Tag Archives: London

Defining a new traditional urbanism

Sometime last year this website attracted the attention of several members of the International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture and Urbanism, an organization sponsored by the Prince of Wales Foundation in order to support and renew traditions of construction. While this organization does great work to preserve the techniques of traditional building cultures, they have yet to define what the traditional urbanism of their name really implies. The importance of such a definition I believe to be primordial. If modern planning measures continue to be adopted from one country to the next, any traditional technique of construction will become irrelevant, as they have in western industrialized (and post-industrialized) countries.

This all became obvious when a miniature controversy erupted and swept through the various internet discussion groups and blogs of the community over a proposed redevelopment of the Chelsea Barracks in London’s Chelsea borough. An old modernist military installation was to be torn down and replaced by its new owner, the Emir of Qatar, with a new modernist megahousing development designed by Lord Rogers. There was nothing particularly interesting about this Rogers design, but Lord Rogers having written the plan of London, a plan that specifically calls for better design, it made sense that a Rogers design would be swiftly approved by the planning authorities. Hiring Rogers was the most risk-free option available for a multi-million pound development project.

Getting wind of this, and noticing that the Rogers design was an unremarkable piece of rehashed modern housing, the Prince of Wales hired his preferred architect Quinlan Terry to sketch up a counter-proposal that was more in harmony with the architecture of the landmark Royal Chelsea Hospital across the street from the barracks, which he then proposed to the Emir of Qatar through his personal relationship with him. The Emir, alien to the local culture and uncertain of what London considers to be “good design”, then decided to dump Rogers and re-think the development.

The Prince Charles and Quinlan Terry counter-proposal

The Prince of Wales and Quinlan Terry counter-proposal

Lord Rogers' Chelsea Barracks redevelopment proposal

Lord Rogers' Chelsea Barracks redevelopment proposal

I am not going to analyze the controversy from all of its fascinating angles, such as the design quality of the architecture, Lord Rogers (of the House of Lords) teaming up with British Republicans to denounce the monarchy’s interference with civilian life, or the absence of affordable housing in Chelsea. I am interested in only one question: is this traditional urbanism?

At first sight, the Terry design is reminiscent of the 18th/19th century style of palatial construction in Europe. (In fact one of the “blocks” features echoes of Buckingham Palace.) In terms of authenticity, the proposal is flawless. The Rogers proposal is also a palace, although one with much fewer attractive qualities. But does Chelsea really need a palace?

Providing a response to that inquiry is precisely what a system of urbanism is supposed to achieve. The system in place for London unfortunately requires that one have enormous financial means in order to participate in any kind of development, and inevitably that implies that only large speculative development will be so much as imaginable. The Chelsea Barracks proposal is entirely a product of modern urbanism, and by intervening into that system, the Prince of Wales and other traditionalists are sanctioning the very thing they claim to be opposed to.

As luck would have it, I wrote about the different processes of urban development using London neighborhoods such as Chelsea last year. Combining this with our models of the processes of urban emergence, we can develop the idea even further and try to conceive of a proposal for a traditional urbanism that develops the Chelsea Barracks site.

When I last covered Chelsea, I used its housing typology as an example of a linear, non-complex model of housing development. While linear housing is characteristic of the neighborhood, it is not the entire tissue of it. If we analyze the morphology of the neighborhood we find many clusters of housing rows, but these clusters do not necessarily repeat from one block to the next, and they are intermingled with other, uniquely programmed buildings of varying scale, the most prominent of which being the Royal Hospital. This means that, despite the neighborhood’s texture being only semi-random and not completely emergent, it performs at a remarkable level of complexity.


This kind of fabric is very common of British-American subdivision development during the 19th century. Here it is in a pure grid form in one of Montreal’s inner core “Plateau” neighborhoods.


We can observe that the middle of blocks is populated very differently from the major streets, despite the fact that they are not very different from a design standpoint. We don’t need to propose anything more complicated than self-optimization to explain this pattern. During development, housing builders would work from the center of blocks outwards, where there was the least perceptible traffic, and shops, churches and other activities located where there was the most traffic. The outcome is a complex tissue with perceptible characteristics, not only random noise.

