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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Big Bang Planning vs Emergent Urbanism

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Architect and urban planner William Galloway recently wrote an op-ed piece at Archinet entitled “Big Bangs, Slums, and Suburbia(via Planitizen) which sums up some of my discomfort with developments like the Griffintown project and the Quadrilatère Saint-Laurent.

Galloway criticizes architects and  planners, a group in which he includes himself, as being:

entranced with the possibility of using our arts to magically sweep aside – all at once – every wrong that we see before us; replacing entire cities and neighborhoods with little mini-novas of creative destruction. The Big Bang model of urban planning – where existing matter is rubbed out, the new stuff is all good, everything is pre-decided, and the outcome inexorable.

While I question his view the traditional suburban form can become sustainable with a few technological tweaks, I wholeheartedly agree with his statement that, within the built environment, “Flexibility is not a luxury it is a necessity…”

Perhaps the opposite of “Big Bang planning,” would be “Emergent Ubanism,” a theory elaborated by local urban theorist Mathieu Hélie on his website by the same name.

His dense, academic tone can challenge a blogger’s attention span, but his articles have fascinating implications. Drawing on theories of emergence, complexity, and fractal geometry to explain the urban form, Hélie elaborates his theory in a series of 3 posts: The Journey to Emergence, The Fundamentals of Urban Complexity, and The Cultivation of a Spontaneous City. (Its also worth reading his definitions of these concepts).

In one post, Hélie nails down some of the problems with “Big Bang” planning:

To someone focused on a single large-scale goal, small-scale problems like a complicated permitting process or bad street design are irrelevant. Someone focused on a single large-scale goal does not see any drawbacks to using repression to realize the plan, like zoning and urban growth boundaries. The city they envision does not have a small scale, and this is now the reality of our landscape: urbanization at enormous scale, with no concern for details and no sustainability.

In contrast, complexity theory deals with problems that exist at different scales simultaneously. The science of complexity focuses on the process by which a system is generated rather than the final outcome, which, Hélie says, is generally too complicated to wrap one’s head around anyways.

In emergent systems, individuals’ actions are governed by simple rules determined by their present state and their immediate surroundings. Over time, a number of actors can generate a complex, yet ordered structure. One example of emergence in nature is a termite mound. Hélie proposes that older cities like Serafos, Greece (pictured above), and modern-day squatter settlements are also emergent systems.

Very attractive spontaneous cities have a specific pattern of the urban tissue. It consists of similar vernacular buildings that appear very simple when considered individually, but produce a visually fascinating landscape when considered as a whole. This is a form of fractal geometry.

In another post, Hélie describes single-developer, mixed-use developments as “fake complexity

Mixed-used neighborhoods work because they provide a marketplace for mixed people. Each person brings along his own specialized economic know-how, and so knows how best to provide in details the building program for his specific economic activity. A neighborhood, in that sense, becomes mixed-used because it is the product of mixed users all contributing their part to its complexity. What speculative mixed-used development does is force the developer to control and predict every building program in the neighborhood, then finance the entire development as one investment…

Hélie’s proposition, which resonates well with my intuitive feelings about the city, is to have very few rules and to Make Little Plans. Millions of little plans.

What are your thoughts?

Image: urban form evolved over millenia in Serifos in Greece (from Emergent Urbanism blog) and mixed use development planned for Montreal.



  1. Well, I certainly agree about the Big Bang in terms of disastrous megaprojects such as “Village Griffintown” and “le Quartier des spectacles” and many others, but some central planning is utterly necessary, for instance if we should really develop a public transport network that, along with “active transport”, would move most people.

    He is full of it about the suburbs. Fortunately on the island, most suburbs are former villages and were once served by railway lines and trams. We would not have a terrible problem densifying them to make a carfree society possible, but it would take more than a few tweaks.

    An interesting microlocal example for me is the so-called meadow between Mile-End and la Petite Patrie. It has a wealth of flora and is used in interesting ways, but at the same time there is a dire need for social and affordable housing in the area, located near the métro and important amenities of sustainable urban life. I wouldn’t like to see the entire area developed in cookie-cutter blocks of flats, but I can’t oppose people’s right to live in the city without needing a car or a long and complicated commute. It is an opportunity for sustainable development, and I hope such development can take place while involving and listening to citizens on both sides of the tracks.

  2. Interesting food for thought. I agree about needing to address all (or at least key) layers of planning and consequence for a given concept. We’ve all seen big projects tank or end up with budget overruns because details were missed. Even when things work, superimposing a master plan without valuing the “little things” can be anything from irritating or devastating for individuals, affordability and local flavour. I’ve seen this in London postwar building, over 12 years in the booming US Southwest, and way back when during the gradual demolition of Overdale. Every glamorous master plan should have a squad of people (staff and volunteer stakeholders) willing to tackle the boring details – and with enough of a voice to implement change.

    On the “small plans” front, I’ve really enjoyed how Montreal has improved in pockets and bursts during the 15 years I’ve been away. This is a city that feeds on and feeds creative individualism, and I’d hate to see large-scale planning – while not always bad, and necessary in contexts like infrastructure and major funding – swamp these small-scale efforts, most of which net the organisers nothing but pride, calluses, and maybe a nice place to have coffee.

