Emergent Urbanism

Rediscovering Urban Complexity

Beginning Emergent Urbanism

A complete tour of every idea published on Emergent Urbanism, in full hypertext experience. If you are looking for a more "academic" introduction, then my article in the International Journal of Architectural Research is still the most appropriate. For a quick introduction aimed at an advanced audience, see the Urban Complexity in the Practice of Urbanism slideshow.

On emergence - On building and architecture - On planning and governance - On sprawl - On streets - On everything else

On emergence

  1. Emergence is a morphological process that is the reverse of design, where form is determined by actions, instead of actions being chosen to realize a form. [Emerging the city]
  2. Emergence is characterized by a looping process that, applying rules in a given spatial dimension, creates a pattern in a higher-level dimension. [The Journey to Emergence]
  3. Jane Jacobs was the first urban thinker to hint at a science of emergence, but the theory did not reach maturity until the 1980's. [The Journey to Emergence]
  4. In the last decade, complexity science has reached maturity in the form of two global scientific treatises on the subject, A New Kind of Science by Stephen Wolfram and The Nature of Order by Christopher Alexander. [The Journey to Emergence]
  5. Complex systems, unlike machines, are capable of functioning at any undefined scale, and increasing their complexity the larger they get in order to deal with the additional problems of greater scale. [Scale-free urban systems]
  6. In emergent cities social and economic networks grow more complex with larger scales and greater density. [The Fundamentals of Urban Complexity]
  7. Systems of organization and hierarchy differ from intelligent systems. Organizations are means of acting at ever greater scale by propagating the commands of a single center of decision. Intelligent systems are means of achieving greater understanding than any single individual by leaving the centers of decision all over the territory, forming links between them to generate patterns at greater scale. [Organization and intelligence]
  8. Because of its complexity, a fully-realized city can only be achieved through emergence. Modern urban planning has succeeded only in eliminating complexity, and leaving an unfulfilling city for us to live with. [Emerging the city]
  9. Cities are built emergently in order to overcome the unpredictability and chaos of human society. [Why build cities anyway?]
  10. In even the most rigidly planned landscapes, chaos and randomness re-appears over time. [Chaos re-emerges]
  11. Cities appeared on the landscape without any conscious human invention, and continued to do so until well into the modern age. Building codes and subdivision regulations were progressively invented to attempt to retroactively shape urbanization. [The Journey to Emergence]
  12. In an emergent city, the social and economic relationships between places are irreducible, meaning that they cannot be grouped into separate sectors. [The mathematical definition of a city]
  13. The connectivity of a complex city is not only measured over long distances, but also in micro-distances by the average distance from doorway to doorway. A well-connected city minimizes the distance walking from one doorway to another, which shopping malls have succeeded at doing in modern sprawl. [A measure of urban connection]
  14. Space syntax research has shown that complex urbanity is characterized by an economy of movement, where the act of circulating is optimized by complex hierarchies of land uses, sometimes even using traffic as a public spectacle. [The movement economies]
  15. People move to cities in order to enjoy a greater diversity of spaces than they would enjoy if they lived autonomously, enjoying a division of labor, but also a division of culture, and so bigger cities are more valuable for their greater diversity. [Why build cities anyway?]
  16. Cities die by the disintegration of their relationship sets, and rural-urban (rurban) regions held together by automobiles are the most likely to unwind back to isolation without affordable fuel for motoring. [The collapse of rural cities]
  17. In large metropolitan areas, shopping areas can become so complex that they grow into a city of their own. Shopping areas that cannot handle economic chaos fail, while those who adapt creatively become emergent. [The Marketplace City]
  18. Urban design and urbanism are different not in shape but in dimension. While urban design requires the control of a single developer or designer to achieve its intended effect, urbanism is the connection of multiple actors into a shared marketplace. [The emergent dimension, or why New Urbanism is not urbanism]
  19. Web systems have employed the emergent dimension to invent new forms of virtual urbanism. Wikipedia, for example, has simplified the process of web design to create a network within a network, which has resulted in exponential growth in complexity. [Creating the emergent dimension, or learning from Wikipedia]