In comparison, here is the texture of a new neighborhood in Las Vegas (Henderson), Nevada.


It is the same housing model repeated a thousand times, some lots facing backwards from the main roads. This new neighborhood might as well define linear development processes. The only feature of this neighborhood is the house, and so it can only function at any level of complexity by ejecting its residents out into town for any activity.

Of course some might say this is not a fair comparison. Those old neighborhoods are old, and therefore have had a long time to achieve maturity. But a neighborhood maturing implies that the neighborhood is planned to have a life cycle taking place in time, of which the early stage of growth is critical to its final morphology. What did a young, new neighborhood look like in 19th century British-American urbanism? It consisted mostly of very large lots of gardens and other large events (such as, for example, a Royal Hospital). These new neighborhoods were advertised as a pastoral refuge from the city. Look at this engraving of Milwaukee’s outskirts in 1858.


Its overall density is much lesser than that of Las Vegas new neighborhoods, and it has a distinctively pastoral quality. Yet what happened to those traditional neighborhoods was often that, very rapidly (the span of 2-3 decades) they became very dense urban neighborhoods, at which point the rate of new growth plunged and the fabric remained stable.

See for example this comparison of the urban fabric (1897-1915) of the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, from the book Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs.


In less than two decades the neighborhood was populated from a pastoral grid dominated by the campus of Columbia University to the dense, New York-style neighborhood it remains today. In these examples, growing a mature neighborhood was intrinsic to the development process adopted, and once this process wound down there was very little left to change to it. The neighborhood was mature because it had reached its equilibrium with the socio-economic context. Correcting deficiencies is what is meant by a neighborhood maturing, and developing a mature city implies that one is avoiding mistakes during its development. If we are employing a development model that is set in advance, no mistake can be either corrected or avoided during production.

Notice then that in traditional neighborhoods, the construction of mass-produced housing came last, after the neighborhood had established itself as a socio-economic system at the fringe of an existing city. Because of this, the mass-produced housing is a complement to that tissue, and contributes to the established complexity of the neighborhood, even super-charging it with population density. This not only ensured that there was no environmental alienation for the new residents, but also that there was a limit to how much repetition there could be from housing builders.

In modern urbanism we require all new developments to be programmed for a certain type of use, whether we are building a housing subdivision, an office or industrial zone, or a “mixed-used” development. If this is not know and debated in public, no development project can be approved. Only when a proposal has gone through this ordeal can anything be built, and making changes involves going through the process again, so the developers just subsidize the mistakes, or leave certain parts of the plan unrealized and a gaping hole.

In traditional urbanism this is never necessary. In fact it is possible for entire blocks to be left as pasture or gardens, creating an ultra-low density urban tissue. Only as further development becomes truly needed are these blocks transformed into housing and other programs. A critical difference is that no planning permit or approval is necessary to further develop a neighborhood. Instead the residents have an envelope of building rights set in building codes, and everything within that space is considered to be automatically approved. Because of this the development of a neighborhood can be undertaken in a large number of successive decisions, where the next building to be added is not only determined by the citywide market but also by the current state of the neighborhood. This in turn allows a local community and economy to grow, which is absent from modern developments.

This is all very interesting for new neighborhoods, but how would that apply to a small urban redevelopment site in the middle of a centuries-old neighborhood? Clearly we aren’t going to be building up from pastures. This is where a “new” traditional urbanism becomes relevant, as we need to invent a new process that restores the features of traditional urbanism, but can also function in the context of mature cities and modern structural requirements.

Although the redevelopment of a large urban block is usually undertaken as a large real-estate project, it can also be considered as a nested process of urbanism (urbanism within urbanism). Much like the city-wide process of urbanism is characterized by regulations intended to achieve equilibrium, the redevelopment of a block of the city should also be designed as to achieve its equilibrium with the city as a whole but (and here is the defining characteristic of a traditional urbanism) also within itself. This is what does not happen in linear development processes such as housing subdivisions, or 19th century housing terraces. They provide equilibrium with the larger scale, but amongst themselves they provide no complement. For this reason, although you’re likely to see a lot of some housing model repeated in one place, you’ll rarely ever see it used again elsewhere. Mass-production does not work for buildings the way it does in automobiles.

