Emergent Urbanism

Rediscovering Urban Complexity


Interesting observations, and in general I agree. However, I would add that another powerful part of this film is the dystopian idea that in a "dis-aggregated" world of suburban limbo, violent death is inevitable, and often emerges out of sheer boredom. One woman claims she fled the city to escape violence, but we are shown clearly how the only way for the young boy and his comrades to feel something in the anesthetized landscape of suburban sprawl is to commit increasingly dangerous, violent acts. Climbing a cell phone tower to spy on neighbors, war games, execution as a form of entertainment, and finally the killing the young boy's sister with "dad's gun". This is the same thesis running underneath Richard Linklater's film "Slacker". The pervasive fear of violent death that emerges from false community. I love this movie. It's a mockumentary version of the fictional TV show "Durham County". A clever work of speculative fiction that is undeniably true enough to stimulate real shivers.

Thank you Mathieu.. I find myself lucky to come across your articles recently when i really needed knowledge about theory of emerging cities..
Its my master's project and I was going through few references when I came across this particularly..
My topic is "Application of genetic algorithm in emergence of cities"
In above article, you have mentioned about cellular automata.. Can you elaborate it a little??
I would also like to know more about emergence of cities and how one can exactly apply GA to that..
I would also like to ask you few queries regarding my project.
Can I contact you on your Email Id.. Please share it if possible..
I will be grateful to receive your reply..
Thank you..

Haven't read it, but it's going on my list.

I've been keeping your blog as a personal reference in the last two years and I'd like to congratulate and to thank you. It seems we have close interests... I was wondering if you know "The Self-Organizing Universe" by Eric Jantsch. I was able to find just a pdf version of it 'cause it is a really expensive book. Thanks again, I will go through your posts again.

I don't see such a need. We need only observe ourselves to arrive at this conclusion. We are not studying animals, but our experience of space.

Citations are not necessary, if in fact we can construct a model that is emergent and reproduces the behavior we observe in history, then it becomes almost inevitable that this will happen somewhere.

Of course, in the complexity of the world, we can never know with certainty the cause of any particular phenomenon. An emergent model does not provide certainty, but it provides an explanation. What to do with this explanation is another matter entirely.

Vivid and well written text, Mathieu. I am writing from a city which should be appointed as a "huge non-place treasure", Brasília. But it is not so easy: the city works, in a way. Your approach to urban design (as a "carver" ou a "reformer") must be based in (very) clear and strong assumptions about social behavior. You not assert those foundations and it would clarify those big problems with the "non-place" concept - as a starting poit to any sound design. Non-place emerges as an undeniable construct since Marc Augé coined it. There is something authoritarian in the way that theoretical construct denounces authority and its maladies. Environment-behavior studies should be called to make non-place discussions more substantive and refutable. Do you agree?

I appreciate the content on complexity, but I think many of the initial presumptions are unfounded, assumed, or contended. For example, when shall we assume that cities became "a normal, ordinary aspect of civilized living"? If it was say, after the Roman Empire, we can point to Roman forts as the core grid upon which many cities sprang. If we say before the Roman Empire, we would need some substantial evidence that suggests early monarchs did not employ the equivalent of architects or urban planners, in some respects. However, the example provided by many large scale ruins provides evidence to the contrary.

Also, to say that cities emerge "spontaneously and without conscious effort" ignores the plain fact that many cities emerge at the crossroads of trade, or for defensive purposes, or both. Geography plays a large role in that, and someone decides that the geography is suitable for some purpose. However, even if there was no role for agency in the placement of cities, to go from that to "the efficacy of urban design in doubt" contains a serious is/ought problem. If this is true, you have not made a convincing argument to that effect.

Hayek's claim that "spontaneous order arises when multiple actors spontaneously adopt a set of actions that provides them with a competitive advantage" is dubious. Is 'competitive advantage' a necessary condition? Do not some endeavors fail despite competitive advantage, and vice-versa? Do we not do things expediently for immediate concerns, only to find a resilient structure emerged? Do the actions have to be coordinated, or can they merely be complimentary?

Finally, the notion that the "scientific suggestions of Jacobs have been ignored" itself seems to ignore the universe in which urban planning takes place, rife with competing interests, values, powers, and resources. Is it possible that planners have tried to take Jacobs' advice, only to be thwarted by powerful and monied interests?

In short, I am not convinced urban development was necessarily spontaneous before modernism, nor do I think urban panning has had a threshold effect on the development of modern cities, for better or for worse.

I am open to all of these assertions, I just think some cited evidence is in order.

we might say that a sense of place comes from connection, finding something to identify in.
Traces of life and dynamic use are the most obvious results of the time equation - wear patterns, repairs, repainting.
The idea of a sense of place relies heavily on the subjective experience of each participant in a space.

