pattern language, politics

Christopher Alexander: A City is Not A Tree

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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

    pattern language, politics

    Obama Pattern Language Primer — 5

    Sadly, Huffington Post is submarining these Pattern Language offerings. They are given about a half a day on the home page and either bumped up or down into limbo.

    I suspect this is because it is essentially subversive to question an economy that is built on infinite growth, and to opt for something sustainable. Also it is subversive to speak the truth about the end of oil and the demise of the private car as we know it. These are the realities behind the rhetiric and people do not wish to face them directly.

    Nevertheless the insights of Christopher Alexander, supplemented by observations made thirty years after publication of his classic Pattern Language, are a suggestive starting point for persons who really want to think through what an alternative model of society might look like. So I will keep on nudging Huffington Post, which seems taken up with superficialities much of the time, because when I have been able to break the content ceiling the responses there have been helpful and intelligent.

    Here’s an indication that there is at least some interest in a project of this sort.

    This post continues where we left off. Click the link below for the series so far:


    The source for the discussion is at the link below:


    Today’s cluster touches on essential and subversive design themes.

    Establish community and neighborhood policy to control the character of the local environment according to the following fundamental principles.

    1. Four-Story Limit
    2. Nine Percent Parking
    3. Parallel Roads
    4. Sacred Sites
    5. Access to Water
    6. Life Cycle
    7. Men and Women

    Four-Story Limit (May be part of Magic of the City, City Country Fingers, Lace of Country Streets)

    Alexander is both right and wrong: “There is abundant evidence to show that high buildings make people crazy.”

    The argument for a four story limit is not merely that high buildings induce alienation. The four story idea means that settlements can be planned as connected, modular elements which enable access by foot. A graded walkway or promenade rising a total of four levels is a thinkable notion for a reasonably concentrated settlement.

    The current emphasis on building high in cities and sprawling single dwellings over the landscape is begging for disaster. We need an alternative understanding that places people first.

    Nine Percent Parking (May be part of Local Transport Areas, Community of 7000 , Identifiable Neighbourhood )

    Alexander says: “When the area devoted to parking is too great, it destroys the land.”

    His solution is that no more than nine percent of any area be available for parkling. Mine is to reduce the number and need for vehicles, consigning them to the periphery of human settlements and reducing reliance of private automobiles in particular, thus gradually reducing the current slavish submission to paving paradise, to coin a phrase. This is no less realistic than Alexander’s proposal.

    Parallel Roads (May be part of Local Transport Areas, Ring Roads , Subculture Boundary, Neighbourhood Boundary)

    Says Alexander: :The net-like pattern of streets is obsolete. Congestion is choking cities. Cars can average 60 miles per hour on freeways but trips across town have an average speed of only 10 to 15 miles per hour.” This was thirty years ago, Now congestion has gone global.

    Alexander’s solution is “parallel and alternating one-way roads to carry traffic to the ring roads gradually making major streets one-way and closing cross streets.” To which I say we already do that in Manhattan where I live. The future, IMO, needs to concentrate on moving beyond the patterns of existing cities and metro and rural areas. The only illustrations I can see of what I have in mind are models that computer folk have made based on Alexander’s work EXAMPLE ANOTHER

    Sacred Sites

    The link above will lead you to what Alexander has to say. I personally wish that religions would become ecumenical enough to invest in single facilities that would be shared and that might seek to emulate structures that have stood the test of time aesthetically. Such as this Corbusier Chapel.

    Access to Water (May be part of Sacred Sites)

    Alexander say: “When natural bodies of water occur near human settlements, treat them with great respect. Always preserve a belt of common land, immediately beside the water. And allow dense settlements to come right down to the water only at infrequent intervals along the waters edge.”

    Well and good and unlikely to be implemented. I think the best clue here is to build communities that incorporate water recycling and gathering elements in their matrix. This would include massive rain gathering technology and a two fold recycling capability for drinking and other uses. You will see throughout that the movement is toward a scale that precludes the present economy and paves the way for a new economy where people are creating and paying for sustainability as a dominant value. This is where the likes of Rachel Maddow is a pedagogical disaster, reassuring us that all an economy needs is to get people buying stuff. This assurance is breathtaking.

    The stuff we buy now we do not want to buy forever — most of it has to do with seeking to prop up a growth economy in which consumers are the ultimate victims. An economy based on cars and detached dwellings.

