Tag Archives: zoning

The challenge of dense sprawl

When looking at such a picture we are at first inclined to make a parallel with the landscape of Los Angeles. It is a foggy urban plain with a cluster of towers popping out over the horizon. This is Dubai from a perspective that is rarely shown, that of the city in the foreground, and its suburban expansions in the background. The towers are the Dubai suburbs, lined up on what used to be the main highway out to Abu Dhabi, now the centre of New Dubai and the urban fringe of Dubai. A picture such as this is significant because the central core of Dubai is almost never seen in the pictures of the huge developments going up in its suburbs. That is unfortunate, since the reason that these suburban developments are economically possible at their size is because they are growths of the old Dubai. The parallel with Los Angeles is therefore incorrect. Los Angeles followed the standard American model of urban growth, developing a central business district on a simple grid where the original center of the city was founded, then later adopted suburban sprawl to continue its growth and grew a cluster of skyscrapers adapted to this sprawl where the center once was. The policy of sprawl is blamed for the impossible traffic congestion that cripples Los Angeles, but generally what is meant by sprawl are the low-density housing subdivisions, office zones and other standard typologies of suburbia. The solution that was called for was more density, even though some geographers pointed out that Los Angeles was already one of the densest cities in America. The result of this choice has been dense sprawl: worse traffic, worse crowding and seemingly no improvement in quality of life.

Clearly the challenge of sprawl has been improperly identified. I will show that sprawl is not about density but about distance between complements, and the extremely rapid urban growth of Dubai, from a small fishing town to an urban metropolis in two generations, makes this visibly explicit.

Perhaps the most fascinating fact about Dubai is how natural and complex the old city seems to be despite having an entirely modern building stock. Most cities associated with a natural or organic morphology are usually pre-modernist cities of old classical or vernacular buildings, or at least preserve some of them. There are no such buildings in Dubai, the city having started its growth period in the 1950’s. The only explanation for the natural form of the old Dubai is a natural process of growth.

The urban fabric of a city is a solution set, each building being a solution to a problem of a particular time and place. The city as a whole is a solution set for its population as a whole, and as times and people change new buildings are added to provide new solutions to these new problems. The reason that naturally grown cities have a chaotic morphology is the same reason why stock market movement is fractal; they are both adaptations to fluctuating circumstances, and they are both limited in size by the previous size of the system. That means that you cannot grow a city by a development that is bigger than the city’s current state of maladaptation to circumstances. Attempting to do so will result in economic failure. Many very small development operations done in succession will be much more adaptive than one large development operation planned at one moment, since each operation adapts to the circumstances created by the previous one.

Because cities grow by correcting maladaptations, the new buildings turn out to be complements of the existing buildings. It makes no sense to make a building that is identical to one that already exists, and in natural cities that will never appear. Each building will be fitted to the particular knowledge of time and place, as Hayek would say. This particular knowledge is itself produced by the presence of existing buildings and the way people use them.

This process is not simply an economic abstraction, it also has morphological consequences.

Jumeirah is a beachfront suburb directly to the south of old Dubai that has become the home of the Anglosphere expatriate community as well as synonymous with upper-class lifestyles. Because it is more recent growth of Dubai’s urban centre it has seen growth in operations of much larger sizes. You can tell that there are now “clusters” of identical buildings, nothing of the scale of a metropolitan subdivision yet, but the building individuality of central Dubai is no longer present. (Cluster housing development is also visible in, for example, the older parts of Las Vegas.) This is pre-subdivision scale, in that an operation creates multiple buildings without having a scale large enough to be “planned” and have status as a named development. For the purpose of the adaptation they bring, they are still only one event, only one adaptation subdivided into multiple buildings. And because they are much bigger than the previous development operations, they create more distance between themselves and the urban fabric they are adapting to. The scale of development is not big enough to be called sprawl yet, but the complexity of this neighborhood is not as advanced as that of the older city. While the buildings in Jumeirah are certainly complements of the whole city of Dubai, they are not complements of each other, which is true in the older city.

Left: Skyscrapers on Sheik Zayed Road, Burj Dubai site on lower left

Right: Palm Jumeirah, Dubai Marina megaprojects along with random subdivisions.

Here are Dubai’s world-famous megadevelopments, which have been made possible as adaptations to Dubai’s metropolitan scale. The development operations are enormous complements of the existing urban fabric, but the fact that they are all being built concurrently means that they cannot adapt and become complements to each other. With little surprise the traffic congestion on the Sheik Zayed Road that integrates them together has skyrocketed. The distance between complements has increased to the scale of the projects, and the only way to move from one to another is by driving down Sheik Zayed Road.

The skyscrapers going up are actually making sprawl worse the same way that a development of 100 houses extends sprawl. The idea that a skyscraper is a vertical city is a myth. Skyscrapers are identical floors of open space and rely on very large networks of complementary urban fabric to work properly. Skyscrapers can contribute to the complexity of a place like New York City because the urban fabric of Manhattan is very rich and can digest density and congestion gracefully, but in a city where urban fabric is undeveloped, as modernist plans for a Radiant City were, or has been de-developed, like the CBD of most American cities, skyscrapers throw congestion and traffic out to the whole city as badly as a housing subdivision.

