The rules for changing rules

Paul Romer presents his solution to the problem of underdevelopment in this TED video.

Stanford economist Paul Romer believes in the power of ideas. He first studied how to speed up the discovery and implementation of new technologies. But to address the big problems we’ll face this century — insecurity, harm to the environment, global poverty —  new technologies will not be enough. We must also speed up the discovery and implementation of new rules, of new ideas about how people interact.

Throughout human history, big improvements in systems of rules took place when new governments entered the scene. In today’s world, this process has been largely shut down. To bring it back to life, Romer proposes that we create new cities where people can go to escape from bad rules and opt in to new and better ones. With better rules, people can be safe, self-interest can protect the environment, and investment can bring families all the resources that the modern world has to offer.

Paul Romer profile

Another, much longer presentation was made at the Long Now foundation.

As he sees it the problem of urban and economic development is not the bad rules. Most people and leaders understand that they are bad rules. The problem is that the system of government, the application of the rules, traps us in them. And so for example, if the prime minister of some derelict African state attempts to fix rules on the electrical industry, he will have to fight opposition from the many different people whose interests are affected by this change. Unless he is an all-powerful man, he is set to fail. This is a well-known problem, and the British have even turned the practice of bureaucrats manipulating politicians into doing the opposite of what they wanted to do into high comedy.

Romer says that the solution to the problem of bad rules is not to go into government but to create new governments, implying that processes of government have their own life and result in good or bad rules. While some leaders and communities may not be able to beat the system of government, they can create new ones at the margins. Romer proposes to develop, in effect, city-states all over the world where there currently is nothing, and populate them with settlers looking to build a new life.

People criticize me for proposing changes that they believe to be impossible and unrealistic. This may be true if we consider preserving the planning system to be the most important objective. And perhaps some of these people simply consider anything but the established system to be inconceivable. Even in this otherwise positive article about slums, you find a quote such as this one:

There are reasonable objections to titling. Is it fair for those who seized government land—or, worse, someone else’s private property—to be rewarded with a property title? Nor is ownership easy to disentangle. “How do you allocate titles within the dense fabric of Rocinha or Kibera?” Neuwirth writes. “Who should get title to each parcel? The family that built the house? The woman who bought it from them? The tenants who rent there? The man who owns his two-story home but sold his roof rights to a friend, who built two stories and sold his roof rights to someone to build an additional two stories?”

After praising slums for their ability to generate economic opportunities, they are denounced for not fitting into the conventional model of property rights. Yet it is precisely the use of more natural methods of property allocation that gives slums their organic morphology. I observed the same narrow-sightedness when researching my thesis on La Défense. The one defining characteristic of the project was that it was exempt from the national planning system and its rules, creating a completely open-ended area. No one working on the project could tell me that this was the reason for its success, neither did the records they kept acknowledge it. The only man who had understood this and written about it was Rem Koolhaas.

Just like we can’t make the organic morphology of slums fit into the modern rules of property ownership, we can’t make traditionally emergent cities through the current planning system. (All efforts to produce traditional neighborhoods have so far produced only imitations of them.) Romer’s charter cities offer a way out of this system, but Romer’s proposal to try out new forms of government at the scale of the city does not recognize the fractality of urban scale. It is possible to build not simply a new city out in the open wild, but a city within an existing city, at the edge or some such, thus creating a fractal of nested cities all working on a different planning system, and in this way not just serving as a comparative experiment but also benefiting from each others’ existence into one global system. I wrote before about such a patchwork of planning systems solving problems at conflicting scales.

The most characteristic feature of an emergent urbanism is that it tries to solve problems at the smallest possible scale first (in opposition to sprawl which solves problems at the regional scale). This means that an emergent city can be created at the margin of an existing sprawling metropolis, or in any pocket available within it.

The challenge then is truly to figure out the rules for changing the rules. If a spontaneous community of people can be sufficiently organized to claim an available place and declare that it is run on a different system, then by democratic principle will it be accepted, or opposed? If the political leaders of a dying city are going to abandon a part of their territory, can they concede it to a new organization, with a form of ownership that defies conventional practice? In any case, the initiative for such a measure will have to come from outside the system.

