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A Living Systems Approach to Urban Planning

January 6, 2011

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to present A Living Systems Approach to the Planning and Design of Sustainable Urban Spaces and Cities to local urban planners; my talk was received with enthusiasm and I am pleased to share it to a broader audience.

This presentation addresses the following questions:

  • What gives an urban space its character, personality, quality, identity, and its sense of coherence and order?
  • What are the characteristics of a sustainable, adaptive, innovative, resilient, and regenerative city?
  • What do living systems teach us about the attributes of a healthy and regenerative city and what are the implications for city planning and design?

Here is a high level overview of the 3 sections of my presentation:

Section 1 –  Paradigm Shift: Shifting our Mental Models

While the reductionist scientific method we inherited from Descartes and Newton has proven to be very effective for the development of technological innovations, this approach is very limited when dealing with the complex adaptive challenges faced by our cities today and even more so, by the cities of tomorrow: population density or lack of; social justice issues; poverty; economic issues; environmental problems such as pollution (water and air), watershed health, greenhouse gases emission, waste management; energy issues; food accessibility; and so on.

Systems thinking teaches us that complex systems have emergent properties that do not reside in any of their parts.  In order to understand the whole, we must embrace complexity and focus on the dynamic interactions between the parts (feedback loops).

Complex systems are dynamic and unpredictable; they cannot be controlled or managed.   Most often, addressing a problem in isolation may cause another problem over time.  Fortunately, the understanding of the systemic structures of our urban environments may allow us to find high leverage points where to intervene to positively influence the future of our cities.   The highest leverage points, however, are to be found in our worldviews and mental models.

Section 2 – The Living Systems Approach

This section considers the key attributes of living systems: openness; purpose; autopoiesis (self-creating); structure-determined behavior; diversity and differentiation; adaptation; self-organization; and emergence, and discusses these attributes within the context of a city.

A city that is ‘open’ facilitates the development of connections, interactions and relationships.  Efficient, interconnected physical infrastructures facilitate exchange of goods and mobility of people internally within the city and externally with its region and beyond.  The presence of open/public spaces as well as the elimination of any “walls,” physical or metaphorical, support interpersonal and intercultural interactions.  Communication network facilitates exchange of knowledge, talent, qualified labor and investments.

From an evolutionary perspective, a city that is ‘open’ continuously and dynamically changes and evolves over time.  It encourages community engagement, stewardship and leadership in envisioning the city’s future (a city developed by the people for the people).

An autopoietic city is a city that uses its network of communication to maintain life and its sense of identity, i.e. the culture of the place.  The physical, social, cultural, political, economic structures of a city reciprocally influence one another in a way that is mutually reinforcing.   A city has the power to choose to redesign its (infra)structures and institutions so that to generate new patterns of behavior, thereby enhancing the quality of life and of the surrounding natural system.

Diversity is necessary for creativity and survival.  A healthy city encourages diversity at all levels: culture and ethnicities; physical and knowledge assets; characters and styles; built and open spaces; public and private spaces; and so on.

A healthy city is one that has developed its adaptive capacity and resilience in order to flexibly learn, self-organize and adapt to contingencies.  The transformation of a city over time should increase its level of coherence and wholeness and strong sense of identity.  A healthy, regenerative city cannot be designed or built.  These qualities are emergent.

Section 3 – Implications for Urban Planning, Design and Community Involvement

From a living systems’ perspective, sustainability is a capacity, not merely a set of goals, metrics or criteria, nor a ‘thing’ that can be built.  A living systems approach to urban planning embraces complexity (as opposed to reducing it by focusing on individual parts independently) and focuses on building the adaptive (learning) capacity of the place: it is about sustaining life — an evolving process of continual renewal.  The understanding of the local context is primary to increase the resilience of a city.

One cannot acquire tacit knowledge of a place solely through analysis.  The emergent qualities of a place can only be understood by experiencing the place.  Consequently, city planning and design should support processes that increase participants’ learning and discovery and help people reconnect to the place where they live.

There are no easy and simple solutions to the design or sustainable and regenerative cities.  Urban planning is an adaptive, transformative process that requires us to challenge our beliefs, values and mental models.  The process must transfer ownership and leadership to the community and leverage the collective intelligence that resides locally so that creative solutions emerge out of the collaboration between stakeholders.

“Life accepts only partners, not bosses.  We cannot stand outside a system as an objective, distant director.  There is no objective ground to stand on anywhere in the entire universe.  Our disconnection — our alleged objectivity — is an illusion; and even if we fail to realize this, the system will notice it immediately…Systems do not accept direction, only provocation.”

~Margaret Wheatley, A Simpler Way

Download presentation.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 7, 2011 3:50 am

    Glad to get an overview of Living Systems, makes total sense, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the Pattern Language and develop more essence to the things I create. On a city scale this is very exciting stuff and can of course happen from the bottom up or the top down, people just need to have some emotional check-in’s once in a while and objectively observe and engage with their space, instead of just passing by.
    Makes me think of things that were going through my head while on my way to work in SF for those years, very Situationist and feeling that we need to have art in everything we do spend a moment and dérive (a concept I enjoy) – you know have a design that allows people to be drawn to the places that make sense to them on deeper levels… quite possibly leading to open spaces where people can engage with each other with a spirit they might have forgotten…Thanks for the stimulation to rethink about the space we live in!

  2. April 9, 2011 5:58 pm

    Hello Beatrice! How are you?!
    Thank you for this post–I agree wholeheartedly, and only wish that this perspective were more represented within my department, DUSP. I’m wondering if you would be willing to re-post this article on the blog of the Community Innovators’ Lab (CoLab) at MIT? ( If so, I’ll contact Alexa (the site admin) and let her know that you’d like to post, and she can get in touch with you about how. I would love for more people in the Urban Planning program at MIT to be exposed to this way of understanding cities. On a personal note, I’d love to hear what you’re up to!

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