even I have trouble finding my way around, I wrote up a Year One Review of all the articles posted, which should help the casual reader to approach the topics and understand how they relate to each other.

Now for Year Two. Whatever employment I find back in Canada will most likely determine what I can, or can’t, write about. I would like this blog to become about more than my own thoughts. Many people have written comments stating that they do research in the field of urban complexity and want to remain in touch. The best way for you to fulfill that promise would be to contribute articles. I would like this blog to become, over the long-term, an online magazine of the complexity paradigm in urbanism, and I need you to help me achieve that.

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6 responses to “Year one in review and looking ahead

  1. Benjamin Hemric

    Hi! I just discovered your interesting “Emergent Urbanism” blog via a positive comment about it on the “Market Urbanism” blog. As someone who is great admirer of the work of Jane Jacobs (not just of her first book, “Death and Life . . .,” but of her six, or so, other books as well), I’m a big believer in emergent urbanism, emergent economies, self-organizing systems, etc.

    I’ve skimmed through a number of the articles on your blog, and I’m both intrigued and puzzled. On the one hand, you seem to be coming from a Jane Jacobs perspective, yet on the other hand you seem to be coming from what might be seen as the orthodox urban “planning” perspective also. Whenever you get the chance, I hope you will write more about how the work of Jane Jacobs (especially her larger oeuvre) fits in with your idea of “emergent urbanism.”

    — Benjamin Hemric

  2. It has been a long time since I’ve read Jacobs. I remember going through Death and Life and The Economy of Cities while doing my undergraduate. It would be a good idea to go back this year and place her works back into context. Jacobs was in many ways a precursor of complexity science, having known about the upstart DNA science when writing Death and Life.

    Jacobs has been used by localist ideologues to promote the idea of the urban village as the one true form of urbanism. I myself don’t see the contradiction between the metropolitan urbanism of Robert Moses and the local scale of the neighborhood. Establishing a balance between scales is the entire point of complexity. The conflict over New York resulted from an attempt to wipe out one scale to impose another, and the victory of the localists over Moses has had the same outcome, only the victor was changed.

    I’d be interested in a review of Jacobs’ works if you have one written.

  3. Thanks for the quick reply! (Please don’t be offended if in the future I don’t reply as quickly!)

    In addition to looking back at “Death and Life” and “Economy of Cities,” I hope you will also get a chance to read Jacobs’ other five books — most especially “Cities and the Wealth of Nations” and “the Nature of Economies,” as I think they especially have a lot to say about emergent cities and emergent economies. As a matter of fact, I think it might be a good idea to look at these books first, before going back to her earlier works, as I think they will shed new light on what she was actually getting at in her earlier works.

    And I wouldn’t overlook her book on ethics (“Systems of Survival”), or separatism (“The Question of Separatism: Quebec and the Struggle over Sovereignty”) either, as both also have a lot more to say about cities, economies, organizational theory, scale, etc. than one might think. (If I remember correctly, I thought I read somewhere on your blog that you are from Montreal, or at least French-speaking Canada, so I would think you might find “The Question of Separatism” to be particularly interesting. Two weeks ago I bought a copy of this out-of-print book over the internet for only US$3.33 (!), plus US$3.99 shipping and handling — the original 1980 hardcover price was about US$9.00, I believe. Earlier today I wrote a bit more about this purchase in a comment that I submitted to the 2Blowhards blog.)

    I hope you won’t mind my slipping into the following dialog format, as I find it helps me write more quickly and easily.

    – – – – – – – –

    MH wrote:

    Jacobs has been used by localist ideologues to promote the idea of the urban village as the one true form of urbanism.

    BH writes:

    I’m not exactly sure if I understand what you mean by this statement (and by some of the other statements in your post too) and I wonder if we may be using some words differently. But I certainly agree that a lot of people (many of whom seem to have read little more than a few quotes from only one of her books) greatly misunderstand what Jacobs was saying and therefore have her “saying” a lot of things that she never did say.

    For one thing, it seems to me that Jacobs isn’t nearly as interested in urban villages as people make her out to be. What she was interested in was what makes cities (and economies) thrive / grow and what makes them stagnate / decay.

    – – – – – – –

    MH wrote:

    I myself don’t see the contradiction between the metropolitan urbanism of Robert Moses and the local scale of the neighborhood.

    BH writes:

    I’m not sure if I understand what you mean by the word “contradiction” in this particular context. I do think its accurate to say a) that Moses was in favor of regional planning (although he may not have been in favor of the particular regional plans offered up by the accredited, “ivory tower” planners of the day) and b) that Jacobs is basically anti-planning (either regional or local) and more in favor of individualized problem solving and the marketplace creating settlements / cities.

    – – – – – – –

    MH wrote:

    ESTABLISHING [emphasis mine — BH] a balance between scales is the entire point of complexity.

    BH writes:

    Again, I’m not sure if I understand precisely what you mean here. But, at first glance, this sounds to me to be a statement more reflective of an orthodox urban planning point of view (the idea that balance has to be planned or “established” by a planner) and less reflective of a Jane Jacobs point of view, or what I understand to be emergent urbanism point of view.

    – – – – – –

    MH wrote:

    The conflict over New York resulted from an attempt to wipe out one scale to impose another, and the victory of the localists over Moses has had the same outcome, only the victor was changed.