Related posts

Lake country

In the outskirts of Miami, ill-thought subdivision development codes require developers to build on-site water reservoirs. The result is a patchwork of unconnected pools.

lakecountryt

When the Dutch ran into similar problems they built canals and then built their cities around them. Shirking their responsibilities, the planners in Florida only build the standard road grid as the integrator, and transfer all other burdens upon land subdividers, who build at a scale unsuited to the required structure.

Also noticeable is the housing density of Miami increasing outwards, where the newest subdivisions are much denser than the older ones, inverting the natural and historic fabric of cities, and wiping away all established stereotypes about suburban sprawl.

Fake complexity: traffic control

The University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies Intelligent Transportation Systems Institute has produced a handy little flash game where you can experience the life of a traffic planner in a series of increasingly complicated traffic challenges.

The game begins in the Stalinian Central Bureau of Traffic Control, where a wrinkly old man pulls you out of your job at the mail room to come save the traffic control system. You are brought to a space command-like control room and put to work setting traffic lights to stop and go. Meanwhile frustrated drivers stuck in the gridlock you create blare their car horns to get your attention, and if their “frustration level” rises too high you fail out of the level. As the road network gets as complicated as four intersections on a square grid, the traffic becomes completely overwhelming and failure is inevitable, but the old man reassures you that they too have failed anyway.

It’s hard to tell where the joke begins and where it ends with this app. According to the ITS news feed the game’s purpose is to let “high school students try their hand at working in the engineering and transportation field.” And, as if astonished by their own profession’s ridicule, the game’s description of the traffic control room reads “the traffic control center in the game is realistic: many large metropolitan areas (such as New York, Boston, and the Twin Cities) have traffic control centers that actually do look like that.”

You must play it and experience it for yourself.

Why was this made? Are traffic engineers passively crying out for someone to put them out of their misery? Traffic, after all, is the most complex pattern of all those that compose a city. While buildings move around over the span of years, traffic consists of thousands to millions of randomly moving parts in the span of a day. Despite all the efforts that have been invested in designing traffic control devices, the “frustration level” for drivers has only risen.

Some traffic engineers have learned that the problem was not traffic but central planning, the foremost of which was Hans Monderman. By running a driving school and studying how people related to their environment, Monderman discovered that the traffic control devices the profession employed were not only useless but counter-productive. He set out to remove traffic control and empower drivers to control themselves and make decisions based on their context. His model for traffic control is to design the context so that drivers will control themselves and each other, a scheme called shared space.

The basis of an emergent intelligent system is that individuals act and make choices based on a shared system of contextual rules. This decentralizes decision making and makes possible the optimal adaptation to chaotic environments. We can see this in the superior performance of the roundabout as compared to the traffic light for traffic flow. A roundabout is a rule that tells drivers to yield to other drivers coming from other directions. It is decentralized. A traffic light simply tells drivers when to stop and go, whatever the situation may be at the current time. When the traffic light status becomes completely alienated from reality, gridlock occurs and frustration boils. What frustrates drivers is their powerlessness to contribute to the intelligence of the system, and the utter waste of time being imposed on them because of traffic planners unfamiliar with the precise circumstances taking place.

It should be no wonder then that when the traffic control system fails, traffic flows better.

The Intelligent Transportation Systems Institutes of this world are trying to create intelligent traffic control tools, but those are another form of fake complexity. When all drivers, cyclists and pedestrians are optimizing their behavior based on simple traffic rules, that is when traffic becomes intelligent.

(The scoop on this was obtained from Streetsblog and TransitMiami.)

Related topics

Principles published

The full article conceptualizing the principles of emergent urbanism has been published by the International Journal of Architectural Research volume 3 issue 2. You can download the complete article or read the whole issue.

The Cultivation of a Spontaneous City

This is the last of a series of excerpts from my article in the upcoming issue of the International Journal of Architectural Research, about the principles of emergent urbanism. Click here for part I, The Journey to Emergence. Click here for part II, The Fundamentals of Urban Complexity.