    Life Cycle (May be part of Community of 7000, Identifiable Neighbourhood)

    Alexander wants the “full cycle of life … represented and balanced in each community.” In other words, a mix of ages and stages. Fine. How will we do this if we do not move beyond the reifying diad of today — cars and detached dwellings?

    Men and Women (May be part of Community of 7000, Identifiable Neighbourhood , Life Cycle )

    “The world of a town in the 1970’s is split along sexual lines. Suburbs are for women, workplaces for men; kindergartens are for women, professional schools for men; supermarkets are for women, hardware stores for men.” This is already breaking down.

    What is changing is the assumptions underlying these choices. Ideal would be communities of up to 10,000 where all ages, genders, races and so forth would be able to life side by side and enjoy a life that is centered on human fulfillment rather than the achievement of goals which are set by a society built on privilege and inequality.

    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

    pattern language

    Obama Pattern Language Primer — 4

    Welcome to this sequential introduction to Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language. I am following the online pattern language summary which can be accessed by clicking the link immediately below.


    Each of these posts takes a cluster of patterns and seeks briefly to offer a context for these in terms of a situation that has changed since the initial book was created in the 1970s. All of the posts in this series are reachable from the link below.


    Connect communities to one another by encouraging the growth of networks.

  • Web of Public Transportation
  • Ring Roads
  • Network of Learning
  • Web of Shopping
  • Mini-Buses
  • Web of Public Transportation (May be part of City Country Fingers, Local Transport Areas)

    Alexander notes the melange of ill-connected public tranit, each run by different agencies. His sensible proposal is to treat interchanges as the first priority and transportation lines as secondary. This would end up linking all transport lines. He believes this can be achieved by a form of local control that would give contracts only to transporters who would serve their interchanges. I am tempted to say, dream on. There is no area of design more dependent on a hierarchy of power which has, for a century, been dominated by the private automobile and the need to build highways and interstates that have no interest whatsoever in any sort of human community,

    What I am seeking to propose, building on the salient work of Alexander, is a cell or node or town unit of human settlement, as yet not built, nonexistent. This unit of possible 5-10,000 persons would have no private cars within its center and its center would include its perimeter. It would be units in a circle or oval or rectangle or square or other pattern where any private vehicles would be accessible only on leaving the space. Over time the transit between such communities would be achieved by such means as the underground trains that we associate with the US senate. Or via pneumatic devices. Or by bike or light rail or mini-buses or vehicles as yet uninvented.

    In effect the transit issue would be removed from the immediate area where people live and work and have their being, because the explicit rule would be that this is a post-automobile culture.

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

    Alexander says, “It is not possible to avoid the need for high speed roads in modern society; but it is essential to place them and build them in such a way that they do not destroy communities or countryside.”

    Yes and no. It is possible to limit the dominance of high speed roads by first accepting the basic idea that new human settlements should be largely pedestrian. And secondly that they should eventually be linked by means other than highways.

    In essence highways would become less and less the thorougfares needed to move people and goods about. Their rights of ways, however, belong to us. And this means that we could develop all manner of uses for this space, including transport uses based on advanced technology, new vehicles and so forth.

    Network of Learning

    Here you can see Alexander struggling with the issue of schooling or learning. He says: “Instead of the lock-step of compulsory schooling in a fixed place, work in piecemeal ways to decentralise the process of learning and enrich it through contact with many places and people…” In essence my proposed cell, town, human settlement plan would make this likely by establishing small areas where students could walk from home to the areas and have one to one contact both with a live adult and with a massive range of Web enabled educational resources. The entire settlement would contain the educational diversity Alexander calls for.

    (Note, always read the original at the links above to see exactly where I am departing from Alexander and the full text of what Alexander is suggesting.)

    Web of Shopping (May be part of Mosaic of Subcultures, Subculture Boundary , Scattered Work, Local Transport Areas)

    Says Alexander: “Shops rarely place themselves in those positions which best serve the people’s needs, and also guarantee their own stability.” The best way to accomplish viable commerce within communities is to have areas where clusters of shops and services meet people’s needs without competing directly. Since there would be several such clusters in a community of 5-10,000 to ensure choices among estatlishments in the same category. There would also be a radical increase in Web access to products and services that could be delivered. Many shops could be essentially ordering spots where one would be assisted in finding and securing the best products. As settlements multiplied there would be a plethora of shopping options integrated into the fabric of residence, culture, sports, cafes and so forth.

