Emergent Urbanism

Rediscovering Urban Complexity



If I understand your points correctly, I agree with you.

But if I am a developer or a city planner with a parcel of property ripe for development, what conditions or restrictions should be made so that a desirable dense urban development can emerge over time? That is a question that interests me.

I wonder whether you have discovered some basic rules that would not unduly burden today's developer, but would provide conditions that would allow for future fractal-generating development that eventually (100 years, 200 years?) would yield the high-density development that is so appealing. Developers in the U.S. often already work within numerous restrictions on lot size, frontage, etc. which as you noted do not create the necessary conditions. Even when the development is characterized as "smart growth."

Rather than force developers to build high-density mixed-use developments, ask them to build the low-density developments that they seem to want to build, but with conditions that allow and encourage future development that leads to a higher density organically.

Maybe that means setting aside a portion of the parcel for a community center that can become a retail center and eventually a town square, for example. I don't know if or how that would work, but that's one possibility.

What do you think?

It is incorrect to believe that the car oriented subdivision is low-density. In most cases there is not enough space left over for any further subdivision of plots. In the latest, smart-growth driven subdivision projects you are essentially getting a townhouse with identical neighbors, only there is no town anywhere to be seen around it to mitigate this downside. It is density with none of the benefits associated with urban density. Since things are already at their worst, further increases in density won't be received positively.

The condition for an emergent urbanism project is whether the process can repeat itself within the forms that are set in the previous iteration of development. All of the processes in the model above can loop and feed back on themselves, and thus they are all complex and fractal-generating. They have, however, scale limits. If those scale limits are not respected in development, the feedback won't take place and there won't be any emergent urban complexity.

I understand that people like high-density cities. I like them as well. But forcing high-density cities on a process that is not meant to create them, the subdivision process, only serves to make the process worse and not better. It makes enemies of land developers who see the absurdity of the effort, and creates another showcase of the failure of repression to force great cities to exist, and worst of all, spreads horrible type 2 linear process geometry on the landscape.

An interesting model, but I hope you have further explanation for your prescription at the end.

"[a] Instead we should be building low density subdivision developments [b] that can grow naturally into metropolitan neighborhoods . . ."

The current car-oriented suburbs satisfy [a] but most probably do not satisfy [b].

I highly doubt that such a community would control growth in such a way as to lead to the dense urban development that we find in the older core of European cities that people find so attractive.

What restrictions should the community be making to retain public spaces and prepare for future development?

I agree until you get to the final hit on smart growth. Modern zoning regulation prohibits the natural sort of subdividing you see as beneficial. Only a transect based zoning system, or no zoning at all, has the robustness to reform itself over time.

It should be a prerequisite of any action that you know what the result of this action is going to be, otherwise you may be creating a whole new disaster, by consensus or not.

We don't know what the consequences of global warming are going to be, and we don't know if anything we do will have any impact on the climate, or if it won't make things worse. The climate is not a linear system and it can't be tackled with linear science. And the means used to attempt to control global warming, concentrations of power in a few world-spanning bodies, have been a cause of social catastrophes that are repeating themselves.

We are currently living through a social disaster of historic proportions, and that disaster is most definitely man-made. Yet there is no consensus on resolving it because it arises out of a moral error, and someone always benefits from a moral error. The same is at work with the global warming lobby.

Forget the movie for a second - are you saying that action should not be taken on global warming because we cannot be certain of the consequences? This despite the fact that there is a scientific consensus that action should be taken? I'm not sure if this fits into the paradigm of imposed control vs. organic complexity. I think it just represents the best option for self preservation. There are few negative consequences of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, in relation to the 100% certain negative consequences of not acting (air pollution, environmental damage from oil extraction etc.) and even the less certain but much more grave consequences of global warming.

North America has a terrible record with urban renewal through demolition, but its record for "letting slums happen" is even worse.

In Canada you only have to look at Africville in Halifax, Lower Town East in Ottawa, or Cabbagetown/Regent Park in Toronto and what you see is vital but poor communities being destroyed. In those cases you have to suspect that their location on desirable real estate was the sin that made governments want to demolish all their homes and relocate the residents often to highrise projects. In most cases, the community never recovered its social structure.

On the other hand, letting slums happen is not much better. Concentrated poverty alone is bad enough, and the non-linear negative impacts of concentration of poverty are well documented, but what the residents have to fear from a laisser-faire approach to concentrated pockets of blight is crime. Sacrificing a community to the criminal gangs in the hopes that it may some day rise from its ashes is not a good tradeoff. There are few modern examples of spontaneous rebuilding in urban North America. Will individuals build their own homes there? Will businesses move in? More likely, slum landlords and developers will eventually do land consolidation. I agree that ideally, slums where people know each other and where they build rather then renting would be a good solution, but it how do you keep the absentee landlords and land speculators out?