How emergent urbanism works

In a traditional spontaneous city, 100% of the surface is initially a network structure, open land. From this surface the best paths are selected to fit the networks that are emerging, and the leftover space is progressively built upon. Starting with a completely open, fully-connected land structure, the city’s design can consist of a purely negative process by placing constraints on construction over important paths. In this way the street structure and hierarchy becomes an evolved structure that matches the history of its networks, and the placement of buildings and uses is also an evolved structure that matches the flows of movement. Over time these paths are paved and upgraded, and important junctions of paths become the central open space of the city. The central square of a spontaneous town can be explained as the remainder of a fractal process of subtraction, with the most underused part of the spatial network being removed at each additional step of feedback until no further network subtractions are possible. With the circulation of people optimized, the remaining space is augmented with street furniture specifically designed for crowds, such as benches, transit stops, billboards, kiosks and so on.

An emergent city similarly begins with a network structure, although one that is much more sophisticated than open land. In modern design the typical asphalt street produces a network that is suited particularly to automobile networks, but also has the unfortunate side-effect of cutting pedestrian networks that normally enjoy the entire surface in a spontaneous city. As a remedy these streets are equipped with sidewalks that are often narrow and unpleasant (if not dangerous) to walk, an effort at translating strict traffic control methods to the pedestrian. It is not surprising that pedestrians are so rare in modern cities, but some efforts have shown that pedestrian networks can emerge from modern design. One example is the three-story deck of the La Défense business city in Paris (shown in figure 7), which contains parking but also regional rail and subway links, as well as being an open pedestrian surface. At the ends of this network structure a generative process of spontaneous development creates the actual networks of the city. As evidenced by the crowds present on that surface and the abundance of neighborhood shops the pedestrian networks function quite well. What is more surprising is that the automobile networks are underused and some parking structures empty, despite the neighborhood having been conceived for the automobile.

Figure 7

Figure 7. The “pedestrian slab” style of design was blamed for the failure of modernist urban planning projects, but at La Défense the slab is a working structure. The developer adopted spontaneous building development instead of applying the complete architectural plan, enabling the formation of a dense local economy.

Because of the high costs and other complexities involved in producing networks for modern transportation systems it is not possible to practice a purely negative and subtractive process of street formation. However the network structure must still be an evolved structure that is produced with feedback from lot development instead of building an entire grid before it has been decided what size of lot is needed. Most importantly all forms of movement must be in balance in the street design so that one type of network structure does not cut another and prevent the network formation process. (Salingaros, 1998)

The cultivation of a spontaneous city

Once a network structure is in place the process of network formation can begin.

Wiki systems have shown that simple freedom to create does not necessarily produce networks unless there also exists a simple interface to this network. The World Wide Web provided a system of linked websites that could spontaneously produce an encyclopedia for many years before the Wikipedia system catalyzed the distributed knowledge of millions of people into an exponentially growing and internally coherent system. The creation of crowd-catalyzing systems has since been named “crowdsourcing.” Translating crowdsourcing principles to planning processes, Alexander described in The Oregon Experiment how an institution could directly support the spontaneous development of its city by providing designers and managers to assist individuals and realize the program that the individual users have in mind. (Alexander, 1975)

With the initiative for developing new building programs left deliberately undefined and in the hands of the individuals and organizations that develop the socio-economic networks of the city, there remains the issue of producing a geometrically coherent landscape that is harmonious and distinctive. This is accomplished with shared generative processes, (Alexander, 2004) and particularly the nesting of generative processes into one another (also known as a shape grammar or form language), as shown in figure 8.  No matter what configurations of space are required by any individual building program, if this configuration is realized physically by the same building process as for any other random configuration then the two realized buildings will share symmetric properties and the result will be a harmonious geometric order. This has been employed in many instances by the regulation of construction materials, which creates a geometric order at the scale of texture, but it also applies for any other scale of geometry, as evidenced by the geometric order created by the advertisements in Times Square.

Figure 8

Figure 8. Three volumes are randomly defined in space without relation to each other. When a shared feedback function is applied to transform these volumes the volumes become related by these transformations. The function in this case is: 1 – Cut out the top corners to half the volume’s height, 2 – Raise the center of the roof.

