Tag Archives: Urban Processes

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.

Organization and intelligence

1. Sun Tzu said: The control of a large force
is the same principle as the control of a few men:
it is merely a question of dividing up their numbers.

2. Fighting with a large army under your command
is nowise different from fighting with a small one:
it is merely a question of instituting signs and signals.
– From The Art of War by Sun Tzu

The problem of social cooperation is how to order many individuals into large-scale patterns, and thus acquire the benefits of these larger patterns. The military arts were the first to face this problem, war being a field where inferiority carries severe consequences, and lessons are learned quickly. The solution was known in the time of Sun Tzu: the superior army was the one that could act as a single force, applying a single decision multiplied by however many men were at the command of this army. More men were always better, but past a certain scale it became unmanageable for a commander to yell out orders to everyone and maintain command. In order to resolve this the military men invented hierarchy, a command structure through which the commander’s orders would be distributed so that a group of any size could act as a single force.

For most of history success in war came from achieving and maintaining organization, lines of command from a center to the individuals that compose an army such that the commander could deploy the army in the most effective pattern he could think of. Discipline and complete obedience to orders was required, even if the situation as it appeared to the lowly grunt was in total contradiction to the orders he had been signaled. As far as he knew, the commander had a larger picture of the war and the orders ought to work out correctly. But the flaw in organization is that as an organization becomes larger, as the layers of hierarchy increase, the commander becomes more remote and more isolated from his army. The lines of communication become inefficient, the orders become irrelevant, and many men die stupidly.

Nevertheless, for centuries the sheer overwhelming force of numbers more than made up for the losses due to bad orders. The principle of organization triumphed. Reformers started looking for plans to organize industries, entire nations (the command economy of the Soviet Union), and of course, cities. The C.I.A.M. Athens Conference resulted in the publication in 1942, by Le Corbusier, of the Athens Charter, the document upon which the plans to organize modern cities, and be rid of the spontaneous historic city, were founded.

Between the time of the Athens Conference and the publication of the Athens Charter, the military concept of large-scale organization was completely discredited.

In June 1940 the German army invaded France. The two armies were evenly matched in men and weapons, France even having a advantage in tanks. Within one month the French army organization collapsed and millions of men surrendered without having put up much of a fight, resulting in many decades of American jokes about French surrender. In reality the two armies were far from evenly matched; the German generals had discovered a mean to overcome the weakness in the principle of organization, that it relied on a central, single commander. Their model of cooperation has been called Blitzkrieg, the lightning war, and its intent was to reduce the delay in receiving and sending the “signs and signals” of command by removing them. German commanders out in the field were given broad directives and trusted to figure out on their own how to fulfill them, with glory and medals as reward for success. The French had instead refined organization and bureaucracy into a precise art. Within days of breaching into France, autonomous German tank divisions destroyed the lines of communication of the French army and paralyzed the front-line units. It became impossible for it to act as a single force, never mind stopping an invasion.

The German system of directive command was in fact the universal principle of emergence applied to military action. Instead of building a hierarchy of orders to communicate the will of a central commander, the armies were organized in parallel, directed to respond to their observed context, a context which was itself produced by other units of the same army. Instead of deploying the intelligence of a single commander holed up in an office in Berlin, the German system linked the intelligence of all of its officers into a more effective super-intelligence that could see all of the battlefield simultaneously. The collapse of the French army was therefore inevitable. It was a case of one against many.

As already mentioned, war teaches quickly, and the allies eventually adopted a similar operations model to fight the war to victory. German operations theorists went on to design the structure of NATO’s European defense, a war that we fortunately never witnessed. Urban planners did not have to learn this lesson, and they opted to organize cities to ruin.

hierarchy-network

The network structure is often, incorrectly, called a “bottom-up” organization. My opinion is that this label makes no sense. There is no up or down in a network. There is neither bottom nor top. Those are descriptions that apply to hierarchies only. In a network actions happen horizontally, in parallel. Large-scale patterns are made up of links between those local actions, as seen in the figure above. Human intelligence, for example, cannot be explained as a collection of cells. It is the patterns formed by the links between these cells that is intelligent, and it is these patterns that allow us humans to be several orders of magnitude more complex than individual cells.

The paralysis inflicted on the French army organization was in parts self-inflicted. Longer chains of command involved delays in transmitting information (reports from the field), analyzing the information, planning a reaction and ordering the new deployment. The bigger the army became, the more paralysis it suffered. This organization was in much the same situation as the dinosaur who did not feel a hit on his tail because the nerves were too far from his brain. The bigger it became, the more exposed it was to a paralysis-focused attack.