Time and interaction are the critical factors. The reason large-scale development like the Rogers and Terry proposals get approved and built is that everything must be conceived and approved in one step. The architectural design is rushed in order to make proposals as soon as possible. The form can’t evolve over the course of development. This process is justified by the need to control the architectural character of the city, but it is not necessarily so. It only follows from controlling architectural character because we rely on static information systems and processes to conduct building. In fact, many of the traditional building techniques that preservationists are attempting to preserve do not translate into modern information systems (building plans). If instead of drawing the full plans, the proposals simply supplied the component patterns and a parameter space for them, then there could be an infinite variety of different instances of these patterns populating the new space, all fitting a particular need and applying a specific method of returning to equilibrium. If we wanted to release control even more, we could define some buildings from the neighborhood as models and whatever patterns they featured as automatically approved. And seeing as this is the 21st century, we could define these patterns inside software that could randomly generate any possible permutation, such as the City Engine.

With the architecture out of the way, there would only need to be a fixed design for the frame of spaces around which the urbanization will take place. Grids are flat and unspecific, and so a good project will have a place structure that creates inequalities of movement. (Even New York’s grid has subtle inequalities in the short-blocked avenues and long-blocked streets, creating vastly different spaces in character.) Crescents, squares and alleys on a completely open surface should be the extent of planning a new neighborhood, and it will be important that this design have value all of its own. It is quite possible, for whatever economic reasons, that only part of the surface will be built, or even that nothing will be built. A good urban design must work in all states, including with nothing on it. Remove the buildings from the Terry proposal and there is still a rather interesting landscape. The Rogers proposal, without its buildings, has nothing. Terry is therefore much closer to the goal.

Negative space in modern plots

Negative space in modern plots

In the final step, how does the developer make money? Sustainable development, after all, has to be profitable in order to be sustainable. In a traditional city, plots were subdivided over time as the need arose. In a modern city lots are defined as a standard shape, and then later sold off for some standard price. This approach has the unfortunate side effect of creating a lot of negative space. The developer of the Chelsea Barracks could instead sell or auction off space as an elastic product. The first buyer would choose the first spot on the open surface, in relation to the hierarchy of the urban grid. The second buyer would place himself in relation to the urban grid and the first buyer. These buyers at first would come from long-time residents of the neigborhood aware of some particular way of extending the neighborhood, but unable to find a lot a space at the right size before this project became open to the public. This process would continue until all the space had been consumed, and the end result would be that all buildings would be related to one another through the sales process. If the space was priced high enough, the later projects would only be initiated after the initial ones had been completed, and the impact of time would generate the demand for building programs complementing the initial projects.

In such a way the urbanism within urbanism would create its own socio-economic subsystem, would feature a randomly adapted but uniform architectural signature, and would complement and extend the external urban tissue.

While I’ve detailed a process for developing a small block within a city, this process is just as applicable for doing development of new cities, or new suburbs of cities. There are fewer constraints and difficulties involved in these other cases, which is why I wanted to use the example of the Chelsea Barracks site. Urbanisation is a universal phenomenon, and although the patterns change, the underlying principles are everywhere the same.

The geometry of nowhere

I hate sidewalks.

When I arrived in Paris the first shock I felt was how much space there was for people to move around. Even on boulevards with little pedestrian traffic, such as Boulevard Port-Royal, space is divided equally between pedestrian standing room, in other words place, and roads for vehicles. How many modern cities offer this kind of abundance? While, like all tourists, I loved the boulevards in Paris, I also became familiar enough with the city to find out that I disliked the little streets that branched off them. At first I thought that it was their boring, ordinary architecture and emptiness, but there were some exceptions. The pedestrian streets of the Marais and Latin Quarter were full of people and shops, which I assumed was exceptional due to their historic value. (Google Street View of a typical ordinary street of Paris.)