By defining construction processes instead of fixed building designs it is possible to plan for future growth without eliminating spontaneous growth and feedback. A developer that is initiating a program of emergent urbanism can therefore prepare for construction in advance of any projects having been determined. Building high-technology structures is a complex art that requires significant expertise and a skilled workforce. The developer that creates adaptive building processes that can be used to generate and realize building plans easily and rapidly will provide the same spontaneity as squatter settlements achieve.

As evidenced by the popularity of historic towns of Europe and particularly the Mediterranean as tourist destinations there is enormous demand for and profit to be made from cities that adopt the geometry of emergent cities. For this to work however the development and banking industries must be persuaded of the effectiveness of process design as opposed to master planning, and the municipal authorities must be willing to approve urban design with no fixed configuration. (Alexander, 2004) Political issues also create a significant obstacle. The long approval processes that one must go through to develop a new city or neighborhood have significantly increased the length of the feedback loops and favored large-scale development as well as made small communities less competitive. Even when long review or public consultation processes can be avoided, a development has to comply with weighty subdivision and building codes that consume time to absorb and understand, and in so doing contribute to lengthening the feedback loops and making the urban tissue less adaptive and less sustainable.

References

Alexander, Christopher (1975). The Oregon Experiment, Oxford University Press, USA
Alexander, Christopher (2004). The Process of Creating Life, The Nature of Order Vol. 2, Center for Environmental Structure
Salingaros, Nikos (1998). ‘Theory of the Urban Web’, Journal of Urban Design, vol. 3, also in Chapter 1 of PRINCIPLES OF URBAN STRUCTURE, Techne Press, Amsterdam, Holland, 2005.

Make little plans

In Cities and the Wealth of Nations, Jane Jacobs quotes a Japanese economist about his country’s capitalist revolution following the Meiji Restoration. He said that the greatest periods of creativity and productivity had been experienced when the country was adrift, not focused on any particular goal but open to all opportunities.

Urban planners, particularly Americans, identify with the maxim “make no little plans” attributed to Chicago plan architect Daniel Burnham. According to this idea maximum effort should be focused on a single, enormous goal, and a concensus should be built around this goal in order to achieve it. This is how the Chicago plan was realized, and this has been the frame upon which nearly every urban plan continues to be modeled. New innovations, like the charette process, are only refinements of the paradigm established by Burnham. To someone focused on a single large-scale goal small-scale problems like a complicated permitting process or bad street design are irrelevant. Someone focused on a single large-scale goal does not see any drawbacks to using repression to realize the plan, like zoning and urban growth boundaries. The city they envision does not have a small scale, and this is now the reality of our landscape: urbanization at enormous scale, with no concern for details and no sustainability.

A creative city is not goal oriented. Not only does it make little plans, it makes millions of little plans. It is adrift looking for its next opportunity. It is not made by an architect, but cultivated by its people.

Make millions of little plans.

Modeling the processes of urban emergence

Placelife

The growth process of an emergent city actually consists of five growth processes. These processes are hierarchically related, that is to say the morphology decided by processes at higher levels of complexity depends on decisions taken at lower levels of complexity. They are not constrained by one another, as modern planners claim when they clear slums in order to build their architectural vision, but expand upon one another, creating a landscape that is tied to a history of adaptation and transformation in order to meet the needs of the present at every point in time.

Each transformation is the decision of an individual, acting within the context he perceives and the ends that are identified. These ends may be within his own sphere of life, by expanding his home, or subdividing his property to build a home for his grown children, but more likely they are the consequences of identifying a potential created by the individual actions of others. For example, if a sufficient number of neighbors have settled, opening a bakery. In this way networks are built upon the potentials created by the last network extension, (in one such instance by capturing residual movement in the grid as Bill Hillier describes) and the city increases in complexity.

The foundation process of a city, before anyone can even imagine a city being there, I call the place. A place is nothing more than a free surface available to be settled. Newcomers build their home wherever they want in the place, and that implies that they will locate their homes to take maximum advantage of natural features, and space themselves away from their neighbors in order to avoid conflicts over the use of common lands. A place settlement process is how shantytowns are created, except that because there does not exist any functional land ownership in a shantytown there is no limit to how many buildings can be created. Thus the shantytown never reaches the second process of urban emergence, creating a crisis. A place may be created deliberately, by transforming a farm or other types of land use to that purpose, by building fortifications within which land is protected from harm, or a place may be given by nature simply by being available and strategically located.

