Cities as Self-Organizing Systems

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The University of Canberra recently held a forum on urban design and healthy cities. A provocation was posed by the organizers at the final research seminar – it asked the question- was urban design making our cities sick? It was intended to provoke debate, and it did. A project officer from the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects (AILA) argued that design could provide the solutions to the city’s problems- especially its health problems. This bothered me as it assumed the city could be thought of as being in an unwell condition. A state on being sick and design was a cure- a panacea- a solution to the problem. After a few probing questions about how design reconciles competing priorities, the project officer offered no new answers, perhaps because this panel member vested all her faith in the power of design- or perhaps we weren’t asking the right questions.

This scenario is all too common when experts, policy makers and interested urban design laypersons come together to wrestle with the complexity of the conditions that face our cities. So I have taken up my own challenge, and–within the Urban Times editors politely imposed word count- I will propose a different approach to examining the urban question. The following ten propositions about cities are based on the work of Brian Walker and David Salt in their new book, Resilience Practice. Written for resource managers in particular, Resilience Practice offers much for urban designers to think about in terms of their own thinking and practice. These ten propositions and questions are just a taste of resilience thinking- I strongly recommend any one working in the field of urban design policy and practice to read this book.

Australian Urban designers look to European cities for inspiration- but how resilient are they? Image- Andrew MacKenzie 2012

1. Cities are self-organized systems: Cities are systems that we depend on. They are complex and adaptive- this means they are self-organizing. The first question we should ask is what role we want to play in this self-organized system?

2. Systems have thresholds: There are limits to what extent a self-organizing system can be changed and still recover the essential characteristics of that system. The second question is what thresholds are we affecting by our decisions and actions?

3. Systems have multiple domains: Many approaches to managing systems don’t acknowledge that we are dealing with systems that have linkages between social, economic and biophysical domains that make up the system. The third question might be: do we acknowledge the multiple domains and the linkages between those domains when we propose changes to part of a city?

4. Systems operate in adaptive cycles: Self-organizing systems change over time through internal processes and cycles of interaction between components of that system.  The forth question challenges our assumptions about the problem we are facing. If the problem (or condition) is not fixed but dynamic, then what is the assumed state of the problem we have identified in an urban setting?

5. Scales of systems are linked and nested: Self-organizing systems operate over a range of different scales of space and time, and each scale goes through a range of different adaptive cycles that influence one another. The fifth question has multiple nested dimensions. At what scale are we examining the problem, and what effects will our intervention have on smaller and larger scales influenced by our decisions?

6. What is resilience: Resilience is the capacity to envisage a system as self-organizing, with thresholds, and linked domains operating in cycles. This is not and should not be the first question- although tempting to the urban buzz-wordists. Question six: are we thinking about the dimensions of the problem and the effects of our decisions in terms of the system’s capacity to absorb the changes that we propose? More importantly are we proposing changes to shift a system to a new condition as a result of our decisions?

7. Adapting and transforming are two complementary strategies for intervention: Resilient systems can be both good and bad depending on the circumstances, objectives and values of the operators in the system. A good system can be adapted to build up resilience to shocks; a bad system can be transformed to push it into another threshold toward a better system. Question seven: Is design the correct term?- are systems misunderstood by urban designers when they are thought of in terms discrete problems requiring a design solution? Should we focus on the impact of our actions rather than framing the urban condition as a problem?

8. Building resilience costs:  Building resilience comes with the cost of the actions and associated investment in those actions and the indirect costs of lost opportunities by not using the resources in a different way. Question eight: how should we measure the cost of our decisions, in something so complex as a system? Can we arrive at a more relevant approach to spending money, time and effort on urban renewal projects designed to help a few?

9. Not everything is important in a system: Everything is not connected to everything else and you don’t have to know everything about everything. Resilient thinking is about finding the right level of simplicity to examine and act on a system. Question nine: is the answer to question eight in question nine? Is that the right level of simplicity?

Is Canberra a resilient city? Image- Andrew MacKenzie 2012

10. Resilience is NOT about NOT changing- Strategies for resilience are not about supporting a system to return to the same condition before a disturbance or shock. Holding a system in exactly the same condition erodes the resilience of that system. Perhaps this last point warrants an answer to a proposition tabled at the research seminar. The same project officer from AILA proposed that we shouldn’t focus on how design makes cities sick but rather how it makes us well. Nice sentiment, but such propositions perpetuate a held view that urban design affirms what we already know, and in doing so offer no alternative. We should be asking how urban design makes a city sick and if the system needs transforming.