On building and architecture

  1. Stephen Wolfram, studying complexity in the emergence of cellular automata, identified four distinct classes of behavior and morphology in emergent systems, and these same classes can also be observed in urban morphology. [A demonstration of complexity in London]
  2. Randomly differentiated spaces can produce harmonious geometry by borrowing from the laws of fractal geometry, such as the Mandelbrot Set. [Complex geometry and structured chaos]
  3. Traditional buildings are fractal because their structure consists of nesting elementary geometric forms, solids and voids, that solve problems created by previous iterations in the design process. Reusing these nesting rules generates the global geometric order in a building, and can also work from one building to another. [Complex geometry and structured chaos - Part II]
  4. Fractals in nature, and in human artifacts, grow in response to self-adaptations. Objects generate extensions within their own geometry that maintains the original pattern, growing more parts and adding more refined actions, without making less complex aspects of themselves obsolete. [The genesis of complex geometry]
  5. Complex morphology can be separated into two different classes of information, configuration and design pattern. In organic cities, the same design pattern is repeated for each building with a unique configuration, providing both perfect symmetry and individual uniqueness. [Design, configuration and natural form]
  6. Modern skyscraper skylines turn beautiful at night because the planned geometry of the architects blacks out and the emergent geometry of lighting choice and furniture placement creates a chaotic visual texture. [Cinderella architecture]
  7. Times Square creates organic complexity through adaptive configurations of a single, shared, very modern design solution: billboard advertisements. [A demonstration of complexity in New York City]
  8. Mediterranean towns have similar morphology because they all share a building process that spread as a legal code in the early Byzantine Empire. This process was adapted to local cultures and climate with higher level rules that create unique patterns at a nested scale. [Decoding paradise - the emergent form of Mediterranean towns]
  9. Developers in Palestine have abandoned the traditional building codes and are building colonies using the modern process that crudely imitates the morphology of traditional towns, towards no practical purpose. [How they build today in Palestine]
  10. By simply salvaging whatever materials are available to them on the spot, people are capable of naturally and spontaneously inventing architecture. [Architecture without design]
  11. Freedom to configure and adapt buildings in time and place is what gives cities their organic aspect, while the re-utilization of hierarchically-defined building processes turns the entire city into one fractal object. [The Fundamentals of Urban Complexity]
  12. Modern architects have lost the ability to form a larger fabric out of their individual works. [They can't work as a team]
  13. Modern buildings can fit into the fabric of historic neighborhoods if they share at least some of the scales of geometric patterns of their neighbors. [Fitness is about symmetry]
  14. Modern architects have used architecture as a form of artistic expression divorced from any material reality, made possible by the advances of building science, while the ordinary things no longer have any relationship to architects. [Architecture should be abolished]
  15. Complexity cannot be faked by making the shell of a building more complicated to build, particularly if this causes the failure of the system, such as leaking, and the subcomponents used are bare and elementary. [Fake Complexity- Frank Gehry]
  16. Complexity cannot be faked by generating a complex structure at one scale in order to prop up corrupt design at another scale. [Fake Complexity - CCTV Headquarters]
  17. Corrupt geometry at any scale causes systemic failure. [When fake complexity goes wrong]

