Filed under: Volume 002 | Tags: Characteristics, Living Tradition, Living Urbanism, Living Urbanism Print Edition, Original Green, Steve Mouzon, Volume 002
“Living Urbanism” seems at first glance to be an oxymoron. Urbanism is composed primarily of things that are not alive, like bricks and stone. Other than trees lining the streets, what aspect of urbanism is alive? But if “life” includes things without flesh, bone, fur, or feather that can nonetheless take on a life of their own, independent of that which created them, then the term “Living Urbanism” has meaning. Several things are required in order that something might be considered to be alive.
Characteristics of Life
No form of life is completely self-serving. Rather, each species is useful in some way to some of the other species of its ecosystem.
Every species has a recognizable physical form. There is great variety amongst individual organisms of the species, but only within a very narrow range. This combination of great variety within a narrow range is a characteristic of all life.
The entire creature is alive, other than certain protective structures such as nails and shells.
Each creature carries a genetic code that describes the design of the species.
Through a process of cell sub-division, creatures grow by making more cells. At each stage of growth, the specimen is whole and complete.
Every form of life has the ability to replicate without the involvement of any ancestral specimens that are replicating. Ancestors may die and be forgotten, but still, the current specimens can replicate, spreading the genetic material of the species.
Disease can come, in general, from two sources: It can originate from outside the creature: in this case, a foreign life form which works against the purpose of the organism enters the organism and reproduces. Or it can originate from within: in this case, the cells within begin to work against the purpose of the organism. Often, they reproduce wildly as cancerous growths, spreading across the organism, eventually killing it.
Death occurs at three levels: Cells of a creature live for a short period of time and then die, giving place to new cells during the life of the creature. The death of the cells is a natural and healthy part of the life of the creature because it allows the creature to renew itself, lengthening its life. Individual specimens within a species live for an intermediate period of time and then die, giving place to their descendants. The death of individual specimens is a natural and healthy part of the life of the species because it allows the species to strengthen itself. Species exist for a long period of time, but eventually go extinct. The extinction of species can also be a natural and healthy process when it is due to naturally-occurring reasons, because the extinction of one species might make room in an ecosystem for the ascent of a more advanced species.
Characteristics of a Living Urbanism
Urbanism is analogous to life in many ways. That is to say, a city is not a living creature, a city is like a living creature in useful ways. Types of settlements are similar to distinct species. A farming hamlet, for example, is far different from a metropolitan borough on many counts. They have far different habitats, food sources, life cycles, metabolic rates, waste materials, and appearances. So if types of settlements are like distinct species, then a particular city, town, village, or hamlet is like a single creature, and individual buildings within the city, town, village, or hamlet is like individual cells within the creature.
The idea that settlement types are like species was first proposed by Christina Miller; many characteristics of her model are incorporated here. A living urbanism exhibits all of the characteristics of biological life listed below:
Each type of settlement has its purpose. The purpose is often communicated explicitly: Farming Hamlet, Fishing Village, Market Town, etc.
Each individual settlement must also have a purpose if it is to be considered living urbanism. That purpose must include all of the functions of daily life if the settlement is to be considered a living thing. If people can’t live in a settlement without leaving for the necessities of life, it’s not a living place. Suburbia is comprised primarily of warehouses for sleeping humans and cannot be considered a living thing because you can’t live there; you can only sleep (and do a few other related activities) there. A liver or a spleen cannot live on its own, nor can suburbia.
Individual buildings also have their purposes, and therefore their types. But just as most cells in a body have multiple functions, the best buildings are those which have many possible uses. There are very few cells in a healthy body that have only a single function. An entire body composed of single-purpose cells could not remain alive for very long, if it could live at all. And a city composed only of single-purpose buildings is not living urbanism, nor is it sustainable.
Every type of settlement has a particular form. A River Port City, for example, snakes along both sides of a river, with one side built more intensely than the other. A Market Town has its heart at an intersection where two or more roads meet. The form of each settlement type begins with the thing that feeds it (the river, the ocean, the roads, the mines, etc.) But settlements are species that can undergo metamorphosis. Hamlets and villages usually have a single initial purpose, as do towns. But as they metamorphosize into cities and metropolises, they take on more and more purposes until they no longer reflect their primary purpose. For example, New York began as a Port Town, but that purpose is now only one of many, and so its form is now more complex than before the city’s most recent metamorphosis.