Place

A place is an open space where people may settle and build randomly

As places become increasingly dense, the use of space by neighbors will create conflicts of proximity. Land will no longer be superabundant. In order to resolve these conflicts a process of land enclosure delimits the boundaries between neighbors’ households by negotiating the boundaries of land that is in private and common use. Streets and blocks thus appear, and those spaces where common use is particularly intensive, because of highly valuable natural features or central locations, become recognized as public squares and greens.

Enclosure

Enclosures delimit private and public spaces, and the pattern of streets, blocks and squares emerges.

With available land to settle either enclosed or occupied by public activities, it becomes more difficult for new growth to take place. New buildings built on remaining place must be justified before a community increasingly protective of the remaining open space. In most cases it is much simpler to ask one of the members of the community to give up a part of his property in order to grow the new part of the town, introducing the process of subdivision. These subdivisions are negotiated case-by-case and thus adopt random sizes and shapes, creating a fractal distribution of lot sizes over a long timeline. Some subdivisions split the land into shared courtyards and cul-de-sacs that are administered under a co-property agreement (they never need to involve the community as a whole).

Subdivision

Properties are subdivided to make room for new growth and new network relationships now that open land is in short supply.

Eventually crowding becomes problematic at the same time as the scale of network growth is increasing due to higher population densities. This creates the opportunity not only to open new places to settlement, but also to connect the central city to these new places by a place functioning at a greater scale, near a road or highway, and that provides an encircling bypass around smaller-scale neighborhoods. This is the grid process. This new construction opens up land to construct large market and industrial businesses that are simultaneously a buffer between smaller-scale places and roads but also an integrator of these places into larger-scale networks.

Grid

The grid integrates mature places into a larger network of places, and creates new spontaneous development opportunities.

The last process takes place when a large city with many places integrated by many scales of grids develops a mass transit system that becomes more reliable than private transportation systems. When that occurs the need for private transportation falls radically and it becomes possible to live at the centers of this mass transit system without any private transportation, thus radically reducing demand for space. Parking lots can be built over and turned into undifferentiated buildings providing standardized living spaces that can find their match in the very large population. This radically higher population in turn creates a very wide potential for new differentiated networks, and the construction of large buildings is accompanied by many new, differentiated small buildings. This is what enables a place to achieve high density complexity, and we can call it the metropolitan process.

Metropolitan

A small number of larger new buildings accompanies a large number of small new buildings resulting from the reduction in space needed for transportation.

A model such as this one is not meant to be a design to be implemented in reality. It serves only as an illustration of the processes, the means through which decisions are achieved, that generate the structure of cities. If we want to do the morphology of an existing city, it is these processes that will help us explain what decisions led to the city’s present form. These processes also help us predict the future of the model of urban development we choose to adopt. As an example I have become highly critical of measures that seek to increase the density of subdivision developments by smart growth zoning regulations. They tend to leave the structure of neighborhoods in such a state that further subdivision processes within its tissue are impossible, and the neighborhood becomes unable to adapt itself as its population changes. Instead we should be building low density subdivision developments that can grow naturally into metropolitan neighborhoods, and this growth will be controlled by its community as its members make the decision to give up a part of their property to accomodate the changes the community is undergoing.

The genesis of complex geometry

I don’t believe that there is a dichotomy between a supposedly modern and traditional architecture. Instead there exist different geometric processes, and while traditionally builders have employed nesting processes in their work, for perhaps no other reason than it came naturally to them, modern builders have restricted themselves to linear geometric processes due to drawing their inspiration from Cartesian science and engineering.

