Emergent Urbanism

Rediscovering Urban Complexity

About Emergent Urbanism

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.

About emergence

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.

About complexity

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.

About urbanism

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.


great insights, thank you for publishing this. i agree with many of your points and am excited to see the future of urbanism given ideas of emergence, especially as it is reinforced by the movement of landscape urbanism.
given your background in computer science, are you interested in finding algorithms that start to express the combinatory logics that manifest the city?
i am a graduate student in architecture and interested in how ideas of landscape ecology and an expanded notion of density [namely topologic and network, besides physical] can begin to redefine how our cities are generated.

The main work of urbanism, embodied in building and zoning codes, is essentially algorithmic, made up of if-statements. If something, do this or that. So in that sense any good urbanism is just researching and developing protocols for how a city will grow around the chaotic "program" (in the architectural sense) of the city as a whole.

I am very interested in what you are doing and pursuing a parallel path of research at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Canada. I will keep in touch.

As an engineer, I'm very interested in this sort of take on urbansim. Keep up the good work.

But I can't find the RSS link. I can never remember to check in with good sites, so I subscribe to RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds to alert when someone makes a new post. If you have a feed set up, can you show me the link? If not, have a look. I'm pretty sure that Wordpress has good tools for that.


Hi, I am a first year graduate student at Arizona State University and I found your website/blog while doing research on Parametric Urbanism and how Chaos Theory can be used as a good model to better understand Intricacy and Urbanism while taking into consideration both the Grid and the Organic. I find your research and ideas very interesting and applaud your work and truly hope that it continues. I am thinking about writing my Thesis on Chaos Theory and its role in Urbanism and would love to discuss this topic with you in further detail. I truly hope you stay in touch and good luck with your future endevours.


Oscar Lopez
Arizona State University

Oscar, if you have a page about your work, I'll link to it.

Hi Mathieu,

I hope you are finding yourself well. My name is Oscar Lopez and I had left a post back in September.

I am looking in putting together a lecture on Architecture and Urbanism at Arizona State University, I would be talking about topics similar to those that you are researching. The question is, would you be willing to participate in a discussion? I am not sure what would be needed by you but I would gratefully appreciate it if you contacted me via email so that we can discuss about this is further detail. Thank you very much and I hope to hear from you soon.

Best Regards,

Oscar Lopez
Arizona State University

mathieu... is that a picture of dubai at the top?

peace :)

The picture at the top changes with the topics. Currently it is a picture of Old Dubai used to contrast against the dense sprawl of New Dubai, relating to the topic The challenge of dense sprawl.

Mathieu, thanks for the link to A Town Square. I have added a link to Emergent Urbanism. Nice work - keep it up.

Howard Decker

I've just come back from Dubai.

'Dense' is a misnomer. In mid-2008, Dubai was a city of 1.4 million. In early 2009, it is down to fewer than 900K (best guess). Traffic is gone. Tenants are gone. Buyers are gone. Speculators are gone.

Even at 1.4M, the word 'dense' did not apply to Dubai because the Al Maktoum family intended to build a city for 10 million. 10 million probably seemed irrationally exuberant in 2008, but in 2009, it seems delusional.

In a country where it is 45 degrees for six months of the year, it is impossible to walk 100 meters from building to building. 10 million? On par with New York and Paris and the other great cities of the world?

No, Dubai was never a truly 'dense' city. It was merely a vision of rampant, rapacious, speculative modernity, a sanitized Vegas Meets Singapore.

It is a City of Ghosts at the moment.

Very interesting point of view and I totally agree. This is probably the only approach that can improve the situation on the Southern hemisphere, where 70% of the cities is unplanned, and where the explosive emergence of slums make them spin out of control.

Mathieu, have you considered binding your essays up and submitting for pamphlet architecture?

Hello Mathieu,

I am a Portuguese Landscape Architect, 25, and for the past few hours, I've been reading your texts, finding the most extraordinary associations about the subjects I work with, such as Urbanism, Landscape and Public Space.

In fact, I was very surprised when I read about your ideas on Urbanism, Emergence and Complexity. I find them really accurate, and totally up-to-date.

Last year I presented my final paper, a short essay about how life of Public Spaces evolues through time, in which I concluded that one can not predict the outcome of a city, but only try to determine the processes by which the city evolues. I was a little bit criticized by the most conservative professors, but I'm very pleased to see that there are other professionals that have similar ideas.

Do you teach in any University? I would probably consider to carry on my studies by exploring some of the ideas you present here.

I hope to keep in touch with you.


A newly revised 2009 edition book of a village that represents the wonderful qualities of emergent urbanism is available here:

Hi Mathieu,
I`ve been thinking about organic cities and their structure. I have a vague idea in my mind about a way to figure out their formulation in order to be able to predict their growth and their other behaviors.
your posts gave me a a greater perspective on the possible methods i can use. I studied Chaos theory during my bachelor studies, but i never thought non-linear sciences could be applied to urbanism in this scale.
hope you keep up with your work and maybe someday we can meet in person to discuss more.

Hi Mathieu,

Just thought you might be interested in this?



Dear Mathieu,
your effort can be perhaps admired, with the dedication and enthusiasm it involves, were it not for the endless comments you persist in writing. I am sorry, but your command of English tends to obfuscate, rather than clarify the issues. If you have had any scientific upbringing. it does not show. From sentence to paragraph, you ramble on. The terms you use are obscure, and the end result is complicating the complications of a complicated issue, by hiding behind more convoluted terms. Surely science and logic are meant to clarify, and even art can do so. Sorry.
A great pity, because of the waste it involves.

Hi there,

I'm an undergrad architecture student at the university of edinburgh. Currently i'm embarking on a paper on emergence within regulation; focusing on the variation of typology/program/building use from within defined urban regulations - taking Manhattan and the grid/zoning laws as a model.

I was wondering if there were any recommendations on articles or texts you would suggest, or if possible any insight you may have into this.

Anything would be very much appreciated, i look forward to a response.

Regards to all,


The network has been retired.

Mathieu, u can't imagine how thrilled i'm to stumble upon ur site and work in general. i'm thrilled to know about an experienced fellow researcher like u in a unique topic like emergence and urbanism...iIm currently on my masters dissertation called Resilient rules:culture and computation in the traditional built environment. It investigates the resilience of the traditional built environment by relating the socio-cultural rules to the notion of self-organization and emergence in the complexity theory. I've recently got an academic paper published under the same name.
Glad to know about ur work and hope we can establish a research contact

Resilient Rules
your feedback is most welcome

Further comment

Please send your comments by email at mthl@mthl.info, or find me on Twitter @mathieuhelie. The commenting system is closed at the moment as no measures can hold back blog spamming bots.