It should not come as a surprise that what caused the death of cities is also self-inflicted paralysis. But the case of cities is much more tragic. The German operations model was novel and innovative, a radical improvement in military art. Cities, however, had always been emergent. They were the product of a spontaneous order, a phenomenon that was barely understood at the height of rationalist planning. What science did understand was organization. Since it was accepted as the pinnacle of science, no rational thinker could reject the new urban planning. The planners did not notice the hints: what they were organizing had not been a creation of anyone.

In a complex emergent system, the number of unique patterns scales up with the size of the system. (What some emergence commentators call “more is different,” another expression that makes no sense.) While an organization attempts to create a large-scale pattern to outmatch smaller patterns, a complex system is made up of both small and large patterns, in proportion to a power law, either nested together or juxtaposed randomly (a fractal). If an emergent system is intelligent, it will structure itself into patterns that no one had expected.

For centuries people had been accustomed to such patterns as the street of similar shopkeepers. Many streets in European cities bear the name of a particular trade, such as baker’s street or threadneedle street. But when cities passed a critical scale during the industrial revolution, a whole new pattern emerged: the central business district. An entire city within the city became the center of commerce, not simply specific streets next to residences. Although it appeared unexpectedly during the 19th century (the Haussmannian renovation of the Opera district of Paris was meant to create a neighborhood for the upper classes, but it became a business center immediately and has remained so ever since), a central business district came to be what a major city was all about. When planners set out to organize a modern city, they planned it around the CBD as the central feature. They did this by drawing a square on the map and applying a different set of rules to this square. Within a few years, their CBDs began dying. The small scale patterns nested within them had been zoned out.

In retrospect it was inevitable for an attempt at organization to severely interfere with urban processes, the principle of organization being a step down in complexity from the principle of emergence. Organization had a sinister advantage: it gave the planners the illusion that they could predict what the city was going to become. An emergent system cannot be predicted with precision. The very basis of its intelligence is that it has not yet been decided what it is going to do. Embracing an emergent system means accepting that patterns will appear that are beyond our comprehension. (In Wolfram’s terminology, the system is computationally equivalent to our own intelligence.)

By trusting their front line officers to run the war for themselves, the German general staff took a leap of faith that paid off decisively and confronted every opposing military with their crippling inferiority. I suspect the first modern city to give up on the principle of organization will trigger a similar revolution.

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.

sidewalks-and-streets-v1

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.

london18

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.

parking-block

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.

target-sprawl

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.

target-place

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.

Reference

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

Slumdog Urbanist

A great article appeared in the NY Times about the setting for this year’s multiple academy-award winning film Slumdog Millionaire, which I recommend as an instant classic of urban filmmaking, the post-shantytown Dharavi.

Understanding such a place solely by the generic term “slum” ignores its complexity and dynamism. Dharavi’s messy appearance is nothing but an expression of intense social and economic processes at work. Most homes double as work spaces: when morning comes, mattresses are folded, and tens of thousands of units form a decentralized production network rivaling the most ruthless of Chinese sweatshops in efficiency. Mixed-use habitats have often shaped urban histories. Look at large parts of Tokyo. Its low-rise, high-density mixed-use cityscape and intricate street network have emerged through a similar Dharaviesque logic. The only difference is that people’s involvement in local development in Tokyo was seen as legitimate.

Building on what exists, rather than clearing it for redevelopment, may preserve not only the character of a place but also its economic vibrancy. In Dharavi, it would allow all residents to leverage their most precious asset: a place to live and work. Slum-rehabilitation projects in Mumbai often end up creating new slums elsewhere as they increase real-estate value in the places they redevelop.

In the movie, when the protagonists return to their childhood haunts, they find that multistoried apartments have replaced the old decrepit structures, giving the impression of urban mobility and transformation. What the camera doesn’t reveal are the enormous shantytowns hidden behind those glistening towers, waiting to be redeveloped all over again.

In many ways, Dharavi is the ultimate user-generated city. Each of its 80-plus neighborhoods has been incrementally developed by generations of residents updating their shelters and businesses according to needs and means. As Ramesh Misra, a lawyer and lifelong resident, puts it: “We have always improved Dharavi by ourselves. All we want is permission and support to keep doing it. Is that asking for too much?”