The solution to sprawl is not increasing density, but increasing complementarity. That means breaking up existing housing subdivisions, office parks and shopping centers into smaller autonomous parts that can grow into buildings that are complements to houses, offices and shops as well as complements to the city as a whole. (This obviously implies abolishing zoning.) It means not trying to design everything that goes into one project, to let growth come to you and to accomodate it, to publicize the chaotic symmetry of old Dubai as a model of natural beauty instead of the iconic forms of the skyscraper cluster. The Dubai Palms and the Burj Dubai district may still grow into something natural and complex.

The Urban Country: Holland

Rem Koolhaas once described the urban as pervasive. It took a tour of Holland for me to grasp quite what he meant. While Paris is mocked as a museum-city due to its protected urban tissue, in Holland it is the farmland that is protected, the rural tissue that cannot be modernized. This makes the experience of moving in the country, which is about the same size as the Dallas-Fort-Worth metropolis and has more people, utterly surreal.

Holland today is called the Randstad, or the Edge City, since its four biggest cities, Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht, were joined together by highways, leaving the heart of the country as the farmland the Dutch had created it to be. (God may have made the Earth but the Dutch made the Netherlands, so the saying goes.) With less than an hour travel time from any city to another making connections perfectly simple, the urbanization of the cities into one large metropolis was inevitable, just as the urbanization of the land between them was inevitable.

While, traveling from one city to the next, one may see a landscape of grazing fields for dairy cows, this landscape is always seen from a road that is packed with other travelers. Wherever you go, the ubiquitous presence of other people can be felt, either by running into them on their bicycles or just as the background noise of a not-far-enough highway. The grazing land and windmills may be beautiful to look at, they are only a decor, and the presence of other people, as well as the occasional 6-story office building squeezed in between two herds of cows, serve to remind you at every step how unnatural this arrangement is.

Typical Dutch landscape, but imagine the noise of an urban highway in the background for the real picture

Typical Dutch landscape, but imagine the noise of an urban highway in the background for the real picture

Urbanity is, ultimately, nothing more than people circulating. We sense that a place is urban where there are crowds (or in the controversial words of Rem Koolhaas, congestion). And good urbanism, in that sense, is taking full advantage of the crowd, with the small things like street-side cafes for people watching, the less small things like tramways, and the dramatically monumental things like balconies over a railway station concourse. Bad urbanism, on the other hand, is hiding the crowd away, or pretending that it isn’t there. This is what the land use policy of the Netherlands does.

Why do the Dutch need this farmland anymore? According to Dutch government statistics, land becomes at least twice as valuable once the land is rezoned as “urban”. That implies that making cheese is not nearly as important to people as human residence, industry and business. The government maintains that the zoning is necessary to protect the country against the market failure of not providing a beautiful landscape.

The landscape of Holland is the most artificial of any place in the world. Everything in the country was made by human hand. It all came out looking quite natural. Christopher Alexander even used the historic center of Amsterdam as an example of a city grown naturally in A New Theory of Urban Design. It is genuinely beautiful. Have the Dutch lost confidence in their own hands? What is going on?

Man-made nature in Amsterdam

Man-made nature in Amsterdam

If you follow architecture at all, you will be aware that Holland is considered as something like the Shangri-La of Modernism, a country where the modern paradigm has been fully embraced and where architectural experimentation is the rule. The result of this experimentation has been hard modernist mega-estates like Biljmermeer (it’s bigger than Sarcelles! exclaimed our companion) in the outskirts of Amsterdam, a city that despite having been reinvested with new modernist buildings, still is a ghost town compared to the bustle of Amsterdam, to the fashionably impractical like the diamondoid houses of Rotterdam, and terminating in the plain grotesque like the foodstrip that greets you on the highway into Amsterdam. What emanates from this experimentation is that the lessons acquired from one experiment are never used in the next, defeating the whole purpose of an experiment. We can only conclude that what is taking place cannot be defined as experimentation. The precise term for modernism is folly.

An "experiment"

An "experiment"

The foodstrip - yummy!

The foodstrip - yummy!

Against an onslaught of follies mutilating their landscape, what could the Dutch do but turn hyper-conservative in horror? They must realize though that the lines drawn on zoning maps can only be a temporary measure, a rear-guard action while waiting for the day we are no longer confused about what we are. I can imagine a Randstad with a center of parks, houses and estates that would be just as beautiful and natural as the current landscape and also serve as relevant solutions to the current problems of Dutch life. We don’t need to zone out the present. We don’t have to be afraid of ourselves anymore. We just need to know how to make things like nature does. Then the landscape that we have always made will once again be natural.

