Emergent Urbanism

Rediscovering Urban Complexity


just watched it ...
it was awesome ...
even blogged about it ...
very good indeed ...
my take is here ... http://is.gd/1W7XT ...

Inelegant, suboptimal, but it's still emergence. It's on a different scale, the result of lots of individual decisions based on simple rules. Canals require central planning. Bangkok's canals, under central control, got filled in and converted to roads.

A positive density gradient? Lots of cities with new urban boundaries and intensification policies are working toward that. It seems like a good thing; it reduces the growth of infrastructure cost and preserves the older central part of cities as well as rural areas around. Growth at transit-supporting densities - I like the idea.

You can hardly even call them lakes at all. Lakes are connected by rivers into a larger ecosystem. These are really just pools.

The bugs (mosquitos, flies, whatever else is particular to south Florida) must be atrocious...

It is a pity that none of those water features are really on a big enough scale to be of real (natural, recreational) interest to anyone.

In suburban Calgary (where water isn't nearly as plentiful) there are plenty of artificial lakes as well, but because of the ranching background the land was sold off in sufficiently large chunks that coherent projects with fairly big lakes and attached neighbourhoods could be built. Definitely still sprawling, but somewhat better (I suppose) than the outskirts of Miami.

Regarding the increasing density on the periphery trend, I think that a cursory Google Earth examination of most North American cities would reveal that this is true, as developers have been trying to recoup rising costs by selling an ever-increasing number of units and planners have been pushing for more sustainable/efficient densities. Without thought towards design or 'integrators' (other than arterial roads), it doesn't seem to add up to much though, does it...

I gave a shot implementing this thing in Java. Think it has potential. grab the code from here and let me know what you think.

It is always easy to say than get it done. The world is built on series of hierarchies. Until the hierarchies are diminished that people can have the power shaping their living environment, otherwise, it is still pretty much in authority’s hands. Our modern society relies so much on the so-called ‘specialist’. Most people have lost the ability in building the environment with their bare hands. The education system also encourages people to become ‘professionals’, who are part of the hierarchy of the society. There are voices trying to evoke us, but overall, it is weak.

It's instructive to compare the central-control philosophy of traffic planning with the decentralized-control philosophy of modern capitalist economics. In modern economics, policymakers have embraced the idea that the economy consists of millions of independent actors. Policy, then, is conceived of us subtle nudges and rules-of-the-game that shape, encourage, and contextualize those independent actions.

Traffic planners, however, aren't entirely on board with that philosophy. At least, with respect to intersection planning. Maybe they should all go get econ degrees in addition to help spread those ideas...

Hans is my hero!

With Monderman though, the goal was not just more intelligent traffic control, but, ultimately, more intelligent drivers. Their intelligence, awereness and reason, not convenience, he appealed to. Monderman's roundabouts, "squareabouts" as he preferred to dub them, dropped all the monumental striping and curb treatments that North American traffic engineers somehow think they need. Instead, Monderman created situations where the pedestrian and traffic space melded...necessarily requiring drivers to be more alert and behave like people, not insulated automatons. Counter-intuitive as it may be, Monderman's great insight was that the driver's discomfort and sense of danger needs to be augmented, rather than lessened, to create inherently safer streets.

Thanks for covering Monderman.

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.


As far as I can tell, morphing is just another fashion of post-post-modernistic architecture. I'm not quite clear on what it means either.

I have to point out, however, that the relation between the landscape and the fort was critical to the fort's effectiveness. It was the furthest thing from abstraction. That is why it appears so natural.


I found your text about the depth and the scales of geometry really good. And I'm forced to agree with most of the things I read.

But there's something I think I didn't fully understand. What is the real concept of the word morphing? Is the creation of a relation between the architecture and the the landscape that surrounds it, that is, the genius locci?

If that is the real meaning, Vauban wasn't really an example of morphing, as he created a pure, geometrical, almost abstract object, and placed it randomly in the landscape. There was no effort with the relation between place and architecture.

C, and Matheiu, I'd probably include C's rule #1, but maybe limit the neighbor's ability to block neighboring development. Some uses really should be kept away from large numbers of people, and the neighbors aren't always good judges of that. On the other hand, if someone does want to build something hazardous, and has acquired a large parcel of land as a buffer zone, do *all* of his neighbors get veto power on that use? Does the hazardous user later get a veto on his neighbors increasing density on their properties?

Jon Koller - your scenario doesn't actually happen much in real life, except where the planning process has become too congested. A venture capitalist won't put up a 45-story condo tower unless they think they can make a profit doing so. They're only going to make a profit doing so if there are lots of high-paying jobs nearby, or development has become so restricted in the vicinity that people are desperate for any new housing. If there are already lots of high-paying jobs nearby, the neighbors are probably not single-family houses, or even 3-story walk-up apartments.

