Globetrotting mathematician and theorist Nikos Salingaros hits the nail on the head in his recent analysis of urban ills in “A Schizophrenic Approach to Building Cities,” published on the Meeting of the Minds website. Actually he hits many nails on the head, and while I will quote a few passages here, the essay deserves to be read in its entirety. Usefully, he links readers to his sources throughout. Here is his opening paragraph.
Two currents — so far, irreconcilable and mutually exclusive — are shaping our cities. On the one hand, we have vast construction projects churning profits for multinationals, local firms, and indirectly for stockholders. The media is inundated with their exciting images, and the developing world appears as a testing-ground for the more ambitious (and pharaonic) among those schemes. But are they good for humankind?
He answers his own question in the next paragraph by citing the alternative:
The other design alternative is small-scale, and focuses on human responses to the built environment. It uses proven methods to elicit mental wellbeing and bodily healing responses. Its products look very old-fashioned, not because its practitioners blatantly copy traditional forms, but because the healing responses rely upon a specific complex geometry that is common to all historical buildings and cities.
Salingaros is based at the University of Texas but lectures worldwide and has long worked with architectural theorist Christopher Alexander (author of A Pattern Language). Salingaros has made a name for himself by identifying the many similarities between traditional architecture and the biological traits of nature. Buildings and cities reproduce by using the best practices of builders developed by trial and error as handed down by generations of builders over the centuries. The process mimics the descent of species in nature, and for this reason he calls the resulting architecture and urbanism “living” design.
To expand on this point, I cannot resist quoting a passage from an article co-authored by Salingaros with his frequent writing partner, the urban theorist Michael Mehaffy, taken from “What Historic Structures Can Teach Us About Making a Better Future,” a piece written for the National Trust for Historic Preservation:
This view of change over time is familiar to any biologist. For a biological system, sweeping away the past and starting anew, without the benefit of the past’s genetic evolution, would constitute a catastrophic and destructive event—the genetic equivalent of starting life over with single-celled bacteria. Evolution is not about doing away with the old … and starting with a radical newness. Instead, building blocks of the past are recombined to achieve ever more adaptive complexity and resilience. The process is not static, but neither is it only about change: it is rather about preserving and building on the tested and proven accomplishments of the past.
I noticed this phenomenon in 2003 during a trip to Germany. My brother and I took a train running along the hills above the Rhine and found that many towns and villages seemed to creep up toward the crest of the valley as if they had grown out of the soil. (We were dismayed to see one enchanting village marred by a BP gas station with its obligatory huge flat lime-green roof, the only hint of modernity amid the village’s sea of clay tiles.)
Salingaros’s scientific clarity in describing the two mutually exclusive philosophies of city design extends to their economic, physiological and psychological ramifications. He suggests that the powerful architecture and planning establishments are acutely aware of the problems they perpetuate, and seek in response to “co-opt the ideas presented by the humanist side”:
Bringing nature into cities is a major step in the right direction, but it’s only a palliative if the built geometry remains alien. Unfortunately, our world is largely shaped by typologies that are opposite to what human physiology and psychology require. This continues because the subservient, sycophantic media praise — instead of condemn — designs that assault our senses.
Salingaros is, if not optimistic, hopeful that cities can embrace living design by promoting mixed-use development and a wide variety of scales typical of older cities that have not yet been neutered by modernist sterility. Cities, he says, need to subordinate automobiles to people. He identifies resilience as the vital characteristic of cities that work, changing over time in ways that learn from and reflect the natural patterns of historical development:
Resilience comes from linked processes and structures working on many different scales. Solutions are found in self-built spontaneous settlements and in traditional cities. Historic evolution took place towards healthier environments through biophilia and design patterns, but city form as decided by design ideology linked to power cannot re-configure into a new system. By worshipping “images of the future,” society doesn’t re-use older successful solutions, and this limitation prevents resilient systems from forming.
Salingaros does not expect the proposals being made for living urbanism to surmount the current reign of modernist sclerosis. And yet:
Yet some optimism is indeed called for. We propose an economic solution that can still benefit developers while achieving human-scale urbanism. Legislators can re-write the scale-erasing codes enforced after World War II, because those make the living urban fabric we wish for illegal. Those of us who know the science now consult with architecture and building firms. We apply Alexandrian Patterns and supporting geometrical tools for adaptation. Neuroscience experiments are finally validating what we knew empirically all along. We are convincing stakeholders of the health and long-term advantages of biophilic design.
He concludes with the hope that this good work can bring results:
That is highly unlikely, yet in this age of information, major world changes could occur on very short time scales. There is hope!