Emergent Urbanism

Rediscovering Urban Complexity

Planning for nomads

Almost half of Americans want to live somewhere else. Even for a nation known for its exceptional mobility, the fact that people are not only moving in pursuit of employment opportunities but are looking to move simply because they hate the place they live in reveals a much deeper problem. Economic opportunity is no longer what keeps people moving, it is what keeps them immobilized. Given the same opportunity they would relocate to the kind of place where life is good. Once the economic value of a region has been fully used up, people move on. That is the lifestyle of nomads.

Americans' feelings of nomadism express the lack of control they have over the shape of their environment. This control was long taken away (with good intentions) to a higher level, planning. Planning by governments, planning by commissions, planning by land developers and Homeowners' Associations. Planning works, ironically, by preserving the status quo and preventing anyone unauthorized from restoring a built equilibrium. It defines what form a city is to take and locks it up under the control of boards and committees. Because they cannot make their neighborhoods their home and move the fabric of their environment, extending their roots into it, households opt for the next best choice: moving themselves somewhere that fits them more.

When people are no longer responsible for producing their community, they no longer feel any attachment to it. There is no longer any pride of ownership the way that homesteaders who built upon the land were proud of their estate. All that remains are consumers of planning who move from one product to the next as they search for a place that feels like a community. Often that means the countryside, which by grace of having small economies has never been able to support much planning.

Participatory processes, whether they are called "participatory democracy" or "charrettes", have been the main focus of planning theory for the past decades. The idea was that if people could be involved in the decision process to define the planning of a town this would make such a place their own, but it is no less of a surrender of control, a collective plan. Once the plan has been set, there is no repealing it. Better hope that they got it perfectly right. The inverse process is much more likely to tie people to their community. A town design that is conceived in a studio somewhere far away with zero public input, but that deliberately empowers the local citizens to transform their environment upon its realization, will realize the community's aspirations and the individual's dream. This fact ultimately makes the notion of bottom-up versus top-down design meaningless. Who knows whether the lone inventor of an emergent design, who gathers the input of an entire community in order to build it, is running a top-down or bottom-up process?

There is a commonly accepted idea that a good growth policy is giving free reign to land speculators. Although that creates many economic opportunities for people to find work, it doesn't create the opportunity to build a good life. It will lay the foundation for a city of nomads who pass through to consume as much as they can of the place until they have the chance to move on somewhere else. This may be a growth policy but it will never be a community development policy, unless what is being served is the community of land speculators. A good growth process makes it equally simple for any member of the community, big or small, to transform its fabric. The best growth process will make this simple while creating a beautiful place from all of these individual changes. A city that adopts such a process will not only attract economic growth but also community growth. This balance in growth is the fundamental meaning of sustainable development.

What it will take to start this process is not gymnasiums full of shouting people, but visionary leadership. Only when the top-down drives the bottom-up is a balance achieved.


Your comments about nomadic populations stopping in a place only long enough to use up its resources are spot on when it comes to places like Phoenix, where I live. Almost everyone I know fantasizes about leaving, but stays only because of family or work.

Then again, I Saul Bellow described the Chicago of his youth as a vast, gray industrial zone where there were no cafes, culture or other places to write or create. Though this sounds depressingly familiar to me if we substitute suburban ranch houses for industrial buildings, the fact that such changes take place gives me hope.

Economic opportunity is no longer what keeps people moving, it is what keeps them immobilized.

I don't see the causation. What is the basis for your assertion?

Recent research at MIT has shown that there is positive correlation between mobility and income, which makes a good case against subsidizing home ownership, rent control, and other mobility-stifling policies.

I don't want to add to your despair Dabido, but Chicago was running on a very different economic model than Phoenix is running. A much smaller grid of blocks with more flexible building regulations meant that it was a lot easier for people to improve their community.

In Phoenix you may not have much choice but to buy up whole subdivisions in order to change things. That's not an activity that's available to many people.

hengels, the problem today is too much mobility of people, not enough mobility of the urban fabric. Once people moved to a place for the work and built roots to their community. Now they only move for work and then leave once they are wealthy enough to do so.

or they move for better opportunities, better lifestyles, etc.