Even if the financier of such a building is a really wealthy individual building an ego-monument, the sorts of people who get rich enough to build ego-monuments like that aren't going to be completely financially irrational - even if they are going to take a loss to perhaps have the tallest building in town, they're not going to deliberately take a bath. So even if the 45-story tower is more than the surroundings can support financially, a 30-story tower probably would turn a profit. Otherwise, the wealthy individual would try something else for his ego-monument.

Very cool, thanks Lori.

I would love to see studies on the impact of direct democracy in approving building projects or spot rezoning. Several jurisdictions, including Quebec, and small US towns have it, and even New York City rediscovered a 19th-century direct-democracy rule for individual zoning changes. Do these rules improve the urban fabric or just stifle change? Interesting topic for a study.

Besides approval of neighbours, one other rule may be important - limiting the size of contiguous land ownership. Anecdotally most bad examples are instances where someone developed a large lot that should have been subdivided and developed by individual owners.

While we may object to the concentration of financial power in the hands of organizations close to the central banking cartel, it does not mean that it is advisable to try to stamp out the effects of this power by adding constraints. If instead of building a residential tower in the middle of town designed as a vessel to store excess liquidity, the fund builds a new subdivision on the outside of town designed as a vessel to store excess liquidity, the community is affected as much or worse. This liquidity will find a loophole somewhere. The race of constraints can rapidly devolve into an exercise in whack-a-mole until the building code is a long list of constraints that no one remembers the intent of, while the problem with financial concentration continues to exist.

It may be better to accept its corrupting impact instead of creating more corruption. And despite being bribed to accept the liquidity vessel, the neighbors will nevertheless insist on some minimally harmonious construction. Whatever consequences it will have, the neighbors will be the ones to experience them most severely.

I don't think that having some amount of complexity (more than one rule) to the building code is problem, in fact, I think it is entirely necessary considering the outrageous inequalities in capital distribution.

Imagine this situation, I want to build a structure filling in an empty lot (imagine that its' been vacant for many many years) and abutting the two neighboring buildings. This would result in a loss of daylight and a plugging up of their windows. In order to get their consent, it seems reasonable that I would pay them some money equal to the burden imposed upon them. They agree, everything works out.

What if, instead of building a modest building designed to meet my immediate needs, I am in fact an agent of a venture capital firm with millions of dollars at my disposal. I want to build a 45 story residential building on the same lot. Clearly, this would affect members of the community beyond the immediate neighbors, who could be easily bought off, allowing a project that harms the community fabric to proceed.

While the wisdom of immediate neighbors seems like a valuable asset, some controls must be put in place to avoid abuses of the system. I also think the workability of such a system declines with increased car use as it always has an impact on virtually every member of a community.

This is the first time I've ever seen anyone else acknowledge the existence of Cities and the Wealth of Nations. Whenever I've brought it or its contents up to people who claim knowledge of economics, they dismiss it out of hand -- yet will never discuss WHY they dismiss it. I've never seen a book so determinedly ignored.

In the ideal world, maybe you'd just need the permission of your immediate neighbors. The guy at the other end of an emerging lane would still want the fire trucks to get through though, or wouldn't want the only access path blocked completely. What about space for utility lines?

Is a single rule -- "neighbors must consent" really sufficient?

You are still taking a designer's centralized approach. Perhaps the only rule that is needed is that new construction require the approval of its direct neighbors (in cellular automata fashion) without ever visiting a municipal permitting office.

All the features of good cities may emerge from that. You can't truly know this until you've tried it out, either for real or through a simulation. Would "development", as you consider it, even exist then?

The same question seems to come up again and again -- without any answers from Mathieu. So let me propose that to maximize small-scale projects and encourage random creative development, we need to have as few "zoning" and "planning" rules as possible. How few can we get away with? Five? What generic planning rules are necessary to guide and encourage individuals in creatively developing property such that high-density urban communities emerge over time?
1. Any use that is potentially life-threatening to its neighbors (such as nuclear power plants, chemical plants, refineries) must be sufficiently spaced from its neighbors as to provide a reasonable amount of protection in ordinary operation and in the event of an accident. [Perhaps nuclear plants can only be centered on 100 acre plots]
2. Streets and crossings must be designed first for the safety of children and the elderly, then other pedestrians, then emergency vehicles, delivery vehicles, mass transit, and personal motor vehicles only in the final analysis. [Surely someone can come up with something better than this.]
4. Buildings should respect neighbors' rights to light and air. [an old concept revived -- does it belong here? Is it still appropriate?]
5. Every development must consider provisions for public space.

Agreed and Agreed. Koller makes the key point here that design and development processes are so expensive that it never pays to plan small. At the same time neighborhoods see these guidlines and processes as a benefit to them because they believe it prevents bad and ugly buildings. On the contrary of course it encourages monotony, mundaneness, and largeness.

So the real question is, how do you comfort communities about development in their neighborhoods, while relaxing development rules to encourage various types of small scale projects.


What is the framework for people to realize these little plans though? Opening a business is fairly straightfoward but the development process is so arduous and complicated that little plans are never cost effective.

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