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Martin Laplante

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Tue, 02 May 2006

Jane Jacobs, Christopher Alexander, and Barry Wellman

Reflecting on the recent death of Jane Jacobs, it is amazing to see how true her 1961 book "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" still sounds 45 years later. Jacobs has been called the most influential urban planner of the century. Even though she wasn't actually qualified as a planner, I'll allow it since the qualifications required to become a planner are so wrong anyway. But influential? The reason that the book rings so true today is that the problems she identified a half-century ago are now worse than ever. She managed to slow down the worst excesses of 60's style "urban renewal", and some planners pay lip service to the principles that Jacobs proposed, but actually getting to work at incorporating them into planning has not yet happened. I'm afraid her influence has yet to be felt.

Another unknown classic of urban planning from the 60's is Christopher Alexander's "A City Is Not A Tree", a precursor to his extremely important work "A Pattern Language". Nothing of any real importance on the topic of urban planning has been written since then. I asked a number of professional planners how it is used in their work. None had heard of Alexander. It's as if physicists ignored Einstein.

Alexander is an architect and a mathematician. The "tree" he refers to is not a perennial woody plant, but a mathematical structure from graph theory. In the original work, and later extensions by physicist Nikos Salingaros, it is explained how cities build on a hierarchical pattern and with separation of uses have less connections between people and activities. The math to determine whether a city is "alive" or "dead" is quite straightforward. The link between structures and human beings is also quite straightforward and predictable. The beauty of the approach, in fact the point of the approach is that human beings are central at every scale.

Coming at it from the point of view of mathematics, Alexander reached many of the same conclusions as Jacobs, about how people and structures interact to make a functioning whole. However the solution is not a top-down planned assembly of identical groupings of buildings each tied to each other through higher-order connections. Each neighbourhood should overlap with the next one with a minimum of barriers and corridors. High-rise buildings are not an essential component. In fact based on Alexander's principles, Salingaros wrote the essay "The End of Tall Buildings" with James Howard Kunstler, calling high-rises vertical gated communities.

So we have known since the early sixties: build neighbourhoods with a sense of place. Interconnect them every which way. Keep everything human scale. Repeat patterns but adapt them don't copy them. The community will grow out of this sense of place and interconnection. Investment in places turn into investments in "social capital", a term first coined by Jacobs. We've known all this for 40 years and have been building exactly the opposite.

Like the topology of cities, the topology of social relations is studied by Toronto sociologist Barry Wellman. Our personal sense of community is no longer place-based, at least in the suburbs that Wellman studies. Based on an analysis that predates the internet but has been confirmed and perhaps accelerated by it, Wellman says that the presumed social patterns made up of groups where individuals are highly connected within the group and have weak links to outsiders has been turned inside out. Instead we live in a society of "networked individualism" where our relationships are "glocalized". We retreat into a dark room and communicate from there. It doesn't mean that local community is dead, internet users know their neighbours better than non-users, but place no longer commands allegiance, and it no longer has a major role in creating social links.

So 40 years later we are living in different society. Does that change the relevance of Jacobs and of Alexander? What types of places and linkages best support the new structure of social relations? Visionary that he was, and remains, Christopher's analysis still applies to the new social realities.

Two urban planners, two network theorists, two New York-born torontonians, three visionaries in all.

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References
http://www.katarxis3.com/Jacobs.htm
http://www.arq.ufmg.br/rcesar/alex/alexander/alexander1.html
http://www.patternlanguage.com/
http://www.planetizen.com/node/27
http://www.planetizen.com/node/104
http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~wellman/vita/vitweb.htm

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