While Paris may be a monument to an urban past, the late 19th century, that no longer exists, the Randstad is a monument to a rural past that has long vanished. It is a museum-country that functions as a modern city. A tour of Holland is the essential companion to Rem Koolhaas’ S,M,L,XL, which is the essential narrative of late 20th century architecture and urbanism. If you ever wondered what could have produced such a strange mind, Holland could.

Crossing the Maas into Holland

Crossing the Maas into Holland

Follies in Rotterdam

Follies in Rotterdam

Living naturally in Amsterdam

Living naturally in Amsterdam

Nature in Rotterdam

Nature in Rotterdam

P.S. What was originally meant to be a weekend trip to Amsterdam with three fellow students of the Institut d’Urbanisme over the long July 14 weekend turned into, due to last minute planning, a full tour of Holland, with stops in Utrecht, Rotterdam and Amsterdam, and lightning visits to towns like Bunnik, Gouda, The Hague and Shoeveningen, the Biljmermeer suburb of Amsterdam and Gorinchem. That is to say, we did a full tour of the Randstad. Since it was on the way, we also stopped in Ghent and Antwerp, which felt somewhat more normal than Holland. The reason for this, I concluded recently, was that there were far fewer people on the roads.

P.P.S. Do not remain illegally parked in Amsterdam’s historic center, particularly not if your driver is an irritable parisian. Parking enforcement is very serious business there, with visibly positive consequences on the quality of the city.

The mathematical definition of a city

20th century professional urbanism is the story of a war on complexity in order to control urbanization.

The modernists rebelled against the “mess” of the city. They put everything in their place. In this square shall be the houses. In that square the offices. In that square the stores. In some form of another, this system, called zoning, is in force over 99% of the American continent. Its main advantage is that it is incredibly lazy.

For more than half a century, the in-between, what is not really a house, a shop or an office, has had no place. The “boomtowns” of today are endless grids of single-purpose zones.

They call this urban planning. They took control of the city’s future by destroying it. But they didn’t really know what they were destroying.

A city is not reducible to parts. A city is a mesh of relationships between spaces. It begins once a space is built to provide a specialized function that is not fulfilled by another existing space, and the two spaces are linked together by a communication system. Let’s call this first space a and the new space b. Once a and b form relationship a-b, the city X is born. X is a set which contains relationships.

When a and b are deficient in some manner, a third space, c, is added to the set. X then becomes (a-b, c-b). Then space d may be added to form the set (a-b, c-b, c-d). This process continues as more spaces are created and new relationships are formed. The city becomes a very complex mesh, or semi-lattice. You cannot isolate any part of this mesh from the rest.

Sim City 4 pictures the shape of these relationships when you click on the commutes for any building. Each building has a web extending out through the city, and these webs overlap and interweave each other as a single system.

The relationships do not split up into group. You cannot define “sub-cities,” groups of relationships independent from each other. You cannot say that city A is made up of building set B and C. Inevitably some buildings in either group will need to form relationships to each other. But this is exactly what zoning is meant to prevent! In doing so, zoning destroys many forms of exchange and holds back the complexity of the city.

What exactly are such relationships? Any reason you might have to get out of the house. It could be going to the bakery. Your house d would form a relationship with bakery f, d-f. The bakery would have many customers in the neighborhood, and they would form relationships f-g, f-h, f-i and so on, even though you may never meet any of them. These people will have jobs that will form relationships g-m, h-n, i-n. All of you, together, create the life of the city, though you may never run into each other. Without business m, bakery f may not have enough customers to continue, and then you would no longer have access to a bakery.

Sometimes a space will lose all of its relationships and will be destroyed, but all the other relationships will remain part of the set. The continuous mesh of relationships is itself fully permanent. This is why cities have names that last through millennia, such as London and Paris, even though every building that made them up at their beginning has long since been removed and forgotten. The set of relationships is still exactly where it has always been. It has been transformed and developed, but never destroyed. At every point in time the set exists even though spaces flow in and out of it, much like a river is not defined as a lump of water molecules but the flow of them.

It is only relationships and not the individual spaces that form a city. A block of identical row houses will not form relationships. Relationships will only form between spaces that are complementary, that is to say spaces that are differently adapted to their own specific functions. It thus makes no sense to create zoning codes for identical houses as there is no reason for these houses to be near each other. However, it does make sense to create multiple houses around a playground, as these houses will form a relationship with the playground.

Defining a city as relationships allows us to differentiate cities which are alive and growing from cities which are dead or dying. When the number of relationships in a city is increasing or stable, the city is alive. When the number of relationships in a city is shrinking or zero, the city is dead, despite the fact that there may still be buildings there! A ghost town does not have relationships.

Good urbanism is the creation of support systems for building relationships. Streets, public spaces, transportation networks and building codes achieve this. Zoning kills them.

The best support systems, the best urbanism, will permit the greatest density of relationships (not density of people), implying the greatest spacial complexity and diversity achievable.


Alexander, Christopher. A City is not a Tree.