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Thread: Emergence In Urban Space

  1. #1

    Default Emergence In Urban Space

    Poster GVNY, in response to my Barcelona Urbanity thread wrote: “surprising insertion of the concept of 'emergent' urbanism and architecture. This concept is fascinating to me. Does it hold the same appeal for you?”. I thought I’d start a thread on this interesting concept (and, yes, it is fascinating to me too).

    There are different definitions of emergence, but essentially they relate to the idea that the interaction or accumulation of simple phenomena can give rise more or less spontaneously (or unexpectedly) to more complex phenomena. Everything from traffic bottlenecks to the shape of street patterns in completely unplanned human settlements have been linked to this. Mathematically, fractal patterns are often sued as a representation of simple/weak emergence.

    In relation to urbanism, emergence has many interesting aspects. One that I’ve commented on previously is the idea of a number of relatively simple, ‘cartesian’ choices (“we’ll lay our streets like this” + “I’ll build my building up to the property line” + “the building will have windows on two sides and be x-stories high”) when cumulated create a space that seem massively more intricate than the individual, simple parts. This is visible in many cities, though the two examples below are both from Spain, as it happens.

    This is the same I had in my thread about Barcelona



    and this is a much smaller scale, from the island of Tenerife. I’ve got more images on a different image-hosting service that I can’t access right now



    What attracted me to this subject (having had a passing knowledge of fractals/emergence from work) is the realization that this complexity, this messiness is not something that, prima facie, you would expect anyone to want to “plan in”. At a time (19th, early 20th century) when many of the buildings would have been more poorly maintained, the streets dirtier, the housing more crowded, some of these areas may have been perceived as slums. Certainly, a ‘blank slate’, ‘think outside the box’ process of planning would tend to come up with something that is simpler. Not so much simpler at the individual building or individual room level. Or even simpler at the street-pattern level. After all, these are fairly simple in both cases. But simpler at the macro level. Simpler when viewed from an airplane, if you get my meaning. Something like this:



    I don’t want to get into the old “Corbusier was an idiot” rant mode nor hew to the idea that ‘good urbanity is organic urbanity’. There is very little that is purely organic in the images above, they too stem from regulations and planning as much as by individual action.

    Simply, I find it intriguing that an orderly point of arrival (the town ‘must look orderly’) is not generated by a series of orderly points of departure and that ‘forcing an orderly result may cause problems at the lower orders. This, in my mind, links to the idea that the larger a system, the more it naturally tends to be / must be in order to work well COMPLEX. While the smaller the object/system, the less necessary and natural complexity is.

    Before I shut up, allow me to point out a website/blog that is all about emergence in urbanism (along the lines of C. Alexander’s pattern language theories).

  2. #2
    The Dude Abides
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    Interesting post, luca. I find what you describe to be reminiscent of ideas I've encountered in the past, but perhaps expressed in different language.

    One of these ideas that I find particularly intriguing is the concept of probability, and more specifically, randomness. I have to thank Nassim Taleb here, as it's through him that I've come to appreciate the beauty of randomness. I always like to think back to this example he provides in one of his books: how to forecast the total trajectory of billiard balls on a pool table. Given what we know about physics, it's very easy to forecast where the balls will go when there is only a cue and one other, provided we know things such as the speed and angle of impact, the drag created by the felt, the temperature, density of the balls, etc. But when you add each additional ball, the ability to predict trajectories increases exponentially, and randomness takes over.

    I find this idea of urban emergence powerfully mirrors this example. Take enough "orderly pieces" and set them in motion on a table with some type of stimulus (be it an ideal location for a transportation hub or some kind of industry), and you get a complex system that is unpredictable in its detailed behavior but very predictable in its appearance as a whole. In other words, you don't know what type of neighborhoods will arise where and when, but you do know there will be a cohesive city there.