Late last fall I returned to Montreal sufficiently alienated from it to be once again shocked by the contrast in street design. All I felt upon stepping out on the street was terrified and exposed. The snow and ice of winter only made the experience more dangerous. Despite the streets being wider than those of Paris, I am required to walk on narrow strips of concrete, where any slip or missed step would cause me to tumble into a road where a passing car would undoubtedly decapitate me. (In fact a few Montreal pedestrians were horrifically killed this winter.) Any contact with another pedestrian involves invading their personal space and requires that someone yield to the other. This means you cannot walk side-by-side with another person, taking away all the pleasure of walking. And out in the suburbs, there isn’t even the luxury of a concrete strip to stand on. Little wonder that no one wants to walk anywhere. Thinking back, I realized why I hated Paris’ little streets: they forced me onto the sidewalk to make space for a road and car parking lane. There was no perspective from which to appreciate them because there was not even standing room in them.

sidewalks-and-streets sidewalks-and-streets-ii sidewalks-and-streets-iii

A picture of an early 19th century street scene shows that sidewalks were just a setback between the building and the street, a boundary to create a transition space between place and building. No one was expected to actually walk on them. The entire surface of the street belonged to pedestrians and vehicles equally. As a poor inhabitant of the late modern city, the street widenings and enormous open places of the 19th century appear to be unbelievable public luxury. There was an abundance of place even in the narrow medieval streets compared to what we enjoy in the modern city. Freedom of movement between one building to another was total. There were no obstacles, street furniture, traffic control devices of any kind. The final effect, in the pictures above, is of an enormous place with randomly configured boundaries, even bigger than those in our modern suburban sprawl. Why is this not a cause of anxiety the way that modern sprawl is? Why does it appear so orderly despite the randomness?

There is no clear explanation in either the historical literature or classical design treatises as to what makes a place. The reason for that I suspect is that place was simply the default state of things. Maps of fortified towns during the renaissance show that many of them were just a completely open surface with a few randomly placed buildings. Towns started out as open land upon which you could do just about anything you wanted, including constructing buildings. Over a long time, with the building density increasing, it became necessary to keep streets open by imposing limits on how close new buildings could be from others, in effect defining a lower bound on the width of the street. But the street was not really something created, it was something that was preserved, the way blood vessels are voids between cell tissues. It was the combination of building randomness and circulation feedback that created the organic pattern of streets. In a traditional city then the problem was never about creating place, but about preventing too much of it from being consumed that the system became unworkable. When circulation problems arose anyway in the early 19th century, the solution was to remove buildings in congested areas and create more place. And so this is how Paris got its fractal pattern of streets: randomness, constraints, and feedback.


The pictures change around the turn of the 20th century, when mechanized vehicles start to take over the street. At this point pedestrians are being crowded out of their place and forced onto the sidewalks. The process may have been so gradual that hardly anyone noticed, but this seems to be what happened. The urbanists and architects of the early 20th century were right to denounce the congestion of the modern city. But what we see from the picture above is that the place occupied by vehicles is far less crowded than the space used by pedestrians. The crowding was purely artificial, the result of a process that no one may have been aware of.

The introduction of the automobile then made things even more unbearable, but at this point European and American cities took two opposite turns. While the streetcar moved at the leisurely pace of the horse-drawn coach, the automobile’s purpose was to go fast and cover distances that were beforehand too far. This could not be done in the congestion of the traditional street and required the production of an entirely new system of circulation, what later came to be called traffic engineering. American cities gleefully ripped up the streetcar tracks to make way for the new road system, literally driving place to the margins and choking main streets into economic starvation. In Europe the old tradition of place-preservation was applied and the new roads were only subtracted from place at a bare minimum, leaving about half of it left. That is how Boulevard Port-Royal remains so roomy for pedestrians, because there was no need to remove any more of it. And it is also why the design of Piccadilly Circus in London is so complex, balancing both traffic engineering and existing place improvements such as subway exits and fountains. By default, anything that doesn’t need to be traffic engineered is left to place.


Even the problem of providing parking space can beautifully be solved by grouping parking into blocks surrounded by place. Here is a parking block in old Montreal. The dogma in parking planning has been that either the parking lot must be between the building and the road, such that customers and visitors will easily see how to park and won’t keep on driving right home, or the new dogma that parking lots must be hidden behind buildings because they are ugly and destroy urban space. Here however the parking is neither between the building and the street or behind the building, but across the street from the building. And it turns out to be unobtrusive, leaves plenty of open space to provide light and fresh air, and lets anyone walk right up to any building without having to cross a no man’s land of vehicle storage.


