May 23, 2014

Conceptualizing the City as a Synthesis of Habits

When I started my education in city planning, I took a course on urban form, wherein Jay Chatterjee introduced a different perspective on the organization of cities every week.  Jay knew his stuff, having studied with Kevin Lynch and later, as university president, having led the way to a master plan for the University of Cincinnati featuring an array of established architects.  In fact, studying at UC DAAP was basically akin to studying at a museum of architecture, surrounded by buildings designed by the likes of Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenmen, and Michael Graves (himself a DAAP alumnus).

In Jay's class we looked at the history of how a cities have been conceptualized.  Renaissance diagrams of the city as a human body compared roads to arteries and parks to lungs.  Then of course there was explorations of the city as a mandala or as an ecology.  I found these approaches to interesting at the time.

But now, after having worked extensively within complex urban systems, I find them as little more than poetic and perhaps damaging.  To an extent there is truth.  Cells combine to create tissue, tissues combine to create organs, organs combine to create organ systems, and organ systems combine to create an organism.  Thus if to combine organisms you create an complex organic system (city) and to combine these urban systems you create another macro-entity (state). But how does this conceptual organization of systems help advance the needs of the people within it?  How does this framework provide any utility for intervention and to what end?

As an organic system, we can examine capital flows, supply chains, and nodes of interaction just as one would examine the circulation of blood or oxygen.  Milieus of capital and power will intersect in a fashion that is either harmonious or catastrophic.  An array of intersections will form hierarchies in the form of institutions, or institutions will harness the dynamics of these nodes by means of hegemony. Clearly the metaphor can be extended, but what can an urban planner or designer make of this?

I'd argue very little because ultimately it is only a metaphor, an approximate model of reality, and models are fairly archaic in the contemporary world.  With an abundance of technologies to measure and predict interactions, we can do better than model our environments, but we can create new methods to engage, measure, and predict the events around us.  Today, the model and the reality are the same thing, if they are not - then you are doing it wrong.

I say this because we must take for granted that all urbanism is self-organizing, and once we acknowledge that, we are better positioned to ask the more important question: how does a self-organized system actually operate and to what end?  

Now we have an opportunity.

A city, like a business, is better understood - not as an organism or geometric mandala - but as a collection of habitual processes that have organized in time and space to form a collective habit.  This collective habit continues to operate because it has survived to do so.  Any imposition that will undermine the collective habit will force adaptation (new habits) or it will die.  A good example can be found within most manufacturing companies - either they keep with the times or they go out of business.  

At the granular level, changing one individual's habits will merit only limited impact (thus a new mayor or president can only do so much), while changing a large collection of granular habits will lead to a massive change at a larger scale.  This is incredibly difficult but possible.  Take for example the changes in popular music.  While a dominant musical paradigm is perpetuated at the collective scale, a new form of music may grow in appeal at the fringe which will eventually become popular.  No behaviors changed - all people continued listening to music with the same supportive behaviors - but the music selection changed, and thus we find certain elements attached to the music (fashion perhaps) also rising to the fore.  Now we can ask, why has a new form of music replaced the other?  What drove the sustainability of that change?  The habits did not change, but the form of each habit was modified, so how did that work and how can I use the same methodology in my own project?

Conceptualizing a city as a collection of habits will do more for a designer than conceptualizing a city as a body, beast, or geometry.  In the reductionist sense, we can examine the procedure of those habits and fine tune our environments to respond.  For example, if we find that people habitually congregate in a given location, we can  capitalize upon their congregation or choose disrupt the location to redistribute the population, and replicate the process at within all similar environments to the same effect.  Or, from a constructivist perspective, we can examine the array of elements that inform the formation of that organization, and attempt to infuse other environments with those elements to stimulate similar activity, hoping that the inhabitants will contribute something else to create a positive outcome.  

Contemplating a city as a collection of habits will not solve all problems. Yet it provides more utility than visualizing the city according to classical metaphors because it provides opportunities for intervention.  Likewise, I encourage interested readers to create other paradigms for interpreting cities but to never get stuck on any particular idea as the ideal.   For example, thinking of a city as a creative entity, aka Richard Florida, is fine.  But if you really plan to leverage that concept for your own city... don't expect much return.  That singular notion, like any other, is merely an approximation - a model - and therefore it will only reap so much reward.  Rather you need to go beyond the limitations of a single ideology. Believe in nothing. Believe in everything.

For example, what does it mean to examine the city as each of the following? How can you build off of these idea to create opportunities toward a given objective?  Simply challenging yourself to organize your thoughts around each of these given prompts will provide a new way to think of human structured environments in a manner to reveal restrictions, possibilities, mechanisms, and more.  If you map out a series of ideas based on each prompt you will also discover many conflicts will emerge.  That is good. Embrace the frictions and the voids because these points are perhaps more important than the symmetries.

  • City as record
  • City as interface
  • City as library
  • City as software
  • City as hardware
  • City as inheritance
  • City as puzzle
  • City as experiment
  • City as a game
  • City as language
  • City as narrative
  • City as reaction
  • City as sport
  • City as reproduction
  • City as resistance
  • City as byproduct
  • City as ...