Emergent Urbanism

Rediscovering Urban Complexity


What are the rules you speak of and are there examples - how would such rules accommodate necessary (?) ideas like water sustainability and protection of natural resources?

The idea of saving cities like Detroit is a mistake. It has old infrastructure which will also need replacement. It was built on a business model that is obsolete, in a location that is obsolete, in a brutally cold region with high energy costs. The old people who remember its heyday will be dead very soon. Let it die too, plow it under and be done with it.

I came across your site while searching for pictures of Le Corbusier's hand floating over Plan Voisin. I'm a graduate student of architecture from Miami, FL and I'm in the process of writing an essay on understanding the city from a new discursive perspective as an "emergent entity." Lately I've felt like I'm way out on a limb with the concept. I'm thrilled to find others with similar ideas about urbanism!

The work I'm doing now attempts to deconstruct the discourse surrounding urbanism so that the city can be theorized and discussed as emerging from a process that unfolds in space over certain amount of time. I'm applying media theory to urbanism in an effort to strip away the layers of aesthetic clutter that contemporary urban theorists use to describe the city. I'm arguing that the tendency to describe the city in terms of discrete historical and stylistic periods (in the same way we describe individual works of art and architecture) inhibits a total understanding of its history as an emergent entity.

Your site fills in all of the gaps that I've been trying fill. This is great!

Hello Matheiu,

I agree with you that this is not emergent urbanism, but in reality there was no attempt here to copy the complex form of a traditional hill town. The form is a result of applying the various regulations of planning and building, tranportation and parking on an extremely difficult topography. It would probably not have been constructed at all, and certainly not at such high density, if not for strategic - tactical reasons of establishing Jewish presence on the land.

I am saying this from first hand knowledge, as I worked for the Minsitry of Housing and supervised some of the planning of this area.


Hi Mathieu,
as someone doing the AAS course at the Bartlett - a program which, effectively, is about unpacking Bill Hillier's theories - I must say that following your blog (something I have only just started doing very recently) is such a pleasure: well done! A question: Are you aware of any studies done on processes of emergence and randomness restriction for informal settlements/shantytowns?
All the best,

hi... before to check the new net...

I found this morning this .pdf about "emergent urbanism", coming from Spain and focus in the influence of technologic in urbanism


hope that link works...

The network has been retired.

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,


Rules are of course at the core of any system, but they come in different classes. We know that the organic morphology of Arabic cities, for example, comes from certain rules. What we must find out is why this set of rule turns out organic, and why another set just produces deadness.

What form-based codes do is put descriptive limits on the final state of a building process. They have nothing to say about the process itself. What Wolfram shows is that simple rules acting on the context within a process create complexity in certain cases. He does not try to create rules describing final, complex patterns, in fact he shows that this is impossible for complex systems.

The rules we adopt must be procedural and contextual for them to be complex, as only this way can the individual have the creative freedom to make adaptive changes to the environment. Descriptive rules, such as form-based codes, have already determined what is going to be built before anyone could know what is needed and in what shape this comes.

I'll write more on this subject in an upcoming post.

Thanks for delineating between form based code and emergence. I had understood form-based codes to be a step in the right direction in that they could at least promote integrative neighborhood aesthetics however I see how they may instead be constricting and prevent imaginative expression. What advice would you have for a planning commission wishing to promote emergent urbanism in their community? Even Wolfram starts with rules.

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 Mathieu,

Just thought you might be interested in this?



Wow. Looking at the satellite view of Phoenix, that just looks unnaturally orderly...

Why do you assume that technology and algorithm's can create a better city? What is your framework for analysis?

I get what you're saying, but I disagree that Reed is responsible for the revival of classicism. It's not enough to have been the first to denounce modernism, because everybody was doing that. It comes back to a "medium is the message" argument. Reed was a writer publishing articles. That was the medium of the 19th century. That is why no one talks about him anymore. Le Corbusier became an icon because he embraced the new media of propaganda.

In that sense, because Krier adopted the same new media in his counter-modernism, he is the one who deserves the credit for "modernizing" classical architecture. He is the one who brought it to the modern audience.

Pinning the revival of classicism on Krier is not entirely accurate. Henry Hope Reed was fighting against modernism back when Leon was just making the pilgrimage to Unité d'Habitation he credits with his personal development. Reed was just as charismatic in the 50s, and his well-written and cutting op-eds in Perspecta and elsewhere pushed people like Venturi and Rudolph to take a look at the past. Krier did lay the groundwork for the future of tradition, in that he was not bound by the misconceptions of 18th C. Modern philosophy the way that many of the old-style “Classicists” are. His emphasis on communities, messy harmony, and simple buildings seems to rub some neoclassical architects the wrong way. But his stuff is closer to what architecture probably should be, unlike the dreadful order of the City Beautiful.

And, I'm fond of the term "transmodern."

I've read this book some years ago, and one of its most incredible parts was the final chapter, in which Krier describes all the rules that should be applied in order to create a perfect neighborhood: pages and pages of rules, just trying to recreate something that was born with no rule at all!

McKenzie Towne is the example that everyone uses who is trying to debunk new urbanism when it is not new urbanism at all and the photo you link to is proof. New urbanism is about the pedestrian and living and working in the same environment. The image you have shown is an outdoor mall whose access requires a car. Call it a "town center" or whatever you want its not new urbanism.

As Matthew points out critique a true new urbanist development like www.serenbecommunity.com then your analysis might have some merit.

This is why making decisions based purely on calculations of economic value is frightening nonsense.

Thanks epar, but economists have always been interested in self-organizing systems. The best they could come up with to explain the phenomena was a crude metaphor, "the invisible hand". Then in the 20th century, some economists decided that self-organization was no science at all and invented macro-economics in order to produce equation models of government finance, with disastrous consequences.

The fact that macro-economists are embracing emergence simply means that they are giving up on macro-economics.

Mathieu - thought you'd be interested in this article:

It looks like macro-economists are starting to explore the parallels between economies and self-organizing systems.

Mattheiu, I think you’ve summed up one of the levels of tradition that’s overlooked, but is the most important kind of tradition in urban design. In the best cities, the town itself is the tradition – all the styles and building techniques are traditions as well (of course. It works on two levels: not only employing working paradigms and introduction and adaptation of new ones, but also literally revising, adapting, and growing the physical structure of the city. There are countless examples of thing – I’m sure you’ve said as much in different words. But I think that manifest tradition is a succinct term to describe the result.

Astonishing story. You couldn't make it up. I vote the town is renamed Cynicism.

I've heard about Ordos when they organized Ordos100, a competition about 100 single-family houses, each one covering 1000 m2. (http://www.archdaily.com/tag/ordos-100/)

I was wondering who could organize today a competition about a brand new suburb, but now that I've seen the reportage you posted I start to understand why!

Further comment

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