Flint is not the first to do selective demolitions while attempting to preserve communities, in response to declining population. In the US, Youngstown has been doing it and before then former East Germany has been doing it for over a decade. See here for instance http://www.goethe.de/kue/arc/dos/dos/sls/en4269927.htm

Germany has the advantage of much older city centres that can be preserved almost completely. Demolishing selectively to create large irregularly shaped wooded parks and paths is a German solution.

I agree; in any other city, the neighborhood would present an opportunity for new construction pursued by individuals - it's close to downtown and presumably is no worse than other Detroit neighborhoods in its fundamentals. The highway in the corner is what doomed it by flattening the demand curve for land, leaving the relatively small homes here increasingly undesirable. However, a recapitulation of the stages of urban growth is feasible here. If the City needs to shut off utilities, it should sponsor decentralized waste management, authorize a newly created village government to handle policing and basic street maintenance, and agree to continue providing fire protection, water, and sewage (relatively cheap items). Starting with market gardening, the remaining residents (if enough remain) could cultivate the vacant lots, selling in the city's farmer's markets . As the farmers generate capital, they will move into more value-added businesses such as cheese production, prepared foods, and even wines. Restaurants serving this produce would be a natural result, and soon there are visitors from other neighborhoods and even tourists coming to this once-abandoned area. The development of small retail, as in other urban neighborhoods, will eventually support a large portion of the residents, and over time the neighborhood will become a tax generator for Detroit (and a rather special place), not a burden.

The white island is on the Ganges in India. I presume that it is not denounced because the director feels that it is a part of nature, while other human artifacts are not. Therefore it is incorrect to claim that it is a destruction of nature; it is a transformation of nature from one aspect to another, much like all living organisms perform.

The mystery between nature creation and destruction is not difficult to elucidate, but it runs counter to established scientific ideas. Human artifacts are a part of a nature when they are produced with the same class of processes with which natural things are made, complex fractal processes.

Christopher Alexander wrote an article called Harmony Seeking Computations and specifically mentioned the way environmentalists placing wind turbines were destroying nature. The flip-side to that fact is that humans creating, for example, shantytowns are creating nature of a new aspect, and would create a much better natural environment if the war on spontaneous urbanization waged by authorities were to end.

Beautiful film, but it's preachy without being original. Even when I agreed with the conclusion being stated, I was annoyed that the narration gave no insight into why they think some things were good and some things were bad. For instance, terracing for rice is good (I think that's what the musical soundtrack implied) while doing the same thing for oil palms the next island over is awful monoculture and a destructive alteration of the landscape. Now I personally realize there is a difference, but the movie makes no attempt to justify it besides implying that peasants are good and capitalists are bad. For the first, they shape the land with patience and devotion; for the second, terracing is breaking the bonds of living matter, described as a catastrophe.

That lovely white island villa pictured above is objectively the complete destruction of the natural environment it occupies, yet it is not denounced by the orchestra. I wonder where it is.

The yellow and gray area are just two distinct surfaces. You can put in anything you want as a material. The yellow area is a sidewalk in the traditional sense.

I've never been to Boston, but from what I can tell from Google Earth there are as many people around Boston City Hall as there are around Faneuil Hall across the street. It doesn't drive people away. It should be noted that Boston has very good street design overall, (much better than Montreal according to everybody who has seen it) so bad buildings stick out, but that doesn't mean that they interfere.

If you put yourself in the context of sprawl, where every building is a bad building, and where there is no street design, reconnecting strip commercial in this pattern is a significant and inexpensive improvement.


A lot of food for thought here. I am not sure how your redesign of the Target complex isn't just prettier sprawl. What does the yellow area represent? What is the light gray area?

Are you familiar with the Boston City Hall? It has space around it that people do not want to be in. I am imagining your Target redesign would create similar space that people would not want to be in.

I love the amazing scenery of Home, it's stunning! The organic agricultural villages of Africa are fantastic, i fully endorse their simple forms. The faux-American suburbs of Shanghai were shocking!

Keep up the excellent work!

interesting reading. i'm no engineer/architect/urban planner, but it seems to me that because cities are made up by people, the urban planning can't really restrain the random/chaotic actions.

on the other hand, it seems to me too that a city needs some level of planning, if not to help the efficiency of a city (e.g. in terms of movement, communication)

also, nowadays urban planning seems to move a lot of money and interests around, deciding how much certain properties will be worth by basis of a construction of a hospital etc..

i don't really have a point here, just trying to figure things out :)

Your blog is content rich, what a resource, thank you for putting all this together.. I could have posted on any of your posts, I just wanted to share that I was particularly enjoying your blog. As for Slumdog, like adbusters #71 by teddy cruz and that school of thought, an easy danger of romaticising the aesthetic of these, one i am prone to err on the side of affirming, in my hope for a primary urbanism, alive and personal, raw and relational.