On planning and governance

  1. Cities are not a form of government, but a real estate corporation that creates a marketplace for other participants, much like stock markets or websites operate. [Producing land with nested markets]
  2. Confusing cities with political systems has undermined the "great" American cities since the beginning, in the case of Detroit leading to its ruin, while the best realized city of the industrial age, Berlin, was understood as a public utility, and has thus survived unbelievable calamities. [Dying in dignity - Berlin and the American city]
  3. The production of a network infrastructure is the basis of any form of emergent urbanization. In spontaneous cities open land serves this purpose, and provides enormous open space from which buildings are subtracted, leaving an optimized fractal pattern of streets. In modern planning, the network structure is built using engineering methods due to the capital investment required. [The Cultivation of a Spontaneous City]
  4. Building cities is not a simple matter of regulation of the market, but of the deliberate production of a marketplace with the right capital investments at the right scale to support this marketplace. Regulations at the wrong scales can destroy the landscape. [Lake country]
  5. Each marketplace, based on the planning regulations in force and the capital investments in infrastructure made, ends up producing its own specific morphology. [Producing land with nested markets]
  6. Market participants empowered by a network structure generate and produce the actual nodes, buildings and spaces, that forms the city, based on their own appreciation of their personal context in the network. [The Cultivation of a Spontaneous City]
  7. The morphology of a marketplace can be made harmonious and fractal if all participants employ the same transformation rules, sometimes called a shape grammar, to generate their nodes. (This is true as much on websites as in traditional Mediterranean cities.) [The Cultivation of a Spontaneous City]
  8. The legal code of Mediterranean towns tells us that complex form depends on an information system that modern planning has been oblivious to, and thus unable to properly reproduce its complex morphology. [Decoding paradise - the emergent form of Mediterranean towns]
  9. Fractals are made by processes that feed back on themselves, but these processes can be combined and joined together. Emergent urbanization consists of multiple processes; a place process where people simply settle open space, an enclosure process where property boundaries are defined, a subdivision process where properties are split, a grid process where places are connected to each other, and a metropolitan process where mass transportation makes vertical building possible. [Modeling the processes of urban emergence]
  10. Traditional urbanization does not proceed linearly, but by randomly occupying patches of open space in a nested pattern, filling them in to tighten and interlace economic networks internal to the neighborhood. [Defining a new traditional urbanism]
  11. The scale of the marketplace affects how governance relates to its participants. In large metropolitan areas, large corporations are formed out of the mergers of many cities. This results in a loss of local identity. The adverse of megaregions is a failure to deal with scale issues by producing infrastructure at the regional scale, due to communities being too small. Large metropolitan areas have suffered this problem since their advent in the 19th century. [Regional complexity and local community]
  12. Resolving the multiple scale problems of circulation and development requires adopting a complex grid planning system, where growth and infrastructure emerges into a fractal network of streets. [The complex grid]
  13. Because of the fractal impact of infrastructure, it makes sense to take a fractal view of regional governance, and to split up a metropolis into one large city with many autonomous cities within it, in the pattern of a Sierpinski carpet fractal, thus balancing out both regionalism and localism. [Regional complexity and local community]
  14. Governments which are supposed to determine the boundaries of cities can handle only so many communities before the task becomes too complex. Decentralization of community mergers and divisions will therefore create a market of cities (a market of marketplaces), and the fractal shape of the region should emerge naturally from this market. [Regional complexity and local community]
  15. A system of growth and decay is necessary to renew the life of incorporated cities, and so the application of emergent planning systems requires creating new cities, perhaps within the boundaries of old ones, instead of reforming the existing system. [The rules for changing rules]
  16. The American urban planning mantra, "make no little plans", by famous architect Daniel Burnham, has been an abject failure. No grand plan has ever been successfully realized, and worse, the planning system invented to realize them has destroyed the little plans. A planning system tailored to making little plans will be much more effective. [Make little plans]

On sprawl

  1. The failure of traditional urbanism to handle the scale of the modern city justified modern urban planning using standard engineering techniques to plan and design cities. [The Journey to Emergence]
  2. In order to make large-scale planning feasible, the city's complexity is reduced to elements that are simple to segregate and organize, eliminating potential economic and social networks. [The Fundamentals of Urban Complexity]
  3. Sprawl is defined not as a low-density, auto-dependent landscape, but as any landscape that is planned and built at the large scale, thus making auto-dependence the consequence of its integration in the larger urban system. [The challenge of dense sprawl]
  4. Sprawl all over the world shares one design pattern, the arterial supergrid of highways creating a marketplace of superblocks in which only large developers can participate. [Producing land with nested markets]
  5. The urban grid has been the primary tool of urban planning for centuries, first being applied as a constraint on development, then as direct engineering project. The grid has only succeeded at resolving the scale problems of organic cities up to its own scale limit, requiring the use of ever bigger blocks, ultimately producing sprawl. [The complex grid]
  6. Rigid grids are not necessarily adapted to the natural paths of movement in the landscape. [Squaring the circle]
  7. Sprawl tends to have, despite the myth, less open space than older cities, as after all the space has been allocated to roads, parking and ornamental landscaping, there remains nowhere for people to simply stand and walk around. [The geometry of nowhere]
  8. High-density sprawl can therefore be even more hostile than low-density sprawl, and increasing the density of sprawl without increasing economic complexity will make the situation worse. [The challenge of dense sprawl]
  9. New Urbanist developments, for this reason, have had the tendency to be even more car dependent than low-density areas, despite being built to encourage walking. [More evidence that New Urbanism is really dense sprawl]
  10. The modern housing subdivision is the replacement for Le Corbusier's tower block in his radiant city system, and similarly functions as a single unemergent block, incapable of generating any of its own complexity. [How is a subdivision possible?]
  11. Due to its large size, to make a housing subdivision economically viable an enormously oppressive planning system must ensure that any smaller project is impossible. [How is a subdivision possible?]
  12. Because they are large monolithic objects, housing subdivisions expose their inhabitants to the economic risk that inhabitants of tower blocks are exposed to, and the failure of a subdivision can be just as devastating as a tower collapsing. [Victims of the subdivision]
  13. Mixed used development is only the imitation of a real marketplace, as a marketplace produces mixed uses from the specialization of its different members and their adaptation to each others' presence. Mixed used development requires the same investment risk as any form of sprawl. [Fake Complexity - Mixed Used Development]
  14. New Urbanist developments have been around long enough that their failures have become evident, and developers have given up on the complexities of the plan, demonstrating that complexity is the product of many market participants and can't be forced on a single one. [A cuter form of sprawl]
  15. Attempts at traditional and neo-traditional urbanism in the last decade have focused on replacing the modern buildings with classical architecture, without re-evaluating the planning system. This has meant that none of the neotraditional projects have been truly traditional, and that extraordinary effort needs to be made to preserve traditional construction when a traditional marketplace would naturally employ it. [Defining a new traditional urbanism]
  16. Without massive subsidies from an expanding credit system, sprawl development is too costly to be sustainable. This has resulted in a sudden decline of the sprawl industry to lows not seen since it began in the post-war era. [The development model is finished]
  17. Chinese sprawl is today the largest, allowing the speculative production of imitation English villages [Poundbury in China], and, Le Corbusier's dream, a city for one million inhabitants [An empty city for sale], with no internal marketplace process.
  18. The historicity of a place is achieved not by architectural design, but by the fossilization of the lives of the people and societies that inhabited it and their customization of the built forms. [The emergence of a sense of place]
  19. The sprawl system, once concerns such as social exclusion and architectural quality have been corrected, remains alienating for one fundamental reason: it excludes citizens from the marketplace, leaving them as nothing more empowered than consumers of community. [Review of Radiant City]
  20. Slums build more attachment to place than modern developments with amenities because their building process has grown greater social and economic complexity. [Slumdog Urbanist]
  21. The repressive nature of the sprawl planning system forces many people into poverty, and the gaps in a frail system eventually allow these people to spontaneously urbanize areas as shantytowns. The economic crisis is creating these in America. [Squatter urbanism comes to America]
  22. Modern planned cities may not grow emergently, but they die emergently, producing landscapes such as the fractal urban prairie of ruined Detroit. Restoring life to Detroit may mean leaving holes in the planning system to allow slums to grow. [Don't demolish Detroit]
  23. Participation in the planning process is no substitute for direct participation in the marketplace, and has created a landscape of nomads who have to move around constantly to find a place adapted to their changing lifestyle. [Planning for nomads]

