[iDC] Nikos Salingaros on peer to peer urbanism

Michael Bauwens michelsub2003 at yahoo.com
Fri Sep 12 11:54:26 UTC 2008


I conducted an interview on p2p urbanism with the author of the essay that I'm summarizing below.

The interview is available at http://www.p2pfoundation.net/Nikos_Salingaros_on_Peer_to_Peer_Urbanism and will appear on our blog in a few days.

(please note there is already an associated four-part interview on the same topic by Eric Hunting, which starts here, http://blog.p2pfoundation.net/eric-hunting-on-the-historical-origins-of-peer-to-peer-architecture/2008/08/21)

Here's the summary of the essay, a take on a kind of peer to peer approach to urbanism, from an advance draft sent to us by Nikos Salingaros.

Despite the complex sounding title, this is an entirely accessible essay:

“Geospatial Analysis and Living Urban Geometry” By Pietro
Pagliardini, Sergio Porta & Nikos A. Salingaros. To appear in: Bin
Jiang and Xiaobai Angela Yao, Editors, Geospatial Analysis and Modeling
of Urban Environments: Structure and Dynamics, Springer, New York, 2009.

The abstract states the starting point of the approach very clearly:

“We condemn the high-rise tower block as an unsuitable typology
for a living city, and propose to re-establish human-scale urban fabric
that resembles the traditional city. Pedestrian presence, density, and
movement all reveal that open space between modernist buildings is not
urban at all, but neither is the open space found in today’s sprawling
suburbs. True urban space contains and encourages pedestrian
interactions, and has to be designed and built according to specific
rules. The opposition between traditional self-organized versus
modernist planned cities challenges the very core of the urban planning
discipline. Planning has to be re-framed from being a tool creating a
fixed future to become a visionary adaptive tool of dynamic states in

The authors state that what is needed is an entirely different approach, that abandons top down planning:

“We are not speaking about the failure of a set of theories, or
even single or a group of architects and planners: it is the failure of
an entire discipline, which originated at the end of the nineteenth
century around ideas of top-down control. Urban phenomena have now been
recognized as enormously complex and therefore inherently
uncontrollable from the top down. We do not just need better architects
and planners: we actually need architects and planners of an entirely
different kind, who take the challenge of self-organization in cities
seriously enough to investigate new forms of description, prediction,
and intervention. Especially, we need a broader awareness that all this
has nothing to do with style and everything to do with structure. The
process of spatial evolution in traditional cities has always been
unplanned, and so it must be in part for good future cities. Planners
have to focus on the structural drivers of such evolution in order to
manage the seeds of change, and not try to control its final state.”

Here’s a more detailed outline of their critique:

“The main misunderstanding with today’s urban form is that
planners mistakenly believe that priority must be given to the fastest
automotive traffic (Hall, 2008). This error in thinking precludes
planning for all the myriad small-scale movements and slow flows
necessary for a living city. Another casualty of this approach is that,
as a general principle, flows are made to erase stationary places such
as plazas and parks that combine tangential pedestrian flow with
pedestrian nodes. Those spaces must be protected from street traffic
(Salingaros, 2005).

Modernist planning is by its very nature devoted to separation.
That practice draws back upon outdated scientific thinking (from which
modernism claimed its roots), which in fact cannot deal with complex
systems (Porta, 1999). Cities, like organisms, are the prime examples
of complex systems. Separation is nevertheless the gospel in every
aspect of modernist theories on cities; therefore, separation of urban
space users is just an application of this attitude to over-regulating
urban life. One example of this, in addition to squares and parks, is
the boulevard. Boulevards successfully combine rapid mechanical flows,
slow mechanical flows, pedestrian flows, pedestrian stationary nodes,
etc. (Jacobs et. al., 2003). Boulevards were legally banned at the
beginning of the 20th century because they were complex spaces that
gave place to different kinds of networks altogether. A healthy mix of
social classes and uses is obtained first of all by having an urban
design that allows such a mix to occur. There exist distinct
approaches, all converging towards a type of urban form that brings us
back to the great historical city tradition.”

But can we actually know these rules. The authors affirm that this is indeed the case:

“This characteristic ribbon geometry of urban pedestrian space follows very simple rules (Salingaros, 2005):

1. A city’s life is the direct result of pedestrians using its public urban spaces.
2. Urban space is an open container for crisscrossing footpaths,
protected from, but at the same time connected to all other forms of
3. Urban space also provides the setting for the crucial human contact with nature.
4. The function of building fronts is to enhance the enclosure and informational properties of urban space.
5. All urban space is connected in a pedestrian network: sidewalks simply widen out into plazas.
6. A street is urban space that allows itself to be traversed by
vehicular traffic, sacrificing pedestrian space locally in exchange for
connecting pedestrian space globally.
7. Where the pedestrian network crosses another transport
network, pedestrians must be protected by the physical structure itself.
8. When a city doesn’t provide living urban space, private
developers will do so, but then it is disconnected from the urban fabric.”

To put these principles into practice, what is needed is a practice of urban seeding, instead of urban planning:

““wholeness” (Alexander, 2001-2005; Alexander et. al., 1987) …
can only emerge and cannot be designed in cities, we need new practices
for the description, prediction, and transformation of urban spaces of
an entirely different genre. This different approach, which we term
“urban seeding” instead of “urban planning”.