The film provides amazing cinematography of Mumbai, but what shocked me the most was the postmodern neoclassicist residential towers being built in the slum. They appear alien to the place, clashing with the natural, complex morphology of the neighborhood. That shows up in the google maps images also. It shows that employing modern building processes is a choice and not an inevitability, and it is a choice that can take away from the identity of a place. The people of Dharavi were insulted that their city was called a slum because they all had a hand in building it. They won’t be eager to defend the place when all its complex tissues have been replaced with tower blocks.

How they build today in Palestine

Har Homa Settlement

This is the Har Homa settlement, a suburb of Jerusalem built during the 1990’s. It is the perfect example of an attempt to imitate the complex form of the traditional hill town without employing any of the same processes. As a result the repetition of shapes at the scale of buildings gives away the production process as a type II physical phenomenon and not a complex living environment. Who could truly love it?

To quote James Howard Kunstler, in a region where his words have a much more urgent significance, will this be a place worth defending?

The emergence of a sense of place

Modern urbanism has given us a landscape that many consider to be soulless. Everything looks the same. Nothing creates a sense of place. New Urbanism has attempted to reverse this by returning to traditional architecture and town planning forms. This was done in European new towns, under the advice of well-meaning men like the Krier brothers, in the late 1970’s, and did not succeed. While there are blocks and squares and on-street parking, the general configuration of traditional towns, the new towns did not develop the identity and personal relationships with their inhabitants that was intended with the return to traditional forms. They still experience the same population mobility that the other suburbs of the periphery experience.

The reason this happened is the same reason that New Urbanism has not caught on, despite the fact that everyone agrees with it. The New Urbanists have been focusing on outcome instead of process.

Complexity is an emergent phenomenon. This means that its outcome cannot be determined, that only the process of emergence can be determined, and the outcome must be what results from this process unexpectedly. The sense of place that we seek is not traditional town plans, although those have merits of their own, but the realization of our personalities in buildings.

Home renovation has become the cultural expression of the landed middle classes, and the propagation of the home renovation big box chains is a testament to this culture. I cannot have a single conversation with any middle aged home-owning couple without some renovation project of theirs being mentioned, and I shudder to think how conversations go when they are amongst themselves. I believe that, more than a form of consumer culture or cocooning, this trend is a reaction against the placelessness of suburban environments. As the standardized, tract homes are transformed at small scales by their residents, they come to reflect the choices and personalities of the individuals that inhabit them. This is what had been missing from the speculative, mass-produced housing that colonized the periphery and eventually exploded across the entire landscape. Once buildings have been transformed by someone, the presence of this person is felt in the building’s form. It becomes a unique historical event, and thus forms a place.

How does repetition of identical buildings come to be? The answers are in the building processes. Repetition was never seen prior to the industrial age, and even through the industrial age not all cities actually saw mass-produced housing. American cities laid out on grid patterns all have their share of row buildings, as does London. But in London the trend started with terrace housing for the aristocracy, and other centers of industrial revolution in Europe, such as Paris and Berlin, have no trace of repetition at the scale of working-class neighborhoods in industrial America. The simple fact of industrialization cannot explain this kind of urban morphology. Even today, while the construction of repetitive housing subdivisions continues in the post-industrial world, the industrializing countries such as China are constructing wildly individualized buildings inside the existing urban fabric. And in the informally economic shantycities of Africa and favelas of America, personalized building is the only rule. The latter feel more alive, although less comfortable. That living quality, the result of millions of individual acts of transformation to create fitness, is what gives a place its placeness. But in order for this quality to emerge, there must be a personally-enabling urban process at work.

Christopher Alexander theorized such processes in his Oregon Experiment, where he also wrote a scathing criticism of city plans. He described how the directors of urbanism for the University of Oregon could act to enable the creativity of the inhabitants of the university in the elaboration of new buildings that would solve their personal, individualized problems. This would be the opposite of designing a plan for the university’s expansion that would then be imposed on the inhabitants in perpetuity

The traditionalist New Towns I mentioned do have such plans, and they do forbid personal transformation on the urban fabric. This is why they remain only a product and have not grown into a place. The same fate awaits suburban subdivisions where strict HOA rules forbid changes.

Beyond those two cases, a larger problem still has to be challenged. Why is it that the processes of urbanization in our countries limit or destroy complexity, while enabling it in foreign countries? We must take a critical look at our processes, which are unfortunately often enshrined by government legislation, and replace them with those processes that enable the emergence of complexity. Only then can a new urbanism be achieved.

Placeless:

Regular, oppresive tract homes.

Placefull:

Reference

Alexander, Christopher and others. The Oregon Experiment.