In modern cities the process of place subtraction has been completely abolished. A modern urban development begins from a road and the road is extended through a parking lot to the entrance of the building. This was not the original modernist plan. Although the free-form street was supposed to be segregated into different pedestrian and automobile paths that would never intersect, the space set aside for pedestrians was gradually abandoned and removed entirely for various reasons, notably poor design and safety issues (as documented by Jane Jacobs). Place removed, all that remained of the modernist process of urbanization was the road hierarchy. Sprawl was born out of this mutation. Any available land that is not a building footprint is filled out with parking space or ornamental landscaping of fake nature. There is no land left over to place, although there is a sidewalk along the road.

Various movements to “reclaim the street” have sprung up in both Europe and America, sometimes going to zealous excesses (blocking Paris’ périphérique beltway). They have mostly focused their efforts in traditional urban centers, with the latest victories being the proposal to close off part of Times Square to yellow taxicabs and other vehicles. Top traffic engineers like the late Hans Monderman have figured out that traffic flow is best when it’s de-engineered, recreating place for better traffic flow at intersections. But what if we tried to reclaim place in suburban sprawl? What would it look like? Although buildings are huge, randomly situated and separated by wide gulfs of space, that really did not appear to be a problem in the pictures above of 19th century cities. Let’s try an experiment and assume that suburban sprawl has the same structure as a place-based city, then reintroduce road and parking lots within place, as was done in Europe.

The example I will use is the area of the Target store in Cupertino, California, just down the road from the headquarters of Apple Computers within the world’s richest sprawlopolis, Silicon Valley. I selected this site because the good people of Apple deserve to have a nice place to call home, and the biggest concentration of wealth in North America should have some kind of place to identify with.


This is our starting point. I bet you think it’s hopeless. If I didn’t come in equipped with a process to create a place I would have walked away (driven away more likely). But from what we know of how place was formed in traditional cities it turns out to be really simple to build a place there. First we have to remove everything that isn’t a building and leave it as open space, the foundation for a place. Second, we draw a boundary around the buildings. Third, we reconnect the roads. Fourth, we add the parking blocks that the stores need to attract customers. And finally we spruce the place up with trees and other street furniture. The result doesn’t look that bad.


Without having to demolish any of the buildings we have made a place out of what was a tragic cluster of sprawl. At this point people are going to say that there probably isn’t enough parking, or the roads might not be sufficient to accommodate the traffic, but the great thing about a place subtraction process is that you always have some space in reserve to fix unforeseen problems. So instead of building parking spaces in strangulating numbers, you can just convert place to parking lots as they become necessary. If it turns out that the parking is just right, you can build more buildings there and turn it into a little downtown. Of course as you do so density increases and open space disappears. It’s a trade-off, but it’s one that we have deprived ourselves of by insisting in our planning codes that everything be done right at the start, which means that we have too much of everything and nothing left over for people. The biggest myth about sprawl is that it is low-density. In fact it is much too dense, every bit of space used for cars or buildings, which is why people are always complaining about wanting more open space.

French author Marc Augé launched the study of the non-place, ultimately describing it as a space where meeting others is impossible. Place, an emergent product of traditional urbanization, was always simply taken for granted. It has taken enormous intellectual effort, after a complete elimination of place, to understand what exactly was lost and how. It will take a reconstruction of cities just as massive and a paradigm shift in the practice of traffic engineering to restore it. Until then whenever I am in a modern city I will stay in the car. As much as I love walking in town, I am not going to lose my life for it.


The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler, always a classic.

A video series of Hans Monderman showing his work creating places in “engineered, technocratic” new towns of Holland. And here is an introduction to shared space.