This calls for a ‘neo-traditional’ approach, that doesn’t just look
at the past of premodern living cities, but uses the new technology for
its capacity to uncover living patterns:

“In short, GIS helps to develop a much deeper understanding of
key factors that rule the emerging spatial order at the structural
level of city evolution. Up until very recently, this extremely
important factor has been elusive because of our limited methods of
measurement. Gathering and processing data on human behavior in the
past required very costly video cameras set up for weeks in a
particular spot (Whyte, 1988). Now, we can display an enormous amount
of data in visual form, processed in various ways that reference
geographical locations in space by means of remote sensing techniques
associated with GIS (Senseable City Lab, 2006). Discovered patterns of
use that confirm earlier theoretical results can be used as the basis
for a radical re-organization of urban use and government policy. Where
strong connections are concentrated only into a few channels, and if
those channels are exclusively long-distance, then the urban morphology
must clearly change to encourage shorter connections.”

With such visualation at our disposal, the following method can be used:

“As we accumulate data on pedestrian presence and movement, we
can pick out and classify those urban regions where people can be
found. Then, we can follow movement to plot frequency and length of
pedestrian trips. For example, the front entrance to a suburban house
is rarely used, remaining an expensive and stubbornly decorative
architectural element. On the other hand, traditional urban space in
historic cities, and open spaces in owner-built informal settlements
(favelas) both attract an incredibly high density of human presence.
Studies establish correlations between human presence and the shape of
urban space (Salingaros, 2005). Those spaces are alive, providing
paradigmatic urban environments of a living city. There is a growing
interest in technologies for the remote sensing of people in urban
spaces and for tracking the movement of persons in sectors of cities.
There is more experience for small groups of people in small places. ”

The authors propose a new metaphor that is distinct of both the ancient and modern city visions, i.e. the city as computer:

“The “city-as-computer”, distinguishes the two parts of any
computing system into hardware and software (Salingaros, 2005: Chapter
7). A computer is clearly separated into its physical components (as
built), and its software (which is strictly informational): each relies
upon the other to work together. In a city, hardware is built into
solid structures (buildings, roads, infrastructure, etc.) whereas
software consists of the moving elements (people, cars, goods, energy,
etc.). A city provides the solid framework upon which movement of
information (the analogy to software) can take place.”

Distinguishing strong and weak network links is useful as well:

“As described accurately by Hillel Schocken in his essay
“Intimate Anonymity” (Schocken, 2003), human beings have a craving for
community, and it could just as well be a community of strangers.
Seeing other people up close has a biologically beneficial effect on
our organism (Kellert et. al., 2008). 
This is one aspect of biophilia: we crave intimate contact with
plants, natural environments, other animals, and other human beings. We
cannot satisfy this need for contact with only our close friends, thus
the traditional urban environment of non-threatening strangers turns
out to be a key factor in an emotionally-nourishing city
(Oliva-i-Casas, 2001).

Scientists point out the importance of weak links between
networks that are strongly connected internally (Granovetter, 1973).
Those weak links tie distinct networks together into a larger network.
We interpret this mechanism in the urban context as follows. People
have a strongly-connected network supporting their everyday life.
Strong connections do not necessarily mean nearby ones, however (a
drastic reversal from village life). We could be telecommuting, working
for a company in another city, or driving our children to a good school
far from home. Those distant links are the strong ones. The weak links
in this case could be the persons and urban nodes close to one’s own
residence or workplace. Opening up the possibilities for casual contact
and pleasurable direct experience outside one’s normal routine is what
makes the city alive.

Unlike in the modernist planning philosophy, where behavior is
strictly imposed on the population, we are referring to creating
situations that make individual choice possible. We wish to facilitate
the random exposure and contact with other human beings, which in a
properly designed urban environment is not chaotic. Gathering of people
as well as spatial changes at the micro-scale of the urban structure
are not pre-determined by anyone else, but they are influenced by urban
geometry and spatial morphology.”

There is of course a lot more of interest in this essay, but here is their conclusion:

“We have inherited a rich variety of invariant patterns for
urban structures. These have changed very little from what we see in
traditional settlements, so we can apply those typologies to generate
living urban structure today, i.e., a type of urban fabric that fosters
the informal human exchanges which generate “life between buildings”
(Gehl, 1996). Living urban fabric evolves with time through countless
unplanned and unpredictable grass-roots contributions by citizens and
social actors at all scales. The problem is that most architects and
planners, influenced by decades of anti-traditionalist practices, have
forgotten the morphology of such living urban structure. In fact, the
discipline of architecture and urban planning itself as we know it
needs to be substantially re-framed in a new “urban seeding” approach,
so as to embrace the idea of self-organization as a key feature of
successful urban spaces. Lacking those insights, whenever arrogant
modernist and “star” architects try to design urban fabric today, it
turns out to be dead. Those who argue most fanatically against the use
of traditional forms are ironically the same persons who defend the
deadening sameness of the sterile modernist forms they wish to apply
for every case and for every locality. The diversity and adaptivity of
traditional typologies is our guarantee against homogenization. There
exist common bases, biological and perceptual, for any architecture and
urbanism, and every human being can verify if those are adaptable to
our living environment. We change the forms, following changing
cultural traditions and needs, in which the common rules of behavior
are manifested. What remains invariant, however, is the biological
perception common to all people. ”

Request the full version from Nikos Salingaros, email: yxk833 at my.utsa.edu

 The P2P Foundation researches, documents and promotes peer to peer alternatives.

Wiki and Encyclopedia, at http://p2pfoundation.net; Blog, at http://blog.p2pfoundation.net; Newsletter, at http://integralvisioning.org/index.php?topic=p2p 

Basic essay at http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=499; interview at  http://poynder.blogspot.com/2006/09/p2p-very-core-of-world-to-come.html; video interview, at http://www.masternewmedia.org/news/2006/09/29/network_collaboration_peer_to_peer.htm


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