As a (formerly, by choice) working planner in the States, I agree with hengels. We don´t move like sheep only searching for work. People in the States often move to be closer to family, to be in regions they enjoy living in, to be around people with similar values and interests, etc. The ´urban fabric´ will never be as elastic as it´s inhabitants, unless we come up with radically new building materials and infrastructure.

The assertion that ¨Once the plan has been set, there is no repealing it¨ it not accurate either. I often have seen General and Specific Plans change, not always for the better, but often to reflect reality. A community may envision a certain amount of commericial or restuarant space, but that is no gaurantee that there is enough market demand to support these land uses envisoned by the community.

The idea that ´A good growth process makes it equally simple for any member of the community, big or small, to transform its fabric´is very academic. The consitution of the US, and established case law, grants strong rights to private landowners (speculators included). The notion that a strong leader within the US will somehow drive top-down change is not really based in reality, Americans are hardly willing to tax themselves to adequately pay for public services, much less support the loss of additional private property rights. The notion that they would support a stronger central land use planning system is based in acedemic theorizing, not practical reality. For better or worse, strong private property rights are uniquely a part of American culture.

The study in the first link has some unsettling aspects that reflect social preferences-

1. More Americans would rather live in a place with more McDonald's than one with more Starbucks.

2. City dwellers are more likely to dream of living somewhere else

It also found political affiliation, sex and age strongly direct where people desire to live. The nice portion was that'

¨Wanting to live outside cities doesn't necessarily mean people reject urban lifestyles, however. The appeal of developments with an urban flair — ones that combine housing, stores and offices in a neighborhood setting — is growing.¨

Leadership is not the exclusive province of the government or the president. (Often the opposite is the case!) The land owner can also be a community leader if he recognizes what processes produce a great town.

Being close to family and friends is the normal state of things, but hating a place for itself is not. An enterprising people will set out to improve that place. When the planning process disallows it, the hate makes it unsustainable. Many of the communities in Europe do not have very attractive economies, but love of place makes sure they keep their people. That love of place was built over many generations of individuals improving their community.

I must admit that I'm puzzled by another part of your comment. Why do you believe that equally enabling small and large growth implies a constitutional challenge on the rights of land speculators?

I am not sure that making large-scale changes to the fabric as easy as small-scale is a good way to produce communities. How easy should we make the large-scale changes like Griffintown?

As you've noticed from other comments, the large-scale developers and their lawyers feel strongly about their property rights, and will quash attempts at a Chris Alexander style of generative rule book. Comprehensive plans are a pre-emptive attempt to mitigate the damage that the people with lawyers might think of bringing down on a community. Until we run all the lawyers out of town we can't risk giving growth much breathing room.

Small anecdote: I live in an older central community. When a developer tries to shoehorn more square feet of floor space onto a lot than zoning allows, I tend to come down on them at committee. They are trying to maximize their revenues at the expense of the relatively poor neighbours. But when my next door neighbour wanted to build an addition, cutting down some wonderful trees on our property line, I said yes. What with their kids and a new one on the way, they needed an addition to keep living there.

The difference (or my rationalization)? The first is an anonymous corporation trying to attract short-time dwellers to what they hope will become a trendy area for couples. The second is a family taking root in the community. There is more to a sense of place than required setbacks and floor area ratios, but right now they are necessary tools.

It is always easy to say than get it done. The world is built on series of hierarchies. Until the hierarchies are diminished that people can have the power shaping their living environment, otherwise, it is still pretty much in authority’s hands. Our modern society relies so much on the so-called ‘specialist’. Most people have lost the ability in building the environment with their bare hands. The education system also encourages people to become ‘professionals’, who are part of the hierarchy of the society. There are voices trying to evoke us, but overall, it is weak.

Martin: I believe that an important reason why large developments are so common and profitable is because small-scale development has been made so difficult in so many places. The regulatory barriers are high enough that it is cost-prohibitive for most small developers to jump them.

I don't know what position you hold, but it seems to me that this problem is illustrated nicely by the fact that you have a say in whether your neighbors can build an addition to their house.

Further comment

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