    I understand the fascination with this idea, but I find I cannot agree with your statement:

    There is very little that is purely organic in the images above, they too stem from regulations and planning as much as by individual action.
    I think there is plenty organic in urban development. Of course it is all relative. It cannot be 100% organic - in my mind, it cannot be all natural and by random chance, because there are fundamental rules always in effect. As in the billiards example, you will never end up with a ball gravitating in air or becoming embedded within the felt or being shattered upon impact from the cue (given what we know about physics). Similarly, there are certain constants that will always hold within urban environments, yet every such environment shares distinct characteristics with all others because of shared needs and desires of all urban residents.

    A final example is the question of life itself: if you believe, as I do, in scientific evolution, you have to come to terms with the idea that we (and other advanced, very complex forms of life) evolved from a very simple blueprint. And that in the end, we are all made up of the same elements and function according to fundamental laws of science. Nonetheless, there is seemingly endless diversity in our expression of life.

    Organic and random, yet inorganic and orderly. A harmonious dichotomy.

  3. #3

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    I think you'll find there IS no disagreement. We both seem to recognize that there are elements of 'organicity' (for lack of a better word), whereby the patterns that emerge are spontaneous results of some underlying but not legally mandated/consciously chosen) constraint/stimulus, as well as elements of clear top-down decision-making (from the impact of an essentially pre-imposed street grid to building regulations to modes of land tenancy, etc.).

    The point I was making is that it is somewhat misleading to juxtapose, as some do, planned urbanity vs. spontaneous urbanity since most situations have elements of both. Certainly, I lean toward advocacy of minimal planning and more spontaneity, but the empirical evidence is that, periodically, the (necessarily top-down) imposition of lower-order structures of…orderliness is needed to rescue purely organic growth from chocking itself like a tangle of weeds.

    As an aside, I would offer some warning on Taleb's work, which is not always mathematically/factually, ehm, coherent.
    Wolfram is better on this stuff, miles better.

  4. #4

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    What I find most interesting about emergent urbanism is--disregarding its innate ability to create extraordinarily beautiful and unique spaces--is its implications on modern urban form and architecture.

    Contemporary urban planning is primarily focused on the ends of the process, the product. Consequently, when cities which share these planning visions go about bringing them to fruition, their narrow-minded focus on the ends, as opposed to the process itself, creates communities, and ultimately cities, which lack individuality, human-scale, uniqueness and spontaneity.

    What if we were to disregard the product and reign in on the process of creating our cities? What if we were to reject comprehensive regulatory codes and all of these silly theories which inhibit creativity and allow for the proven theory of 'emergent urbanism' to generate spaces which are special, eccentric, incomparable, and worth caring about and tending-to?

    Sure, we could see the results of a disastrous failure the moment we step outside our doorways and into our cities, but we could also see Barcelona, or Santorini, or Venice, Jaimsalmer, Jaipur, Lisbon, Strasbourg, Prague, Krakow, old Boston and Philadelphia, or other distinct places we know are extraordinary but cannot pin-down why.

    In the United States and in modern planning theory in general, we've been doing everything wrong--concentrating on aspects of urban layout and design that redirect us from our true goals of creating notable locales that people would desire to inhabit.

    What we need to do is allow organic 'emergence' to take its rightful course as the constructor of urban form as opposed to stifling it with nonsensical modern concepts.

    First, however, we need to gather the collective courage to permit for a non-guided evolution of our cities, essentially a trust-in and tolerance-of others and the quality of their construction. In this past century, we seem to have suppressed it and our cities have suffered.

  5. #5

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    Quote Originally Posted by GVNY View Post
    First, however, we need to gather the collective courage to permit for a non-guided evolution of our cities, essentially a trust-in and tolerance-of others and the quality of their construction. In this past century, we seem to have suppressed it and our cities have suffered.
    It's like having faith in the free market. In planning, we still have the equivalent of a command economy, and we all know how well that works: look at China before and after.

    We need to free urban development from the meddling of planners.

