Welcome to Emergent Urbanism
A treatise about the new science of building cities.
Who I am
My name is Mathieu Helie. I am a Canadian urbanist with a Master's in Urban Planning from Université Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne and Institut d'Urbanisme de Paris, and a B.A. in Economics and Computer Science from Concordia University. I work as a software developer and keep a continuing research interest in urban design problems, most particularly the problem of designing emergent systems.
Emergence is the creation of systems of greater dimension than the elements that create it, sometimes also called self-organization, through the application of localized rules of action. The most elementary emergent systems are the binary, one-dimensional cellular automata studied by Stephen Wolfram that create complex fractals when shown in two dimensions. Emergence is also behind all forms of multicellular life, the cells of a plant or an animal following the instructions coded in their DNA to organize themselves into a much bigger organism. Those organisms will then also create emergent structures by following simple rules of action, like the termite cathedrals often used as an icon for emergence. Emergence is also behind human societies, from the invisible hand of economics (invisible because it is a dimension greater than any one of us) to the astonishing growth of the Internet and, within the Internet, web systems such as Wikipedia. Studying the rules that enable emergence will allow us to build the systems to deal with the complexity of the universe.
Complexity is the physical fact of problems existing at multiple scales simultaneously. Complex systems solve these problems by adopting geometric structures that have structure at multiple scales simultaneously, that is to say fractal geometry. The pioneer of fractal geometry, Benoit Mandelbrot, was able to identify fractals everywhere in nature, resolving the complexity of physical chaos by creating complex ordering of mountains, rivers and coasts. The architectural scientist Christopher Alexander elaborated on the link between fractal geometry and life by defining the theory of centres, which are parts or features that are distinguishable from the whole and cooperate with the whole to survive in the complexity of the universe. Because centers are themselves made of centers, they fit the recursive definition of fractals. Most important of all, complex structures can only be made through generative processes that draw from a previous step, iterated indefinitely. The science of complexity is thus focused on discovering how things are produced, their final form being far too complex for one mind to fully grasp.
Since the dawn of civilization, humans have made cities to support their societies. These cities, although they have been the source of progress, have never been fully understood, relying on traditions and trial-and-error processes for their growth. The reason for this is because they occur in the emergent dimension, and later attempts to plan them and bring them under the control of a central planner have resulted not in ordered cities, but disordered emergence. Today the phenomenon of suburban sprawl is being fought on multiple fronts, all meeting little success, while the disasters of million-people shantytowns have become accepted as normal. These are the outcome of a bad scientific choice, of applying linear sciences to urbanism. Urbanity is the cooperation and mutual-support of large numbers of people in close proximity. It is inevitably emergent, and to understand the science of emergence is the key to inventing the first fully emergent urbanism, capable of resolving all the complexities of a 21st century, sustainable city.
Designing cities is possible. The means of designing cities are, by the fact of the emergent nature of cities, completely different from modern architectural practice. Understanding those means is what will enable us to carry out the will of the billions of urbanites of the world: to live in more enjoyable, more beautiful environments, and be free to transform these environments.