    BH writes:

    I’m not sure what you mean by this, but it seems to me that you may be referring in a general way to Jane Jacobs’ criticisms of particular Robert Moses projects (e.g., the Lower Manhattan Expressway, various Title I urban renewal schemes, etc.). If this is what you mean, I would have to say that I disagree in that Jacobs wasn’t against Robert Moses projects “in general” and was not against large-scale projects per se. For instance, regarding large-scale projects, she never criticized, as far as I am aware, projects like Pennsylvania Station (and its train yards), Grand Central Terminal “city,” Tudor City, etc. – and she even greatly praised large-scale Rockefeller Center. What she was against were particular projects that she saw – correctly so it seems to me – as being bad, anti-city projects, regardless of scale.

    As you are probably aware, there were recently some New York City exhibits on both Moses and Jacobs and a number of panel discussions and newspaper and internet writings about the exhibits and catalogs. It seems to me that there is actually a great deal of misunderstanding regarding what BOTH Jacobs and Moses actually stood for (and therefore also a great deal of misunderstanding regarding how they stand in relation to one another), and I eventually hope to write an article about it.

    – – – – – –

    MH wrote:

    I’d be interested in a review of Jacobs’ works if you have written one.

    BH writes:

    Unfortunately, I haven’t (yet) written the kind of review that I think you are looking for. But, in case you’re interested, I have posted a great deal of bits and pieces about Jacobs on the web — and links to two of them are somewhat handy. Just above your Sept. 26th post on the “Market Urbanism” blog, I posted a comment that includes links to two threads on the 2Blowhards blog, where I posted comments about Jacobs vs. Nikos Salingaros (“’Burb Thoughts, Info, Questions” – my four comments in this thread don’t begin until about half-way down the page) and Jacobs vs. Christopher Alexander (“The Alexander Effect”). (I’ve also posted other comments about Jacobs there also, as well as on David Sucher’s “City Comforts” blog, the Norman Oder’s “Atlantic Yards Report” blog and the New York Times’ “City Room” blog – but the links to those comments aren’t as handy.)

    Given that your “blogroll” includes links to websites connected with Salingaros and Alexander, I suspect that you may strongly disagree with what I’ve written in the 2Blowhards threads referred to above. But, it seems to me that Salingaros and Alexander actually have more in common with orthodox urban planning (and, more obviously, the New [Sub-]Urbanism that you seem to criticize) than they do with either Jane Jacobs or, what I understand to be, emergent urbanism. This is part of what I was referring to yesterday when I wrote that it seemed to me that, “On the one hand, you seem to be coming from a Jane Jacobs perspective, yet on the other hand you seem to be coming from what might be seen as the orthodox urban ‘planning’ perspective also” (which is how I see Salingaros and Alexander).

  4. I really don’t know what to answer if you don’t make more specific what you mean by emergence. Alexander and Salingaros are more invested in architecture, which is what I expect you mean by orthodox urban planning.

  5. Benjamin Hemric

    MH wrote:

    I really don’t know what to answer if you don’t make more specific what you mean by emergence.

    BH writes:

    To me, in the context of emergent urbanism, “emergent” means something along the lines of something that is “unplanned.” So I was thinking that “emergent urbanism” would be “unplanned urbanism.” (This is especially true since I first ran across your blog on the “Market Urbanism” blog. And although I’ve just discovered this blog also, I get the impression that it is about urbanism that is shaped by market forces rather than by planners.)

    – – – – – – – – – –

    MH wrote:

    [1] Alexander and Salingaros are more invested in architecture, [2] which is what I expect you mean by orthodox urban planning.

    BH writes:

    Regarding [1]: I’m glad you say that, because although I’ve only read very small bits and pieces of their writings here and there, that’s the impression I’ve gotten also. So it’s interesting to hear someone who is much more familiar with their work saying this also.

    Regarding [2]: But that’s not what I primarily mean by “orthodox urban planning,” however. To me the defining quality of orthodox urban planning is, perhaps, the focus on the idea of “planning” itself (whether such planning is physical planning, or economic planning, or social planning, etc.) . In other words, it seems to me that “orthodox urban planners” are people who believe that cities should be shaped to a considerable extent by planners (and citizens) through the political process, rather than be allowed to shape themselves primarily through the marketplace (as they largely had before the advent of the city planning profession in the early 20th Century).

    So although it seems to me that Alexander and Salingaros differ somewhat from the stereotype of the “big bad planner” (e.g., Robert Moses), as they provide for more community participation and seem to be interested in taking smaller planning steps, they still seem to me (from the statements that I’ve read here and there, and from an exchange of posts with Salingaros at the 2Blowhards blog) to believe to a significant extent in “planning” that is done through the political process. So, bascially at heart, they seem to me to be more allied with “orthodox urban planning,” than to what I imagine to be “emergent urbanism.”

    However, from my readings of Jane Jacobs (i.e., looking at all the chapters of “Death and Life” and looking at all her other books too), it seems to me that Jacobs is a believer in cities (and economies) being shaped primarily through the marketplace, with only relatively small amounts of planning done through the political process (i.e., through government).

  6. Emergence is about much more than market forces, it is the science that studies how individual actors cooperate under systems of rules to produce complex structures. The market economy is one instance of emergence, but not the only kind. Cellular automata and multicellular lifeforms are other, very enlightening instances of emergence. I’ve written many articles on different aspects of emergence. I invite you to explore the field in a broader perspective.

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