On streets

  1. Without assuming direct exclusion, modern vehicles gradually crowded out pedestrians off the street and onto marginal spaces not intended for circulation, curbs and sidewalks. [The geometry of nowhere]
  2. The creation of a local economy requires a network of space that functions at the local space, pedestrian space, and can interface with higher capacity networks to generate a metropolitan economy. [The movement economies]
  3. The Axe Historique in Paris demonstrates this perfectly, as there is, for the same high-capacity highway that begins at the Champs-Élysées, a narrowing of the adjacent open space that becomes less alive the further out of the city we go, until we reach the full open space of La Défense and its very rich local economy. [A conversation about the geometry of nowhere]
  4. After decades of auto-centric public works planning, the New York City Department of Transportation is adopting a pattern book based on open space for people, hence making its name inaccurate. [A pattern language for New York streets]
  5. A program of sprawl repair could recreate a geometry of place in sprawl cities by ripping up the redundant infrastructure around buildings and creating connected open space. [The geometry of nowhere]
  6. Traffic patterns have been centrally planned in the 20th century, resulting in an explosion of traffic control systems and ever worsening traffic. An emergent traffic pattern eliminates these controls and empowers vehicles to make decisions based on their local context, optimizing the global traffic pattern emergently. [Fake complexity: traffic control]

On everything else

  1. Even modern, gargantuan engineering projects tend to be emergent, such as in the enormous and organic construction site for the Burj Dubai tower. [A demonstration of complexity in Dubai]
  2. A city's urban tissue will change rapidly or slowly based on the building stock's balance with the socioeconomic environment, and a city will show its maturity and adaptation by a stable urban tissue. [The Fundamentals of Urban Complexity]
  3. Nature is nothing more than using emergent processes at the mineral, biological, and also social level. Forbidding some human artifacts, farms, from being turned into other human artifacts, cities, is not natural, as takes place in the center of Holland. Instead we must ensure to be natural in our urbanization of the environment by employing emergent processes. [The Urban Country: Holland]
  4. The desire to control life drives the fear of the environmentalists, who do not recognize life as being a force capable of explosive adaptation and growth up to an equilibrium. Adopting supposedly sustainable technologies without adopting the processes of life will only invent new ways of destroying the environment. [Review of Home by Yann Arthus-Bertrand]

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.