In attempting to transform architecture into a vessel for artistic expression, modern architects have been trapped by their limited tool set, and the product of their work has often been confusing, silly, or utterly corrupt. There are only so many tricks that one can perform with linear geometry, although computers have extended the reach of those tricks. But the confusion of modern architects becomes even more obvious when they ascribe artistic merits to traditional builders who never aspired to be artists at all. One such instance is the introduction of a recent biography of the 18th century french military engineer Vauban by official starchitect Jean Nouvel, who described Vauban’s fortresses as an early form of land-art and morphing. Jean Nouvel asks, could a man be an artist without being aware of it? Vauban was not an artist at all. Military necessity led him to employ geometric processes that significantly increased the complexity of fortifications, and it is merely incidental that today we find his projects to have artistic merits.

The process through which Vauban’s work became worthy of architectural praise provides the key to the distinction between linear and nesting geometry. Vauban was not himself the inventor of the star fort. Those had been around for more than a century when he began his career for the army of king Louis XIV. The basic star fort was a simple concept: the old masonry walls of the medieval age had shown themselves to be obsolete with the advent of cannons, and they had been replaced with thick banks of earth dug out of trenches whose major flaw was to provide space out of reach of defensive fire at its angles. The angles were thus extended into diamond-shaped turrets in the first pass at a feedback correction, introducing nesting geometry and initiating the first step of the genesis of a fractal.

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A basic, early star fort

While the star fort was successful at resisting attacks, it was not impregnable. A method was devised to capture them by digging trenches in zig-zagging patterns through which troops could assault the walls without being exposed to cannon fire. In fact this is how Vauban built his career, and some of his “plans” for besieging star forts are significant civil engineering projects of their own.

Siege de Turin 1706

The siege of Turin. From an encircling trench, Vauban built successively denser trenches to capture the citadel and take the city, a process that was extremely expensive and time-consuming.

While star forts never truly became obsolete (as medieval fortifications had) until well into the 19th century, military engineers did improve on their effectiveness by correcting their vulnerabilities, which happened to be at the angles they were characterized by. And so, by another layer of feedback, the geometric depth of the star fort concept increased.

Citadelle San Martin

San Martin Citadel, a “second generation” star fort.

Vauban’s great invention was nothing much more than repeating this process of increasing depth one more time, creating what many now consider to be his masterpiece, the Citadel of Lille, a showcase of complex geometry made from the refinement produced by centuries of feedback of the star fort concept.

Citadelle de Lille (2)Nouvelle enceinte de Lille

Citadel of Lille and the system of fortification of the City of Lille, as designed by Vauban

If you only understand Cartesian processes, then the only idea that may come to you to improve on the basic star fort would be to add dozens of diamond-shaped turrets, a change that would most certainly make the concept worse instead of better. The military engineers of the time however were well aware that the diamond turrets were optimal in their shape. What was needed was a shape that extended the diamond, and this was achieved by increasing the depth of the whole object.

Another aspect of the complexity of a geometric process seen in the Lille example is its configuration adaptiveness. The shape of the city and the surrounding landscape is completely random, and the encircling fortifications bend to match this randomness, leading to Nouvel’s claim that it is an early example of morphing. But once again there is no deliberate attempt at morphing going on. Since each component of a star fort is defined as a recursive relational transformation of the basic wall, Vauban only had to design the wall and the other parts aligned themselves as a result of the wall’s configuration. If the outcome has artistic value, it is once again only incidental.

It is important to note that the Vauban extensions to star fortifications did not mean that the simple 3-part star fort became obsolete. In fact many simple star forts were built in the 18th and 19th century in America as the threat was low and the cities to be defended underdeveloped. The difference between a simple fort and Vauban’s complex fort is one of depth and effectiveness, and there is a real cost-benefit choice to make. The star fort only became obsolete when the bunker replaced it, and the early bunkers reset the process of complex geometry genesis by being simple concrete shells in their early incarnations.

When we undertake to create symmetry in an urban environment, we want buildings to be as alike as possible while allowing for adaptation to context. If we understand geometric depth we can build in such a way that poor and expensive buildings have the same basic design in their first levels of geometry, but expensive buildings have many more scales of geometry nested within that basic design. It is not necessary for an entire city to be made of the same materials as materials are one of the last visible scales of geometry, and so we can have a city of mud bricks and marble buildings that nevertheless share 95% of their geometry and beautifully complement each other, while both poor and rich citizens have a home adapted to their situation.