A living urbanism is produced by a culture at large, not just by a few specialists. If the citizens are not participating in the building of their town to a significant degree, then the settlement that is being created is not alive. Urbanism may be created either through a living process or through a mechanical process. The mechanical process for creating urbanism focuses on the specialties of the specialists that make the system. The New Urbanism admires and aspires to the old places, of living urbanism, but nearly all New Urbanist developments are still built by a mechanism comprised primarily of specialists. We cannot yet claim, therefore, that New Urbanism contains the pervasiveness of life found in a truly living urbanism.
Each type of settlement, each type of Transect zone, and each type of building in a living urbanism springs from a genetic code that contains the essential character of the settlement type, Transect zone, or building. But today, our codes are not helping to create living urbanism because they are based on the mechanical model rather than the model of life. For evidence, consider this: today, there are only a handful of planners alive that can plan a medieval (organic) town to a competent level. Yet in the medieval era, the townspeople built their towns.
Often, these townspeople were illiterate, and they certainly did not draw. So how were they able to build places so great that even the best planners alive today cannot exceed them and seldom even match them? How were they able to transmit the wisdom to the next generation? This transmission device remained a mystery for many years. Some assumed that is was some sort of mystical force that post-industrial people could not understand. Now, however, some believe that the transmission device has been rediscovered, and that it is something very simple, based on the purpose of each pattern: “We do this because…”
Because there is a purpose and a form for each type, and because the culture at large must be part of the process of creating a living urbanism, the code must be simple so that it is easily communicated and easily understood. Each pattern in the code of a settlement type, Transect zone type, or building type should be framed as “We do this because…” “We” signifies that this is a place “we” are building, not a place “they” are building. “Do” signifies that the code is not just theoretical, but that it requires action. “This” signifies the particularity; the code is not just some vague collection of good intentions. “Because” signifies that each pattern has a purpose. If every pattern of every code is framed in this manner, with the plain-spoken rule of thumb of the pattern connected to the reason for the pattern with “We do this because…” then this activates everyone in the culture, and everyone is allowed to think again. Until very recently, this aspect has been missing from nearly all codes, or has been only tenuously attached by a separate commentary document.
A living urbanism grows through a natural process that approximates cell division. Low-Transect-Zone lots are subdivided to make Higher-Transect-Zone lots. This method of growth drove human settlements until about a century ago, having entirely disappeared in new developments. One of the many benefits of the former method is that a settlement is complete at all times, just as an organism is complete at all stages of growth. You don’t see children walking around with one arm until a certain age, nor are they missing fingers or toes as infants. Living urbanism begins with a community of farmsteads. Each farmstead is complete, as is the sub-urban neighborhood block that it is divided into, as are the general urban lots that are further subdivided from the sub-urban lots, as are the Main Street lots that those are further subdivided and densified. This is a quick description of the Sky Method, which has only recently been proposed to approximate the old methods of growth of a living urbanism. This may sound like an entirely foreign concept to anyone steeped in modern development methods, but look back at a series of maps about a century apart showing the growth of an old city. You will see that this was the normal method of growth of living urbanism. So it is our recent system of development that is the foreign interloper instead.
The way we build today attempts to jump straight to final completion of a town by anticipating its climax condition, including that work of new urbanist firms. Until an entire town is complete, it looks like a stage-set. The corollary of a development in its early stages would be a creature missing most of its limbs, muscles, and organs. The only thing it would have in full supply is its bones, because the municipalities insist that the entire infrastructure for a phase be complete before lots can be sold. A skeleton with only a few pieces of tissue attached obviously could not be alive. Nor would you make it alive by continuing to add tissue here and there.
Lest there be any doubt about this poor creature’s inability to live, we have devised the Homeowner’s Association, which is Urbanism’s Chloroform. Because we are terrified of uncertainty, we want to make sure that the climax condition the planners tried to create at the beginning is perpetuated forever, so we immerse the entire place in Urbanism’s Chloroform, ensuring that it never has any chance of taking on life by unknown means in the future. By making change impractical, we make growth impossible. With no chance of growth, there can be no life. So the best that the New Urbanism can do under these conditions is to create portraits of living places, but these portraits are no more alive than any canvas on the wall.
