City Planning, It’s Difficult

If not impossible, as this superb article from New Geography reports.

An excerpt.

A long succession of urban theorists, including Jane Jacobs, have intuited, implied, or proclaimed the “organic” nature of cities. This organic concept of cities describes them as self-organizing, complex systems that might appear messy, but that disorderliness belies a deep structure governed by fundamentally rule-bound processes.

“Is this view of cities just another esoteric construct, or a valid theory that has yet to take root and become operational? This article examines the trajectory and recent research into the concept for revelations and implications to the field of planning.

“It’s organic!

“In the 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs mused: “[…] why have people professionally concerned with cities not identified the kind of problem they had?” as their colleagues in the life sciences did. She was not alone to guess that city problems “[…] are all problems which involve dealing simultaneously with a sizeable number of factors which are interrelated into an organic whole.”

“Soon after (1965), Christopher Alexander showed that “a city is not a tree” (i.e., a simplistic geometric construct), but rather a complex Venn-type diagram, “with multiple cross links and overlapping sets that can be understood but defy a designer’s ability to conceptualize them.” Alexander then admits: “I cannot yet show you plans or sketches [of such a city]. It is not enough merely to make a demonstration of overlap – the overlap [of sets] must be the right overlap.”

“The “right” overlap remains observable but, evidently, intractable and unquantifiable—a handicap for planning professionals who need actionable concepts. Similar outcomes resulted from other attempts to create “a science of cities”—brilliant insights and fierce debates, but little tangible guidance.


“When grasping for a concrete, tangible model biomorphism holds instant appeal. In comparing the left and right sides of Figure 1, each showing networks at vastly different scales, we see striking similarities that have led theorists to conflate the configuration of street networks with the proclaimed “organic” nature of a city. In fact, leaf vein patterns encompass numerous distinct types and several variations of each—many entirely dissimilar in configuration to that of figure 1. The same applies to village/town/city street patterns; they too vary widely. Figure 1 shows just one specimen of many. In addition to their vein pattern variety, leaves, just as cities, span a thousand-fold range in size—from pine mini-leaves to banana mega-leaves (Fig.2). This analogy dissolves into a multitude of questions about which comparisons are meaningful or fruitful.

“These descriptive facts reveal the futility of trying to fathom an obscure entity (“the organic city”) by incidentally built form shapes and by analogy to the chosen forms of living things—mixing scales and focusing on the appearance of disparate subcomponents in a conceptual mishmash. This exploratory track of biomorphism left the question of what is “organic” about a city unanswered and planners bewildered. It also led to seeking old, presumed “organic” forms as prototypes for building new ones—to no avail (as we discussed here). But the “organic” intuition persists.

“A New Thread

“The question that Jacobs asked, rhetorically, in 1961: “Why have cities not […] been identified, understood and treated as problems of organized complexity?” found its answer in specialized research after 1980 —the tools for such perspective and treatment were previously unavailable.

“Powered by new computation and simulation tools, the science of (organized) complexity has made big strides. A first, decisive departure from previous approaches proceeds from the realization that a city is “[…] really it’s own new thing, for which we don’t have a strict analogy anywhere else in nature” (Bettencourt 2013). It is neither a “tree” nor semilattice, neither is it leaf-like nor anthill-like. It shares essential attributes with many complex systems (e.g.beehives, the brain, the Internet, the stock market, and ecosystems), but bears no resemblance to any. These attributes have now been identified and crystalized into a lens through which a new appreciation of what we observe in cities can guide future investigations (Table 1).”

To read the rest of the article, retrieved December 4, 2019 from

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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