Emergent Urbanism

Rediscovering Urban Complexity

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:

zan

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

montmartre-village

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.

Update

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.

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