    Mini-Buses (May be part of Web of Public Transportation, Local Transport Areas)

    Alexander: “Public transportation must be able to take people from any point to any other point with the metropolitan area.

    “Establish a system of small taxi-like buses, carrying up to six people each, radio-controlled, on call by telephone, able to provide point-to-point service according to the passengers’ needs, and supplemented by a computer system which guarantees minimum detours and minimum wait times. Make bus stops for the mini-buses every 600 feet in each direction and equip these bus stops with a phone for dialling a bus.”

    In my plan these would be located outside the perimeter of the settlement. It is also possible that people-movers would function between adjacent settlements and essentially link all such settlements. We are talking about eliminating much of the time presently taken up with commuting and diminishing the present clogging of arteries aka roads.

    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

    pattern language, politics

    Obama Pattern Language Primer — 3

    If you are discovering this for the first time, this is a series of posts in progress aimed at having a conversation with an excellent online summary of Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language, which is a set of considered,. nested design principles that are literally a universal template for creating a world that serves people more than things, human culture more than consumer culture. It is in my view essential reading for the Obama team as it faces the need to hypothesize a sustainable world out of the detritus of a system that loses value as we speak. I refer to the declining real value, never to be restored, of automobiles and detached houses.



    Build up these larger city patterns from the grass roots, through action essentially controled by two levels of self-governing communities, which exist as physically identifiable places.

  • Community of 7000
  • Subculture Boundary
  • Identifiable Neighbourhood
  • Neighbourhood Boundary
  • Community of 7000 (May be part of Mosaic of Subcultures)

    Alexander proposes decentralizing “city governments in a way that gives local control to communities of 5000 to 10,000 persons. As nearly as possible, use natural geographic and historical boundaries to mark these communities. Give each community the power to initiate, decide, and execute the affairs that concern it closely; land use, housing, maintenance, streets, parks, police, schooling, welfare, neighbourhood services.”

    We can amend this to say that communities of this size need the superstructure needed to ensure that they can deliver essential services and amenities within a given, sustainable ecostructure.

    Subculture Boundary (May be part of Mosaic of Subcultures, Community of 7000, Identifiable Neighbourhood )

    Alexander opts for a separation of subcultures into divided sections of a space. I think the answer lies in creating a matrix that will accommodate communities of 5-10,000 and slanting these in different ways as to design, appearance and, yes, cultural differences. However I believe this should aim at a mix when a mix would advance culture beyond nativism.

    Alexander does however add: “Along the seam between two subcultures, build meeting places, shared functions, touching each community.”

    What I assume, which he does not, is a matrix that is car free which in itself incorporated all aspects of a pattern language, in large part as Alexander delivers them. What I see that he does not is the absence of the automobile within living areas of up to 5-10,000 and the absence of detached dwellings of conventional apartments in new residences which would be modular and highly standardized in form while exceptionally customized as well. I would call this pattern everyone having their own (replicable) room.

    Identifiable Neighbourhood (May be part of Mosaic of Subcultures, Community of 7000)

    Alexander says: “People need an identifiable spatial unit to belong to.” Agreed.

    I would apply this to my matrix notion as a sensible way of dispersing dwellings within the entire schema. Residential nodes with “no more than 400 or 500 inhabitants” where these are separated by the other elements — services, cafes, educational and health nodes, etc.

    Alexander says: “Keep major roads outside these neighbourhoods.” I would say keep all roads out. This is the radical option. How will this matrix get built? Some entrepreneur will build it. The rest of the world will replicate and imitate it. It is not that hard to do. The vision precedes the doing.

    Neighbourhood Boundary May be part of Community of 7000 , Subculture Boundary, Identifiable Neighbourhood)

    This is reasonably simple. The matrix would have its own exterior boundary that would separate a community of up to 10,000 from another community. Both inside and out there would be spatial divisions separating groups of various sizes. Inevitably there would be draws from one community to another and ultimately transit between matrix communities would be public and most likely of the people moving variety.

    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

    pattern language, politics

    Obama Pattern Language Primer — 1

    This post has been revised and moved to Beyond Now