  6. #6

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    While this is certainly not a retraction of my previous post, there are two substantial problems confronting any potential contemporary 'emergent urbanism' movement in the United States and other nations thoroughly implementing comprehensive planning:

    1). Those organic cities we praise as fine examples of urban form were generated before the technological innovations of the Industrial Revolution and consequently necessitated human scale to even function.

    2. Those organic cities were also guided by traditions and cultural agreements that were produced over hundreds, if not thousands, of years and were place-individualistic, or, were not duplicated entirely, if it all, elsewhere.

    So, with the Industrial Revolution and succeeding technological innovations overcoming the necessity for human-scaling in the city, and Modernist theories supplanting those of tradition, how would we guide a contemporary 'emergent urbanism' process?

    While the most critical step would undoubtedly be to 'free market' the planning process, as Ablarc kindly pointed out, how could we begin to suggest that uncontrolled (excuse me; unguided) 'emergent urbanism' would produce a better city than one implementing comprehensive regulatory coding?

    Indeed, look at China after; not much of it is worth saving.

  7. #7

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    That's very interesting. It's something that I was thinking about before but never knew what it's called or if there was even a term for it. It makes perfect sense to me.
    I dunno, but I suppose with planning the best would be to find some balance between this emergence type growth and regulations. I mean, there have to be some regulations or else that beautiful area might be bulldozed for a highway or else you might get some serious bottlenecks that could have been avoided with a little 'planning', etc.

    I think this sort of thing can occur at various scales. Examples:
    Each room in a house/apartment. Look at an apartment where the residents have been allowed to decorate it as they want. Each room will have its own character depending on who's in what room.
    Each apartment in a tower block. This was mentioned in the article when you see the building at night. You can see some of the individuality by seeing stuff in the apartments, curtains, lights, etc.
    Complete districts. You might have an area where there are no regulations, or else one where there is a masterplan but the developer can build whatever design he wants within reason, or else other districts where they are planned in full.

  8. #8

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    Quote Originally Posted by malec View Post
    I dunno, but I suppose with planning the best would be to find some balance between this emergence type growth and regulations. I mean, there have to be some regulations or else that beautiful area might be bulldozed for a highway or else you might get some serious bottlenecks that could have been avoided with a little 'planning', etc.
    In the absence of tradition and cultural agreement, and in the absence of a necessity for human-scaling in the urban form, some degree of regulation is crucial if the 'emergent urbanism' process is to be successful.

    Unfortunately, the way in which we draft our regulatory coding will inevitably stifle some aspect of urban creativity, but it seems there is no way to get around this dilemma. For example, mandating design standards arrogantly ignores alternatives and hampers individuality, limiting building footprints to whatever scale denies the occasionally large size of historical structures, and height regulations impact what may have been a dynamic (or lack-thereof) streetwall height and skyline, etc.

    Consequently, while the conditions are not suitable for creating Venice, Prague, Jaisalmer and Pingyang, we can nonetheless come relatively close to capturing their magical qualities by utilizing the same process, albeit restricted, of 'emergent urbanism,' and in that process better ourselves and our cities.

    Quote Originally Posted by Luca View Post
    I don’t want to [...] hew to the idea that ‘good urbanity is organic urbanity’.
    Any urbanism can be good urbanism, but only organic urbanism can be great.

  9. #9

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    I suppose that if we are talking about chaos-emergence at all, we have to accept that 100% solutions do not exist. It’s a matter of targeting the distribution, rather than a guaranteed outcome.

    As Ablarc points out, there is a very strong parallel with the ‘debate’ between command and free-market economies. But of course, free-market economies are subject to numerous regulations.

    If we translate this to urban form, it seems to me that planning should, as in the case of (ideally) economic regulation, be there to avoid predatory practices / uneven capture of externalities and to have the power to remedy emerged results that are empirically not optimal/satisfactory. The rest should be left up to the grassroots process.