I find the article very inspiring. I specially become fond of this part "The city cannot have a designer. It cannot be built according to a description fine-tuned to perfection. This has become obvious to practically everyone, although urbanism in the english-speaking world is still tied down by the title "urban planner" in the face of all the evidence that planning makes no difference whatsoever. Still the practice of large scale zoning and site planning continues"...sounds very intriguing to me. More power to you

There are two reasons I have faith in humanity and our country. #1 Mothers It is a constant that through the ages has saved most of us from catching pneumonia and breaking our necks. #2. People like you. Instead of bashing the same 5 ideas together over and over you take a couple of steps back and look toward the resources all around.
Pioneers each and every one. What beautiful minds.

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.

Do you have an RSS feed for this website? If so, I'd follow it. Great site.

Yeah, agreed although I'm not so sure that you cast aside all of the interesting complexity.
And yes, definitely a lot of it isn't useful in design and planning. A lot is simply interesting for it's own sake.

However, some is useful. For example, as density increases, so does the productivity. This would lend itself to planning in thinking about creating places that promote interaction, rather than separating things out (single home dwellings etc of urban sprawl). Also while these types of analytical equations can't explain why certain cities are different, it can identify which ones persistently perform better or worse than others, which can lead to insights into their differences on a planning level.

I personally just see it as interesting, and it certainly can't hurt in viewing things from many different perspectives (even if it isn't used directly in any way.)


i couldn't agree more with your thoughts on both west and batty. it is fine and neat that you can predict crime rates and walking speed from population. similarly if you know the structure of hydrogen and oxygen you can predict H20, but you will know nothing about the water. population will not tell you anything about how satisfying it is to be in a place, but knowing block size and shape might; knowing how a park is bounded and knitted to it's surrounding structures might; knowing the distribution of distances to a bar might.

batty suffers from almost an opposite problem. he's abstracted away everything that distinguishes a city system. yes, diffusion aggregated growth of crystals creates a structure reminiscent of a city. but this tells us desperately little about the internal behavior or external relation of an urban system.

i love this site and look forward to its continued development.

On stage at TEDGlobal 2011, Geoffrey West talked about the universal mathematics that govern cities and corporations. Knowing only the population of a city, he can predict the number of patents, the crime rate, the average walking speed and many other features of a city.

This is from the TED interview, and I want to emphasize what kind of predictions he is trying to make. Traditional physics and science in general is analytical, it can take a large body of facts and reduce some essence or average from it, for example by taking all the mass of a planet moving in space and producing an orbital path for all of it. Then, using this essence, it can analyze the path to make a prediction of where the average will be later in time (computing the orbit of the planet). However, it can know nothing about any of the specific mass, only the average mass.

This may be interesting to a physicist, but it is not very useful complexity science. Wolfram points this out in his theory of complexity. If you start out with analytic tools (such as mathematical regressions and equations), you can only go looking for facts that are subject to analysis. By doing that, you have cast aside all of the interesting complexity of nature.

All of the results of analysis, however, cannot tell us what to do or how to build cities. To arrive at these facts, we need to do science the other way around, by doing synthesis and computation. This is what Jane Jacobs, Christopher Alexander and Stephen Wolfram do, and what some past economists such as Hayek did. It produces knowledge that looks weird and unscientific to traditional scientists, but it gives us much more clarity as to how things work and how we go about solving our present problems.

Now I have no problem with a complexity scientist predicting the average walking speed of a city, but my question for you is what am I supposed to do with this information? If I know that on average people will walk one block a minute, should I make blocks a bigger or smaller size? What about people who walk much slower, such as children and the elderly?

Enormous mistakes were made in 20th century urban planning by relying on average this or that to set baselines. Jane Jacobs warned us all about it.

First of all, I really like the site! Good stuff all round.

On the topic of Jane Jacobs, you should look into the work of Geoffrey West (et al.) in understanding complexity in cities if you haven't already (eg/ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DFFVSvAr7Wc and http://blog.ted.com/2011/07/26/qa-with-geoffrey-west/). The presence of underlying laws that emerge as a result of the interactions occurring within a city is incredibly interesting.

I will, but not very often. After something grows big, there comes to be a point where you contribute more by removing things than by adding more.

I just love the content you have and hope you will continue to add. I found your blog after getting sad about not being able to afford many of the books on urbanism I would like. (Recent graduate). But after looking I found this blog and it has fed my need for critical thinking about urbanism. Thank you.

you went to Paris and you used the word "hate"? A person born in Montreal, and still living there? How dare you??!!!! you are the saddest person I ever encounter on the internet.
How dare you compare Montreal to Paris? what the hell happened to you?you probably broke up with your girlfriend then went to Paris for some sort of comforting? ... Don't you think that "shock" and "hate" are a bit strong for your limited vocabulary? .... just because you are an unlucky person, it does not give you the right to talk about architecture and "big" street, perhaps you are too small for normal streets that you consider BIG.

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

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