Related Posts

Regional complexity and local community

The housing crisis afflicting Britain has reached such an intolerable level that Prime Minister Gordon Brown is announcing what amounts to a nationalization of planning regulations (report via Planetizen). This comes on the heels of the mayor of Greater London being granted the power to override planning rules of boroughs in order solve the capital’s even more outrageous housing situation, as recently as 2007. The trend towards centralization of the planning process must mean that England is suffering from too much localism. Since the glorious standoff between Robert Moses and the mothers of Greenwhich Village in the 1950’s, the local area has been considered the appropriate scale for urban planning, leading in New York City to a transfer of planning rights to community boards. This transfer has not been without its drawbacks to the city. With the reputation of Robert Moses being slowly rehabilitated the pendulum may be swinging back in the other direction.

The Paris region has struggled with the same issues, having had both its Robert Moses era and now its localism era leading to the same kind of crisis London is struggling with. Legislators and senators have lately been juggling with different schemes to solve the problem of Greater Paris, all of them more or less inspired by the Greater London Authority. (The humiliating loss to London in the bid for the 2012 Olympics having provided the evidence for the superiority of London’s model.) Localism in France is notoriously entrenched, the Ile-de-France region being divided into over 1200 communities, one third of them creating the 10,000,000 people Paris metropolis. Planning a world-class capital with 1200 mayors, all out to protect their local community and identity, has to this day been achieved by layering multiple superimposed regional authorities that have fought each other in turf wars and become a remote abstraction to the citizens they are little accountable to. When finally things achieve complete irrationality, people plead for the state to step in.

What’s unusual about this situation is that it is not the first time it has happened. It is another round in a cycle whose last peak was the post-war housing crisis that lead to the regional plan of Paul Delouvrier under special orders from then-president of France Charles de Gaulle. Going back further in history, the nomination of prefect Georges Eugène Haussmann and his restructuring plan to extend the scale of Paris was preceded by a similar urban humiliation against London. Both times public opinion turned against the regional planners a decade or two into their rule, giving way to another era of localism. In the meantime their projects, the great boulevards and the Regional Express train network, became indispensable to urban life.

Over the summer I was fortunate enough to be on the planning staff of one Delouvrier’s great projects for the Paris region, the New Town of Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, today a mature city. The city has since its founding been a microcosm of the regional-local conflict. From that experience I proposed a permanent solution to the cycle, and my inspiration came from fractal geometry.

The problem to be solved is to create a division of the metropolis that is simultaneously local and regional, that allows local communities to grow through their own specific urban processes while making it possible to launch and plan projects at the regional scale. The divisions have to be simple enough internally that people can easily understand how they work, thus forbidding the layering of levels of governance and bureaucracies, the territorial mille-feuilles. The closest object that describes such an organization is the Sierpinski Carpet.

The Sierpinski carpet is an object that has structure at infinite levels of scale and can therefore solve problems that occur at the biggest and smallest scales. In real-world terms, it implies that a regional community has grown around small communities and towns, each with their own separate and contrasting scale. This organization recognizes that cities happen at all scales and harmonizes them into a coherent whole. It is a fractal, perforated city.

The city of Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines is a clear attempt, although a failed one, to create such a perforated city. The original territory, on the outskirts of Paris just south of Versailles, was a sleepy exurban territory of one small town and a handful of villages surrounded by large farming estates, when in the late 1960’s the state launched its program of new towns. Because the farming estates were concentrated in the hands of a few large farmers the state considered them easy to acquire and develop. A state-owned developer, EPASQY, was created to develop and commercialize the new town, and a special regime of planning regulations was created around the existing town and villages, preserving the local rules within them. This territorial organization had the following form:


The gray area was the territory controlled by the developer. The white pockets were the town of Trappes and the villages and hamlets of the area. The other significant aspect of this organization, and what eventually caused the hijacking of the New Town project, is the superposition of the communes divisions onto this structure. The commune is the basic element of local governance in France, created during the French revolution and static ever since. While the local mayors of the communes tried in vain to stop the plan, the arrival of suburban migrants from Paris into the new neighborhoods spelled the end of their community. In one fateful year every mayor was swept from office and replaced with more politically-savvy migrants from Paris who proceeded to create a new, suburban community from their office by blocking the plans of the state developer and acquiring the right to determine the programs of all further developments. What was to be a New Town of 500,000, an economic and political balance to Paris as the state designed it, was thus scaled down to what it is today, a suburban city of over 100,000 made up of 7 semi-autonomous and politically antagonistic communities struggling to solve regional problems since the dissolution of the developer.

