Saturday, June 26, 2010

Emergent Urbanism

The Emergent Urbanism Network is a very interesting web portal intended to serve the online community of planners, designers, builders, thinkers and others who are enthusiastic about urbanism. It was created by Mathieu Helie, a Canadian urbanist with a Masters degree in Urban Planning from Université Paris/Panthéon-Sorbonne and Institut d’Urbanisme de Paris, and a B.A. in Economics and Computer Science from Concordia University.

Helie has engineered the Network to be a social media portal for an online community of planners, designers, builders, thinkers and others who are enthusiastic about urbanism. Any member may post nodes or vote on them. The best nodes selected by the community float up to the top of their channel before decaying away to be replaced by new nodes. This makes the network at once a forum, portal, community, and social network.

Helie’s thesis is that previous websites on the subject of urbanism have relied on the central planning model of editors choosing what does or does not deserve attention. The Emergent Urbanism Network recognizes that urban complexity is generated from the bottom up, not by top-down planners, and relies on its members to decide what is relevant by providing a simple and clear process through which the network is grown.

The morphology of the Emergent Urbanism Network is thus consistent with Helie’s interest in the sciences of emergence and complexity, which together have given rise to a new paradigm that has triggered a revolution in mathematics, physics, biology and architecture. His blog, Emergent Urbanism, provides succinct definitions of emergence, complexity, and urbanism, which I have excerpted here:

"What is emergence?
Emergence is the creation of systems of greater dimension than the elements that create it, sometimes also called self-organization, through the application of localized rules of action. The most elementary emergent systems are the binary, one-dimensional cellular automata studied by Stephen Wolfram that create complex fractals when shown in two dimensions. Emergence is also behind all forms of multicellular life, the cells of a plant or an animal following the instructions coded in their DNA to organize themselves into a much bigger organism. Those organisms will then also create emergent structures by following simple rules of action, like the termite cathedrals often used as an icon for emergence. Emergence is also behind human societies, from the invisible hand of economics (invisible because it is a dimension greater than any one of us) to the astonishing growth of the Internet and later of Wikipedia.

"Studying the rules that enable emergence will allow us to build the systems to deal with the complexity of the universe.

"What is complexity?
Complexity is the physical fact of problems existing at multiple scales simultaneously. Complex systems solve these problems by adopting geometric structures that have structure at multiple scales simultaneously, that is to say fractal geometry. The pioneer of fractal geometry, Benoit Mandelbrot, was able to identify fractals everywhere in nature, resolving the complexity of physical chaos by creating complex ordering of mountains, rivers and coasts. The architectural scientist Christopher Alexander elaborated on the link between fractal geometry and life by defining the theory of centres, which are parts or features that are distinguishable from the whole and cooperate with the whole to survive in the complexity of the universe. Because centers are themselves made of centers, they fit the recursive definition of fractals. Most important of all, complex structures can only be made through generative processes that draw from a previous step, repeated infinitely. The science of complexity is thus focused on discovering how things are produced, their final form being far too complex for one mind to fully grasp.

"What is urbanism?
Since the dawn of civilization, humans have made cities to support their societies. These cities, although they have been the source of progress, have never been fully understood, relying on traditions and trial-and-error processes for their growth. The reason for this is because they occur in the emergent dimension, and later attempts to plan them and bring them under the control of a central planner have resulted not in ordered cities, but disordered emergence. Today the phenomenon of suburban sprawl is being fought on multiple fronts, all meeting little success, while the disasters of million-people shantytowns have become accepted as normal. These are the outcome of a bad scientific choice, of applying linear sciences to urbanism.

"Urbanity is the cooperation and mutual-support of large numbers of people in close proximity. It is inevitably emergent, and to understand the science of emergence is the key to inventing the first fully emergent urbanism, capable of resolving all the complexities of a 21st century, sustainable city."

I was drawn to Mathieu Helie’s blog and the Emergent Urbanism Network because of my own budding interest in emergence and complexity. That interest arose from casual curiosity about the subjects, further stirred by my contact with Alder Stone Fuller and his (now closed) Euglena Academy. Several of my previous posts (here, here, and here) hint at my appreciation of the concepts of systems sciences, including self-organization, emergence, and the nature of complex systems. Helie’s presentation to the Complex Systems Laboratory of the University of Montreal entitled Urban Complexity in the Practice of Urbanism is an easily digested primer on the topic.

Fractal geometry

I’ve added a link to the Emergent Urbanism Network to my Sites of Interest list on the sidebar. Mathieu Helie’s hope is that the Network will acquire a life of its own and that the early structure its members provide to the network will shape its future. I’m keen on seeing how the Network will take form. It is a community, a virtual analog of a real-world urban structure. Check it out and consider joining others like me who share an interest in urban complexity and emergence.

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