pattern language, politics

Obama Pattern Language Primer — 6

Christopher Alexander starts his book A Pattern Language with Independent Regions, which is a blanket term for an area with a general boundary, large enough to incorporate all of the subsequent patterns right down to your personal stuff. These notes are an effort to converse with Alexander’s great work, published 31 years ago.

Times have changed and we have at least some possibility now of injecting Alexander’s concerns into the debate about a post-oil society, a debate that will be beginning during the Obama Era.

Here are the posts in this series to date:


And here is the online version of Alexander’s Pattern Language — a hypertext outline that is your best introduction to this wonderful book. Each of these posts deals with a cluster of patterns.


Here is today’s cluster:

Both in the neighborhoods and the communities, and in between them, in the boundaries, encourage the formation of local centers.

  • Eccentric Nucleus
  • Density Rings
  • Activity Nodes
  • Promenade
  • Shopping Street
  • Night Life
  • Interchange
  • Eccentric Nucleus (May be part of Four-Story Limit , Magic of the City , Community of 7000, Subculture Boundary)

    Alexander says: “The random character of local densities confuses the identity of our communities, and also creates a chaos in the pattern of land use.”

    The rules Alexander proposes to remedy this can be read at the link above. My own belief is that the communities of 7,000 that he assumes will be gathered in enclosed areas where there are no cars. Therefore they will have a reasonably uniform density and there will be space between these nodes or settlements or towns.

    Density Rings (May be part of Eccentric Nucleus, Mosaic of Subcultures, Community of 7000 )

    This deals with the need to integrate all elements of a community, residence, shopping, etc. My suggestion is that residences form the perimeter of the car-free settlements, in part so they have an exterior view and in part so that some provision can be made for vehicles that continue to be privately owned. Instead of the two car garage, the exterior space, perhaps under the matrix, for a vehicle, bikes, whatever. I would lard the residential ring with small commercial establishment like convenience stores. cafes, and internet nodes. I might have another ring of facing residences for those with no vehicles. I would devote the center to open spaces and also to the larger concerns needed to complete a proper town, entertainment, sports, work nodes, services.

    Activity Nodes (May be part of Identifiable Neighbourhood , Network of Paths and Cars, Eccentric Nucleus, Subculture Boundary), Promenade)

    Alexander says, “Community facilities scattered individually through the city do nothing for the life of the city.”

    His solution: “Create nodes of activity throughout the community, spread about 300 yards apart. First identify those existing spots in the community where action seems to concentrate itself. Then modify the layout of the paths in the community to bring as many of them through these spots as possible. This makes each spot function as a “node” in the path network. Then, at the center of each node, make a small public square, and surround it with a combination of community facilities and shops which are mutually supportive.”

    I fully agree that this concept should be applied but this can only happen in a car-free, that is to say vehicular traffic free area. The draconian premise of my version of pattern language is that we can economically create the cities of the future by creating residential-commercial-cultural cells or towns which ate vehicle free. Populations of around 7,000 can be contained within a space that is less than a mile in diameter, with plenty of room for these nodes. They can be built on levels of no more than a cumulative four stories above ground. They can be varied in design and each have their own distinctive character. Without a decision to go vehicle-free we have no basis for creating a plan that will eventually work. Will this happen all at once, by fiat? Of course not. Entrepreneurs and venture capitalists will have to gather the billions needed to build an ecomatrix that will handle all elements of recycling and energy creation and flll it with a livable environment that is based on the ideal of Alexander and others. It is a seismic shift and will only happen when we accept the basic vehicle-free, scale-that-enables-ecosanity premise.

    Promenade (May be part of Mosaic of Subcultures, Community of 7000, Activity Nodes)

    Alexander says: “Each subculture needs a center for its public life: a place where you can go to see people, and to be seen.”

    Yes. I generally envision that the residential perimeters will be accessed by a spiral graded sort of walkway that moves from the base to the top — a four-story easy grade. At various levels internal to the perimeter excitement would be ensured by the creation of “squares” just as exist in Rome or Paris of on Capri.

    Shopping Street (May be part of Magic of the City, Promenade, Web of Shopping)

    Alexander says: Shopping centers depend on access: they need locations near major traffic arteries. However, the shoppers them selves don’t benefit from traffic: they need quiet, comfort, and convenience, and access from the pedestrian paths in the surrounding area.”

    By eliminating vehicular traffic we create the possibility of an entirely new shopping pattern. The need for delivery of larger items would be handled not by having the items in the shops, but by having samples or guided access to online presentations that would lead to deliveries rather than carrying things off in a car. Many large ticket items would no longer be needed as dwellings would be designed to largely incorporate what we now think of as furniture, By standardizing “rooms” and making them somewhat like Lego elements, modular, one could select (order) rooms with the frameworks for sleeping, sitting and so forth. Home repair would be vastly diminished.

    Night Life (May be part of Magic of the City, Community of 7000 , Promenade)

    Says Alexander: “Most of the city’s activities close down at night; those which stay open won’t do much for the night life of the city unless they are together.

    In the nodes or towns I envision, Alexander’s concern would be met by the existence of a 24/7 culture that could extend from internet cafes and eating places to entertainment and other public facilities.

    Interchange (May be part of Web of Public Transportation , Local Transport Areas)

    Alexander says: “Interchanges play a central role in public transportation. Unless the interchanges are working properly, the public transportation system will not be able to sustain itself.”

    I solve the interchange problem by basically eliminating the need for them, at least in the nodes where people live car-free. Outside of these areas it is not at al clear that the future will require the sort of interchanges than now exist. The fundamental network for transportation between car free nodes or towns would likely be light rail or even pneumatic trains or people movers. Transportation to the the cities as we presently know them and across country would be by a combination of vehicles using the current interstate and rail network.

    More on Pattern Language:

    See the brief at and then read in sequence:

    Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart Four,, Part FivePart SixPart SevenPart EightPart NinePart TenPart ElevenPart TwelvePart ThirteenPart Fourteen


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