Because the territory of the local communities extended beyond their urbanized area, the urbanization of this land by migrants from another community, that of metropolitan Paris, caused their community to disappear politically. This problem is the root of the housing crisis in London, Paris and rural England. Communities are not able to grow their territory as they expand, and smaller communities with territories much greater than they need must protect their political existence by restricting the production of new housing that will threaten their political future. If, by some accident, any one of the hundreds of communes of Paris were to remove density restrictions, the result would be the entire housing demand for the region channeled in this one community, creating a population surge followed by a new political paradigm. Mayors therefore naturally block new development, and will fight proposals such as Mr. Gordon Brown’s to overrule their community’s planning regulations. Their very survival as a political community is at stake. Had the New Town planners been able to create new political territories that preserved the local communities in the middle of their plan, both the local communities and the new regional community could have coexisted. Instead they both vanished in favor of artificial suburban communities in the fight over the area’s development.

Anyone traveling around the Paris region will be easily persuaded of the necessity of preserving local communities, some of which have had a distinct existence since before the middle ages. One historic town, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, has the claim of being the birthplace of the French kings. Other communities have not enjoyed political autonomy since Haussmann’s reforms, but continue to exist in fact. The village of Montmartre has enjoyed a special planning code within Paris’ planning system until recent year, as have the outer boroughs. These distinct processes were abolished in this decade’s revision of the planning system and a single planning system now regulates all of Paris in the hopes of simplifying the process. The drawback will be the loss of Paris’ distinct communities.

The solution to the dilemma of Greater Paris and its many communities would be to create a perforated fractal Paris, with distinct communities and their distinct planning processes existing autonomously within it. The most significant of these communities, and the one most people recognize as Paris, is the historic core of boroughs 1-12. This area has developed a tourism-centric economy that requires a planning process focused on strict preservation of the urban fabric, or as other Parisians call it, a museum-city. Beyond that circle begins metropolitan Paris, the space centered around the two ring highways, which faces entirely different challenges and community objectives.

opera st-michel

Historic Paris – beloved by tourists

courbevoie-gare porte-de-saint-denis

Metropolitan Paris – home to millions with different challenges and a different urbanism


Village of Montmartre, an enclave within Paris

Within the regional city of Paris would exist other historic cities as well as special forms of communities, such as the business city of La Défense whose unconventional urbanism preserves the economic vitality of the region. Alongside major historic towns such as Versailles and St-Denis, the territory of Metropolitan Paris would also be perforated by a constellation of villages and perhaps some entirely artificial and experimental communities.

For the legislators tasked with drawing community boundaries, such a plan will be a nightmare. How are they expected to define thousands of communities, each with their scale, and track their growth over time? The task is impossible. They have imposed the delimitation of communes in a central plan that is every bit a form of zoning as the separation of uses, and just as limiting, because that is the limit of their ability to control communities. A fractal territorial structure of thousands of communities cannot be made by legislative act, it must be an emergent outcome of autonomous communities exchanging parts of their territory until they have achieved an equilibrium that fits all of their current situations. For this the legislators must give up defining the boundaries and instead define a process by which communities are formed and grow out of other communities.

Cities have grown upon a political blueprint that did not adapt with the communities it planned for. This created regional crises that were followed by regional blueprints and then local crises. A dynamic territorial structure would not adopt a regional or local scale but all scales at once, nested within each other. Such a territorial structure would result in institutional simplicity while resolving regional complexities in its emergent dimension. Doing so implies that legislators and governments must give up their power to plan communities, an act they will be reluctant to consider.

Interesting side-note

While New York City’s growth rarely bumped into an existing community, one case was Greenwhich Village, which today continues to be an exception in Manhattan’s otherwise strict urban grid. How strange that it would be the Greenwhich Village community that would stop Robert Moses more than a century after joining the metropolis.


Another story on community conflicts appears on Planetizen, this time about an Amish community being forced by a local municipality to comply with a planning process that will destroy their community. The city demands that the Amish submit engineering plans for their buildings, but traditional buildings are not engineering projects. If they start building from an engineering plan, the form the buildings take will be completely different from their traditional form, and the building culture will die out.