A fascinating and appropriate analogy. The question now becomes: what constraints to provide to cities? I think that some modern planning is certainly necessary, the type espoused by Sitte: take care of the big details (where not to build, about how dense, and major transit infrastructure) then let the inhabitants figure out the rest.

I think this is doable, but it would take two major innovations. First a total revamp of the legal code to greatly reduce the time it takes to resolve minor disputes and manipulate land deeds and second, removing the automobile as a major presence in urban areas. The constraints that engineers would seek to impose on the design to allow for the automobile would entirely remove any trace of control that locals would try to exert over their surroundings (I know, I'm a transportation engineer).

Who was it that said that the best urban transportation system was no urban transportation system?

Those record low rates for housing starts reflect all of the US. Do you happen to have something that shows certain types of housing starts or housing starts in urban locations are up, or at least down far less than the overall numbers?

Interesting topic to think about. I think the main thing to consider here is the end of an entrenched system. There was enormous complexity surrounding the act of paying thousands of dollars for a piece of stone to put a cutting board on and appliances that look like something out of a machine shop.

The people that were involved in the system, developers, retailers, lenders, HGTV....etc weren't conservative by nature, but they were making a killing and happy to keep the racket going.

In my mind, a combination of their greed (overbuilding), the sustainability movement (maybe wishful thinking), and a cultural shift away from suburbs (perhaps sex and the city was worth it after all) destroyed demand.

The thing is, all those people are still out there. They didn't magically disappear, and they're in three camps.

The first group is trying to wait out the storm so they can start building suburbs again.

The second group is trying to draw funding for projects that were innovative 20-30 years ago (or 80-90 years ago, depending). These are the types that hate New Urbanism and TOD but figure they might as well give it a try.

The third and by far the smallest group, is looking for new ideas, innovating, trying new and different things out. These people might try to build a development with the ideas of emergent urbanism, but I suspect they'd fail.

In fact, for emergent urbanism to succeed, all three groups will have to fail. The builders and financiers will have to reintegrate into society. Instead of "building a development" they'll need to use their expertise (which is actually quite substantial), to incrementally develop a place.

I suspect our downturn is severe enough that the developers will fail to kick start things, but I'm not quite certain how likely a community would be to adopt a plan like emergent urbanism. The idea, while not quite fresh, would need an entirely new legal framework. There aren't any guidebooks for implementation, or really many books on the matter at all. Honestly, the only one that comes even close is Christopher Alexander's A New Theory of Urban Design.

If emergent urbanism is adopted in the near future, it will likely only exist in places where government has given up on trying to regulate what is going on.

Matthieu - '“Too much housing” is an aggregate observation. The specific reality is that there are useless houses in the wrong places, and a housing crisis in the places where housing is needed.'

An excellent observation that explains a lot of the disconnect between those who take an exclusively supply-side or demand-side approach to explaining the housing bubble. On one hand you have libertarian-leaning pundits who argue that growth controls need to be removed to allow for more suburban subdivisions. On the other side are a lot of smart economics commentators who speak only to how financial innovations drove demand without giving so much as a nod to the broken business model of real estate development. Both groups are partially correct, in the aggregate, but neither side has a grasp of all the relevant issues - in finance, housing, and land use policy - to make sense of things from a micro level. It just seems like there's a void in public discourse (and consequently public policy) at the intersection of these fields.

Not worth making a new post about, but still interesting. A second child star of Slumdog Millionaire saw her home demolished by the authorities. The reason was to build a pedestrian overpass.

"Too much housing" is an aggregate observation. The specific reality is that there are useless houses in the wrong places, and a housing crisis in the places where housing is needed.

There are already squatter settlements in these places. Denial is a dangerous activity.

Only those communities that adopt emergent urbanism will get out of this crash

This sounds like wishful thinking. There won't be squatter settlement, as the problem is too much housing, and a mismatch in finances between buyers and lenders. Every foreclosure ends up being resold to someone who will live in it, or rent it out; and banks are slow to foreclose, which lets people stay in housing they can't afford. Once all the financial mess is cleared up, there will be plenty of housing; but eventually demand will pick up again. There's nothing about this crash which would particularly encourage more sensible development patterns in the future.

Another example of this is in Robe, Ethiopia- Though it's difficult to tell there whether the grid was imposed upon a previously existing network of paths, or if those paths have subsequently arisen to supplement the grid.

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