Emergent Urbanism

Rediscovering Urban Complexity

Emerging the city

In the 20th century, the modern movement in architecture drew up grand plans to remake cities for the machine age. Le Corbusier, the leader of the movement, conceived his Radiant City plan. He designed every part of it himself so that it would work as he had willed it to. His machine provided the solution to four problems: inhabitation, work, recreation, circulation. Everything else was removed.

The idea of a machine city expressed three assumptions that led to the catastrophic results of modernism.

The first assumption is that the city is a machine that solves a problem. It can then be designed as a tool would be.

The second assumption is that the will of a designer can be imposed at the scale of a city.

The third assumption is that the form of a city, its morphology, can be conceived in advance of its development ("planned").

After a titanic fight over the future of New York City, Jane Jacobs explained this error in the final chapter of Death and Life of Great American Cities. The "kind of problem a city is" shares nothing with the physical and engineering sciences. It is like the biological sciences, a problem of organized complexity.

The city does not solve a problem or some problems, it provides the environment to solve the infinite diversity of little problems that human beings have.

It is so complex that no single human can ever hope to understand it entirely.

Its morphology must be defined by its growth process as it adapts to changes in human needs and desires.

The city cannot have a designer. It cannot be built according to a description fine-tuned to perfection. This has become obvious to practically everyone, although urbanism in the english-speaking world is still tied down by the title "urban planner" in the face of all the evidence that planning makes no difference whatsoever. Still the practice of large scale zoning and site planning continues.

The problem was the absence of an alternative theory.

Today this theory exists. Research into DNA and cellular automata has shown how systems of transformations, as opposed to descriptions, create complexity in nature through emergence. Cells which multiply themselves and interact following simple sets of transformation rules produce forms of astonishing complexity.

A system of transformations is similar to a recipe. It is a list of actions that you must take, as compared to a descriptive system which gives you a picture of a finished object. Imagine trying to bake a chocolate cake with nothing but a picture. Now try again with no picture but a full recipe. By following the recipe, you will get a tasty cake no matter what mold or size of cake you made. If you make a mistake in the recipe, your cake will not succeed.

The definition of emergence is thus: it is a form obtained as a result of following certain processes. The opposite of emergence is design: it is a form conceived by a designer which will be used as a blueprint for its realization.

In emergence, form is the result. In design, form is the starting point.

The 21st century paradigm of urbanism is discovering and applying the right recipe, DNA, transformation set, to build a city, at any size, shape, or starting point, so that it will always work, always be adapted, and always be full of life.


Like the human body, a city is an organism. An organism with parts that utilyze funtion and fuel. Each part in the human body serves a purpose (with the exception of the appendix and the gall bladder. the gall blader can be removed and the patient will never show signs of, shit...anything, it is utterly useless).
A city operates the same way. Each individual provides either the fuel or functionary mechanism to perpetuate its survival.

Evolutionary inquiry: Without natural parsites and bacteria routinly processed through internal MECHANISMS, why would humans need a liver? Without natural parasites and bacteria intrinsically woven into all forms of life, nothing would exist. No blue cheese, no milk, no beer, no vodka, no pizza, no pasta, no fruits or vegetables would grow, fallen trees would not decompose, deceased humans would remain unaffected. Like a human and our ecology...I assume since you are an expert on ecology and have 'transformations' creating complexities suited to humans changing needs and desires down pat, that "deep ecologists" agree with your assensment. They do not. The Earth is an organism not unlike ourselves. The biology of life is machinelike. A city is a machine and needs to be in the charge of an individual, much like Plato's philosopher king. Just as Octavious manipulated Rome and siezed power, leading the greatest Empire the world has ever known, so to must modern cities be governed by an individual. Parlimentary process is haphazard at best, futile at its worst.
Finally, your articles hint at following certain processes in order to obtain desired results. Who's results are we trying to attain? Are they Jane Jacob's? Overpopulation in this country will dictate living in communities not afforded the little old lady who keeps her eyes on the street. Making money and supporting your loved ones will render bustling streets and mixed use public places useless, there simply will not be any time to enjoy them. Cities do not emerge or morph over time. There is no recipe. There is only a destination, or a picture as you describe it, to reach for. Once again there is no recipe. If there was it would have been used and just like the bacteria responsible for fermenting blue cheese, i would not be here typing this riduculously long e-mail to try and get to a mind so clouded with supposed knowledge that it would apply emergence theory and mutational concepts to a problem that they do not apply to. No matter how you may try and relate the two, cities are not math. Cities are alive, they are machines, there is no recipe. If i'm wrong and you have the recipe for life or cities, i am sorry, and can you forward them to me. I wrote this because your articles denounced anothers ideas as incorrect. Le Corbusier's ideas were not demonic, they were misapplied by politicians. The industrial advancements you write about and the ensuing need to utilyze them sound remarkably similar to Le Corbusier's rational with steel framework. Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers in his remarks to the Harvard Graduate School of Design had this to say, "I think we're living in a magic bullet moment right now. And it's inevitable that in a few years we'll be hearing how all these wonderful new builings we're seeing now didn't live up to expectations, didn't deliver the tourists and the investment that they should have, cost more money than expected, are difficult to maintain." These words could have been written in 1962 as the Robert Taylor homes in Chicago were being torn down before they were finished being built. The were not however, they were written in 2005. Never say never, the mathematics of a city or theories of emergence sound like Corbusiers Golden Ratio, I truly hope you at least know what that means, you should, after all Corbusiers demonic. You would not call a person names without fully understanding his ideals and principle beliefs would you?

Thank you for your comment, but you are making the same mistake Le Corbusier did, although he had the excuse of living in a time where such a mistake seemed obviously true. The biology of life is NOT machinelike. A machine is a very narrowly-defined type of simple linear system, one of four classes discovered by Stephen Wolfram in A New Kind of Science. Life is a network of cells which transform themselves in a non-linear pattern in order to form tissues over time. That is unlike any machine ever built by man, but it is exactly the kind of system a city is.

We can forgive Le Corbusier for his errors, but we cannot forgive that the errors are still being made now that we have the science available to understand them. I believe Le Corbusier, with his endless optimism in progress and technology, would embrace this science.

Recently in Milan we had an unconference about co-produce (co-design) public services.
I did my presentation about "Co-production in planning for the intercultural city" (the link is: http://www.paolapierri.info/2010/11/16/co-production-in-planning-for-the...).
I think many times the intercultural dimension is completly forgot, thinking about public service, urban planning and co-production and participation. Though diversity management is something that works at local level. Cities are the ground for integration, conflicts' resolution, cohabitation and social innovation.
Immigrants have new needs and new ways to conceive and live a city, its spaces and its services.
What do you think about it? Have you more information or sources to be explored on this issue.
Thank you

I find the article very inspiring. I specially become fond of this part "The city cannot have a designer. It cannot be built according to a description fine-tuned to perfection. This has become obvious to practically everyone, although urbanism in the english-speaking world is still tied down by the title "urban planner" in the face of all the evidence that planning makes no difference whatsoever. Still the practice of large scale zoning and site planning continues"...sounds very intriguing to me. More power to you

Thank you Mathieu.. I find myself lucky to come across your articles recently when i really needed knowledge about theory of emerging cities..
Its my master's project and I was going through few references when I came across this particularly..
My topic is "Application of genetic algorithm in emergence of cities"
In above article, you have mentioned about cellular automata.. Can you elaborate it a little??
I would also like to know more about emergence of cities and how one can exactly apply GA to that..
I would also like to ask you few queries regarding my project.
Can I contact you on your Email Id.. Please share it if possible..
I will be grateful to receive your reply..
Thank you..

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