    I very much take on board the idea that the cultural stability, aesthetic elitism and transport-technological bias toward human scale that produced cities like Barcelona are no longer present and that this is an issue that may require more ‘mediation’ through regulation.

    At the very least, though, as Ablarc has long been advocating, we should seek to remove RULES that actually FORBID anything remotely humane. I enjoy the Cyburbia forum, for instance, but in the specific technical zoning issues I’ve stopped asking dumb questions because my question to all their questions was: why do you even WANT to regulate XYZ to that degree of detail?

  10. #10

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    Absolutely in agreement, although could you elaborate on this quote: "If we translate this to urban form, it seems to me that planning should, as in the case of (ideally) economic regulation, be there to avoid predatory practices / uneven capture of externalities and to have the power to remedy emerged results that are empirically not optimal/satisfactory."

    What do you mean exactly when you write 'predatory practices', 'uneven capture of externalities', and poor results in terms of the built environment? My apologies, but as a person who strongly believes in this idea, total comprehension of this concept is key.

    Finally, Ablarc has most certainly, especially on Cyburbia, been somewhat of a pioneer in this concept, as well as through his championing of the relaxing and/or discarding of regulatory codes which inhibit quality and character. Ablarc has obviously had a profound impact on my own views--solidifying, clarifying and expanding upon those views which we share as eloquently as possible.

  11. #11

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    Quote Originally Posted by GVNY View Post
    Indeed, look at China after; not much of it is worth saving.
    I was talking about the economy. China is getting rich at breakneck speed because the government stopped meddling in the economy.

    Their new architecture and planning is as bad as ours.

  12. #12
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    ^While we're on the topic of China, I'd like to bring up an issue discussed in the New, New City thread.

    One of the main tenets of the "New, New City" seemed to be the overwhelming force that extreme population densities play on architecture and urban development. In the case of Chinese cities, the result was (private) planning writ large - mega-developments for the masses, rich and poor, side by side. A unique urban context, perhaps - and yes, there was justification offered for some of these "new Corbusian" concepts, if you will. But the very fact that the new type of urban environment taking hold in countries experiencing real growth seems it can only occur on a grand scale flies in the face of emergent urbanism, in my mind.

    In other words, there is confirmation of this fear:

    Quote Originally Posted by Luca
    I very much take on board the idea that the cultural stability, aesthetic elitism and transport-technological bias toward human scale that produced cities like Barcelona are no longer present and that this is an issue that may require more ‘mediation’ through regulation.
    Then there's this issue:

    At the very least, though, as Ablarc has long been advocating, we should seek to remove RULES that actually FORBID anything remotely humane.
    Accomplishing that might be even more of a challenge. As I see it, there is still perhaps hope to be had that a more ideal scale of living returns to the world. The primary motivator would be environmental concerns. But how likely is it that we will remove rules when so many seem to be so indoctrinated in society? Just the other day, in fact, a major change to the NYC Building Codes was announced that will take into effect very soon. With it, a laundry list of things builders can no longer do, and of course, new standards set in the name of safety, accommodating the disabled, etc. Link here.
    Last edited by pianoman11686; June 18th, 2008 at 01:34 PM.

  13. #13
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    I would also just like to say I've very much enjoyed all the comments thus far in this thread.

    GVNY: I find I share many of your viewpoints, and I agree that, especially in the realm of planning and development regulation, finding the balance between encouraging what you want and discouraging what you don't want proves incredibly difficult and elusive. I think, at least in America, we approached that axiom in the early 20th century, when our cities encountered explosive growth.

    If I were to propose a starting point, I would begin with reforming regulations such as zoning in order to make them more flexible. With the implied goal of fostering the "process" of emergent urbanity, it seems flexibility is most important, as is some kind of incentive structure provided by local governments if in fact the goal is highly valued.

    I think there is something to be learned from examples such as the High Line Special District, throughout which zoning rules were drastically altered in order to accommodate a completely unique course of development. Incentives were granted explicitly by the city, and implicitly (in this case by a private group) through proximity to a new public park. I find it's one of the few rezonings enacted by the City Planning Commission with which I am in almost full agreement.