  3. I don’t see how having few rules on city planning is a good thing. Just look at the large urban centers of the third world, full of unplanned slums and insufficient road infrastructure.

    In the 1920’s in Montreal, there were no rules regarding the building of gas stations. Consequently, hundreds of them popped up overnight. Most of them have closed since (because the market for gasoline couldn’t sustain them), but we are still living with the remnants of some of these toxic lots throughout the city. Talking about emerging cities is great, until one realizes that individuals with their millions of different plans will primarily act with self interest in mind and not for the collective well-being.

  4. I think there are sensible rules, known as design patterns, which if followed correctly tend to produce human(e), livable environments — such as the ones put forth in Christopher Alexander’s “A Pattern Language,” which helped provide the underpinnings for what we now call New Urbanism.

    It doesn’t mean a complete free-for-all, but rather, order that emerges from complex algorithms, composed of individual instructions such as “have light on two sides of a room,” “build out to the curb,” “put car lanes in the back instead of garages in front,” “have a permeable street boundary,” etc. It is the interaction of all of these instructions — in essence, creative limitations — that generates the character of a neighborhood.

    For or better or worse, our city’s DNA evolves through revisions to planning permissions, urban plans, building codes, tax incentives and so on. With gentle, longer-term guidance, we might be able to help reconcile some of our past planning disasters.

    That still leaves a lot of room for creative, individual buildings and blocks. What might be interesting is to adopt some of the tenets of remix culture to create a new and uniquely Montreal style of building, that seems at once familiar yet new, modern yet would fit easily along the greystones of St-Denis Boulevard.

  5. Peter, your example of gas stations is tainted with an anti-automobile sentiments commonly found on this blog.

    This being said, the rules that had to be enacted in 1920 were about decontamination of the soil, not if or where a gas station has to be built (or any other business).

    Polluting industries and business should have paid into a fund that would serve the decontamination of land when their business ceased to exist.

    But that easier said than done, especially in 1920, when the term ecology and environmentalism didn’t even exist. ;)

    P.S. Don’t quote me on that, but I read somewhere that land soiled with oil naturally cleanse itself after 10-15 years, some bacteries feed themselves on oil and breaks its molecules into smaller non-toxic ones.

  6. How can anti-automobile sentiments “taint” anything? Rather more the car that taints things and destroys not only air quality but the urban form. Of course anti-car sentiments – and activism – will be commonly found on a blog about urbanism, including urban ecology. Surprise?

    Some of the most important anti “big-bang development” protests concerned plans for autoroutes that would cut neighbourhoods in two.

  7. Peter,

    There is no question that rules are required, the question is what kind of rules are effective? You can make centralized, bureaucratic rules that try to catch every mistake that is made, and yet still miss the next unknown mistake. That was the problem with gas stations, no one had any experience with gas stations before, and it couldn’t be known they would be a mistake. Ideally we need rules that can catch all mistakes while remaining open-ended. In natural and organic systems, these rules are usually localized and contextual. In cellular automata, they are based on immediate neighbors, yet create infinitely complex structures.

    That’s the key to emergence. Defining very simple rules that nevertheless can create endless complexity in the structure of things.

    You may think that third world slums are horrible places to live, and in comparison to our cities they definitely are. But what is not understood is that slums are open-ended systems, while modern planned cities are closed-ended. Slums offer the best solution to people who have limited choices. It’s the modern planning that creates the slums because it can’t fit everyone and everything that is needed. The solution is not to demolish slums, but to make modern cities more open-ended. Then the slums will be abandoned.

  8. If modern planning was responsible for creating slums, then every Canadian city should have slums, no? I tend to think it’s rather a problem of distribution of resources.

    I agree with Maria that it’s difficult to see certain positive large-scale projects, e.g., the metro, simply emerging.

    It may be that there are some sensible rules of the sort AJ evokes, but his examples don’t inspire. “Build out to the curb”? Even ignoring what it literally implies (i.e., no sidewalks) as unintentional, it would eliminate the possibility of planting a deciduous tree between a south-facing building and the street. Yet, in passive solar design, this is well-known to provide cooling in the summer while retaining solar heating in the winter (leaves block sunlight, then fall allowing it to penetrate). And car lanes in the back only makes sense if this is the only automotive access. Otherwise, every building has paved surfaces on both sides, which is costly and wasteful. Imagine how much money Montreal could save if it didn’t have to pave, light, and clear snow from all the alleys in addition to all the streets.

  9. Kevin’s proposal (if it is that) about alleys is intriguing – if all garbage/recycling/house-moving is now done from the street, why not tear up the back pavement over time and give over alleys to pedestrians, cyclists, gardens, etc? Police + fire may use the lanes for access (?), and we could end up with more rats or other critters with extra growth, but on the other hand, my ex and I might not have been robbed twice via the back window…

  10. “If modern planning was responsible for creating slums, then every Canadian city should have slums, no? I tend to think it’s rather a problem of distribution of resources.”

    Modern planning alone does not create a slum. There must also be a zone that escapes it. It’s probable that the planning system in Canada is tight enough that this doesn’t take place. In countries with weaker governments, this isn’t true. And even in the United States it is becoming possible for slums to emerge.

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