Our system of higher education is the best structure that exists today for spreading wisdom. This structure requires students to spend years in classes, working through countless problems, showing their work and eventually earning a degree. But it is a terribly inefficient structure, as can easily be determined by looking at the proportion of PhDs in a particular population to the total population.
Nature has a better way. Consider humans: each one contains the most complicated code ever contemplated, the human genome. Yet this incredibly complicated genetic material is replicated hundreds of thousands of times every single day, and almost always by humans with no formal training and nothing more than experience learned through observation. Human replication begins when two humans consider each other to be attractive. If the attraction is strong enough, they mate, they breed (not necessarily in that order,) and the genetic material is passed on.
Living urbanism was once built by a very similar process that has now been lost: the Living Tradition. Every tradition begins as a great idea by a single person about how to build something better. If the pattern efficiently achieves its purpose and resonates with their neighbors, it is replicated, and therefore becomes a local pattern. Later, when the local pattern has existed long enough that other people in the region have seen it, they may say “We love this pattern; we want to adopt it into our family of regional traditions.” Most architects today equate tradition to history, but a living tradition bears about as much resemblance to an historical tradition as a living creature does to a fossil; they may both have a similar shape, but one is alive while the other is dead.
So living traditions work because people resonate with, or find beauty in, a particular pattern. Just as nature’s system works because one person resonates with, or finds beauty in, another. But just as people breeding have no need of any detailed knowledge of genetics, people who are replicating a beloved detail have no need of the detailed calculations of the person who first designed the detail. A living tradition embeds wisdom in beauty, just as nature does. So the people only need to know the general “we do this because…”, not the specific details the originator had to work out.
Disease & Death
Disease occurs in a living urbanism just as it does in living creatures. Patterns designed by specialists rather than generalists should be considered highly suspect as potential disease agents. Thoroughfares designed by traffic engineers are a classic example of a specialist’s solution with a single purpose: getting as many cars as quickly as possible from point A to point B. But in doing so, they make no contribution to the overall health of the urbanism. So almost everywhere such patterns are inflicted by the specialists — beginning in the teens, 1920s, and 1930s — they cause disease in the living urbanism.
The rapid, cancerous growth of the very fabric of urbanism is sprawl. Bloated, super-sized cells replicate rapidly, sucking up the resources of the living urbanism until the life of the place is sucked out and the living urbanism dies.
Today, our world is in crisis. We have a pandemic of global proportions of not just one disease agent, but of every sort of specialist-driven virus imaginable. And cities all over the world are eaten up with the cancer of sprawl, so much so that few places remain with any signs of true living urbanism. Many places are preserved in Urbanism’s Cryogenic State: the Historic District. They may appear alive under casual inspection, but will they ever actually live again? And all around them, we can usually find nothing except the sickening, bloated carcass of what might once have started out as living urbanism, but now is just cancerous sprawl. And so the living urbanism died in hideous fashion, and we watched it happen. And as the urbanism died, sustainability died with it.
What can be done? If we are to have any hope of living sustainably again, we must realize that sustainability goes hand-in-hand with a living urbanism. As a matter of fact, so long as it is understood that buildings are as much a part of urbanism as cells are of a body, it’s not too great a stretch to say that sustainability is a living urbanism. The two are inextricably linked; you cannot have sustainability without a living urbanism.
And so, we must revive living traditions, because they are the operating systems of living urbanism. Today, millions of people are working furiously all around the world to try to figure out how to live sustainably. Once we figure it out, (and I’m optimistic that we will,) we simply do not have the luxury of time to spread that wisdom using only the higher education system because it is far too inefficient and slow.
But there is an even worse way to fail. Modernism has at its core the precept that if you are to be significant, your work must be unique. So each significant architect is expected to reconstitute architecture into a personal style like nothing quite seen before. The problem is obvious: millions of the best minds are working today to figure out sustainability. Once it is figured out, if we then require each architect who would be significant to re-invent sustainability in their own personal style, then we can expect nothing other than catastrophic failure. So the requirement of uniqueness goes far beyond the ludicrous to the globally treasonous. It must not be tolerated any longer. We must be allowed to share wisdom! The most effective way of sharing wisdom ever devised and proven is nature’s way: it is a living tradition. And it is the operating system of a living urbanism. We must re-awaken them now!
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