We can look at these examples from Korean traditional architecture for an illustration.

48799484.CIMG0512Tomb_of_King_Tongmyong,_Pyongyang,_North_Korea-2

On the left is a simple house and on the right is the tomb of a great king. Both buildings have the same design, but the building on the right has much greater depth in this design.

Another interesting comparison is between the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco and the Verrazano Narrows bridge in New York.800px-Golden_Gate_Bridge_from_underneath800px-VerrazanoFromNCLDawn

The bridges are the same in design, but the Golden Gate bridge has more depth within this design, and is for this reason the more famous of the two bridges. That doesn’t mean the Verrazano Narrows bridge isn’t beautiful on its own.

And to make things as simple as they can get, we can compare a Sierpinski triangle with four levels of iteration with one that has six levels.

Geometric depth

The fractal on the right has all the same elements as the one on the left, but also has more.

A lot of the residential buildings we create today would benefit from being more like the Verrazano Narrows bridge. They try to be more than a simple house for a simple family and end up covered in tacky, useless ornament that have obviously been forced into the design. Simplicity, if it is adapted to context, can create as beautiful a landscape as complexity. Postmodernistic nonsense geometry does not. We would be better served going back to the simplicity of 1950’s international style modernism than what is being built by architects today. The best architects would reinvent it with greater depth.

Previous topics

References

Vauban, l’intelligence du territoire

Hommage a Vauban 1969

A modern artist’s homage to Vauban. This artist did not understand complex geometry.

Don’t demolish Detroit

The following story about a presidential program to demolish whole neighborhoods of inner city fabric in the United States and turn them back into wilderness has been making the rounds around news blogs.

Having outlined his strategy to Barack Obama during the election campaign, Mr Kildee has now been approached by the US government and a group of charities who want him to apply what he has learnt to the rest of the country.

Mr Kildee said he will concentrate on 50 cities, identified in a recent study by the Brookings Institution, an influential Washington think-tank, as potentially needing to shrink substantially to cope with their declining fortunes.

Most are former industrial cities in the “rust belt” of America’s Mid-West and North East. They include Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Memphis.

In Detroit, shattered by the woes of the US car industry, there are already plans to split it into a collection of small urban centres separated from each other by countryside.

“The real question is not whether these cities shrink – we’re all shrinking – but whether we let it happen in a destructive or sustainable way,” said Mr Kildee. “Decline is a fact of life in Flint. Resisting it is like resisting gravity.”

This is the type of neighborhood that the government wants to disurbanize. It is located in central Detroit.

Detroit Demolished

To someone trapped in the mindset of development and control that we have practiced in the 20th century, a place like this is a nightmare. It is not possible to consolidate properties in order to bring in a large developer and a large bank that will finance “re-development” of the place. Worse yet, properties have been abandoned randomly, turning what were neat row houses with identical lots into a pockmarked landscape of randomly-sized public land chaos. Better to demolish everything and start over.

There is another mindset through which to interpret such a neighborhood, that of complexity. If we embrace complexity, then the randomly sized pockets of open land are an exceptional opportunity to renew the city of Detroit. They form a fractal solution set to new construction that many different people can participate in and contribute to. It can accomodate small, medium-size and eventually large-size businesses in close proximity with diverse housing and convenient transportation structures.

But why has this not worked for Detroit? Because its process of growth has not been focused on fractal scales but only on big projects and big businesses. Now that the big businesses are dying the city is threatened with disappearing and has to beg even bigger governments to prevent their death. That cannot go on forever. Death is a normal, natural process, and big businesses disappearing should never be a threat to a large city. The economic fabric of a city must always be renewed by new businesses. It is this renewal that creates a sustainable business ecology. At some point Detroit stopped the process of new business creation, and from then on its decline was assured.

Instead of demolishing its remaining neighborhoods and surrendering to the decline and death that will surely follow in its reduced form, Detroit should instead adopt the process of a special economic zone in those neighborhoods it wants to return to “nature”. Tolerate people build as they wish and let a slum happen, and from the slum will emerge the businesses that will renew Detroit’s economy. It can’t be worse than the bulldozer.