    As far as what authorities should seek to limit through regulation, I agree with what Luca put forward:

    If we translate this to urban form, it seems to me that planning should, as in the case of (ideally) economic regulation, be there to avoid predatory practices / uneven capture of externalities and to have the power to remedy emerged results that are empirically not optimal/satisfactory.
    In economics, this means: 1) patrolling for monopolies or cartels that manipulate market prices through unfair practices; 2) punish (in the case of negative externalities) the byproducts of industry/business such that others won't suffer. An example would be fining a factory or power plant that is producing excessive pollution that hurts local farms, fishing industries, etc.

    I imagine in planning, the equivalents would be 1) preventing one developer (or a consortium of developers) from taking over an entire locale's development industry, and capitalizing on it by raising prices above market levels; 2) patrol for developers that ignore environmental standards or cause any kind of nuisance for the neighborhood.

  14. #14

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    Quote Originally Posted by GVNY View Post
    …could you elaborate on this quote: "If we translate this to urban form, it seems to me that planning should, as in the case of (ideally) economic regulation, be there to avoid predatory practices / uneven capture of externalities and to have the power to remedy emerged results that are empirically not optimal/satisfactory."

    Trying to make it clear, the minimalist planning/regulatory intervention I’m hypothesizing as a modification of pure urban emergence (what in a market setting we might call pure laissez-faire) consists of:

    Avoid predatory practices:essentially this means accurately recording and protecting property lines and regulating squatting/eviction. That is, providing some assurance of legal tenancy.

    Avoid uneven capture of externalities: forbidding overhangs and “leaning” and pollution/dumping; limit “light theft”; limit nuisance uses.

    Remedy emerged results that are empirically not optimal: typically in pure ‘emergence’ there will be a lack of communal or economy-of-scale-dependent amenities (things where many benefit but someone’s got to pay to make it happen). These usually require collective/’public’ intervention. I’m not so much talking about monuments and parks and squares (those too) but also things like coherent street numbers, some forms of utilities, appropriate transportation networks, etc.

  15. #15

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    Quote Originally Posted by pianoman11686 View Post
    One of the main tenets of the "New, New City" seemed to be the overwhelming force that extreme population densities play on architecture and urban development. In the case of Chinese cities, the result was (private) planning writ large - mega-developments for the masses, rich and poor, side by side. A unique urban context, perhaps - and yes, there was justification offered for some of these "new Corbusian" concepts, if you will. But the very fact that the new type of urban environment taking hold in countries experiencing real growth seems it can only occur on a grand scale flies in the face of emergent urbanism, in my mind.
    If we are to accept the concept of 'emergent urbanism' as a system, which according to the intelligent Matthieu Helie operates at any scale--from the village of ten to the metropolis--even rapid urbanism in Asian cities can theoretically be successfully guided by this process.

    I may potentially expose my ignorance on Asian urbanism (if I have not just done so already), but it seems to me the expansive construction projects being undertaken in China and elsewhere are the result of government intervention, pride and a rejection of 'emergence' theory. Nevertheless, many Asian cities have a strong history of utilizing the 'emergent urbanism' process during periods of rapid growth, as indicated by post-war Tokyo, Japan. Large sections of that city were devastated following aerial bombardments, yet it eventually rebuilt in periods of intense growth with human-scaled, individualistic and spontaneous development.

    I may be incorrect with my assumption, but similar development also took place in cities like Seoul, Shanghai, Chongqing, Taipei and elsewhere. Even Mr. Helie notes the growth of sporadic favelas in South America, which can rapidly sprout into major cities. So 'emergent urbanism' can, in my uninformed opinion, if not interrupted, produce quality places while confronted with intense growth pressure. The key is simply to allow for the process to commence and flow with limited intervention, and it can generate urban environments at any speed and at any scale.

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