Review of Home by Yann-Arthus Bertrand

I often wonder if it would be possible to do any kind of serious study into urban morphology without the help of Google Earth. I know it has been indispensable to my studies, perhaps as indispensable as the microscope is to biologists. Google Earth is our macroscope, it allows us to see what is too large to see with the naked eye. But no matter how useful satellite photography is, you cannot truly see depth without aerial photography, and the master of aerial photography is without a doubt French photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand, famous for enormous coffee-table books filled with photography so rich as to be overwhelming.

Arthus-Bertrand has made the jump to high-definition cinematography and directed a “documentary” (there is really no accurate way to describe this film) called Home, which was released free of charge on the Internet a few weeks ago. You can watch it on YouTube or download it from your favorite BitTorrent source. The film is awe-inspiring. Here are some still images I extracted.

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The film is a tour of Earth’s ecologies, starting from elementary life to cities. The most striking images are those of natural cities, particularly one which seems to grow out of the rock as if it were only a feature of it. And who can argue that it isn’t? But that detail seems to escape the narrative.

Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s talent is undeniable, at some point in the film he even makes Manhattan seem small. But the film quickly turns into a vessel of green propaganda (sponsored by the Gucci fashion house) while it could have been a celebration of mankind’s ties to nature. At the climax of its alarmism, the foundation of the green mindset is spelled out with as much emphasis as the narrator can apply. Denouncing the thaw of Siberian permafrost, the narrator recites “if the permafrost melts, the methane released would cause the greenhouse effect to race out of control with consequences no one can predict.” At no point in the film does the alarm in her voice sound so grave. It is not so much climate change that is feared, but the unknown, any change at all.

The obsession with control and prediction is tragically what has caused the most destruction and chaos in our human ecologies. It is control that dictates that homes may not be owned in the world’s sprawling slums, in the name of upholding a failed prediction, city planning. Because slum homes can be summarily demolished the slums remain in squalid poverty, vulnerable to any environmental change, man-made or not. The only true sustainability in a chaotic world is the ability to renew our environments for any change we meet, and control and prediction are an obstacle to this.

Green politics fails not because it relies on facts that are incorrect, but because it relies on facts that are inherently unknowable. We can sound the alarm about the total global population, the fact is we have absolutely no idea what the total global population is. We can at best obtain an estimate, but that estimate is useless for any kind of action. Action in a complex system is local and does not rely on global knowledge, but only on reacting to local conditions. The environment always tells you what to be doing in the moment.

In its obsession with control, the film ends up making recommendations for creating the same kind of technocratic utopia that was promised to us by the modernists. It praises one of the world’s poorest countries for having one of the most intensive state schooling program, evading a causal link between poverty and control of children’s minds. The ultimate solution to climate change proposed is to cover the world’s open land with solar panels, and the seas with wind farms, an act that would be as destructive to the environment as all the other monocultures denounced in the film. (And no one dares ask where those solar panels came from.)

Never is a serious look taken at the process of the natural cities, which to someone trapped in the paradigm of control and prediction would make absolutely no sense, but which Christopher Alexander masterfully demystifies in The Nature of Order. Only through such a revolution can we avoid repeating the chaos of modernism with a green twist.

People trapped in the mindset of prediction cannot think beyond simple physical processes (type I and II of Wolfram’s classification). These processes are always highly unstable and prone to die with any disruption. But life is not a simple process. It is a process that is always expanding, growing exponentially to fill any space it can fit into. Biologists quarantined a volcanic island that appeared into existence in the 1960’s near Iceland. They wanted to see how life colonized it. This process has taken place at astonishing speed, and today the island teems with life and has a rich cover of top soil, bewildering the biologists. The real threat to the island is not ecological disequilibrium, but the inevitable erosion back into the ocean.

Life is the most powerful force in the universe. It will take anything the Earth does to it. But unless we adopt life as our own social paradigm, we will not fare well. If we base our society on control instead of growth, the first unpredictable shock we witness will cause our collapse. So watch Home, be inspired by it, but do yourself a favor and turn the sound off.