Obama Pattern Language Primer -- 1

02/02/2009 10:23 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

By Stephen C. Rose

As nearly as I can make out, Christopher Alexander's Pattern Language is noted more in the breach than in any applied effort to solve our global human crisis. Like most prophets, Alexander is not honored in his own country. That would be the province of designers and architects who have given us what we now have, the structures and forms of a global economy that ignores Alexander or actively dislikes him as a retro sort who is naive and irrelevant.

I feel the relevance of Alexander is like the relevance of Jane Jacobs. At bottom both of these worthies are doing little more than standing up for the person against the mathematical engines of whatever the latest edge of reification happens to be. This is why we have bus stops without a trace of class. Why we have metrosprawl that makes money-pits, my name for a separated dwelling that has no particular value for being separated and which creates a market that is unsustainable.

My goal, in a series of posts, will be to link the insights of A Pattern Language to the realities of today. To suggest the continuing relevance to Alexander's thinking in real terms. And, by so doing, to suggest a way forward to the Obama partisans who have not yet thought through the implications of a society that would actually be changed, in a good way, from what we have now.

The method will be to take Alexander's patterns from the site which has already made them wonderfully accessable.

In sequential order, I will comment on these regarding their relevance now. I will seek to create a suggested synthesis when relevance bumps into various realities. I call these notes an Obama Pattern Language Primer because I never give up hoping that some of the higher ups in this movement will accept an occasional nudge on the fundamental policy front.


  1. Independent Regions
With each region work toward those regional policies which will protect the land and mark the limits of the cities.
  1. The Distribution of Towns
  2. City Country Fingers
  3. Agricultural Valleys
  4. Lace of Country Streets
  5. Country Towns
  6. The Countryside

Independent regions: This refers to metropolitan areas and advocates that they be small enough to be independent spheres of culture that become units in a world government. Immediately, we see that we need to integrate Alexander's thinking into the existing reality of separate nation states. And to see his pattern input in terms of an evolving form of governance that is similar from state to state, with barriers between the states themselves becoming more porous.

The Distribution of Towns (May be part of Independent Regions)

Alexander presses for a balance between small and large communities, assuming that the smaller communities (agricultural) will support the larger. I would press for an understanding that recognizes the need for a new generation of agriculture that distinguishes between the need for agribusiness to achieve certain ends and regional "organic" businesses that create a resuscitation of accessible food sources.

Alexander proposes "a birth and death process for towns within a region" which results in an even distribution of different sized communities ranging from a million to a hundred population. This is at odds with distribution in the US. My own suggestion is that we create a new notion of human settlement that we might call cells or pods or towns that can indeed vary in size but which, over time, replace much of what we now have. There can be no sustainability without accepting a connected notion of residence-work-service, defying existing zoning. Once we agree on this, it is possible to discuss their distribution.

City-Country Fingers (May be part of The Distribution of Towns)

Alexander proposes mile wide fingers of metropolitan areas which alternate with spaces where agricultural pursuits are possible. The base for serious agricultural activity will never segue with the designer's notion of creating room for farming. This is a specialized guild type activity when it is not a high-tech agribusiness pursuit. Therefore I believe it makes more sense to see growth less in terms of fingers and more in terms of making viable regional agriculture possible, So I would opt for the mix of spaces that are occupied and those free for farming, without reference to some notion of how these would look in terms of their form from place to place.

Agricultural Valleys (May be part of Independent Regions, City Country Fingers)

Without respect for whether they are valleys or plains, Alexander is absolutely right in saying that land which can now be viably used for agriculture should not be used for other purposes. This should be an obvious principle.

Lace of Country Streets (May be part of City Country Fingers)

Alexander says, "The suburb is an obsolete and contradictory form of human settlement." He proposes a checkerboard of mile long squares rimmed by half-acre homesteads. Here Alexander comes face to face with what I believe is the biggest conundrum facing us as we look to the future.

Nothing says to me that the automobile in any form is going to remain the overwhelming mode of transportation. And nothing says to me that the individual, detached home is going to remain the gold standard of any dream, American or not.

Country Towns (May be part of The Distribution of Towns)

Alexander says: "The big city is a magnet. It is terribly hard for small towns to stay alive and healthy in the face of central urban growth." While this is so, I feel that technology and the Internet in particular make location less and less important and amenities for human life more and more likely to be present wherever people live.

Alexander says we should preserve country towns where they exist. Fine, as viable communities. I see these as becoming almost antiques.

Here is where I come into direct agreement with Alexander -- "encourage the growth of new self contained towns, with populations between 500 and 10,000, entirely surrounded by open countryside and at least 10 miles from neighbouring towns. Make it the region's collective concern to give each town the wherewithal it needs to build a base of local industry, so that these towns are not dormitories for people who work in other places, but real towns- able to sustain the whole of life."

This is the nub of the whole thing and will be the central contention of this series.

The Countryside (May be part of The Distribution of Towns, City Country Fingers, Agricultural Valleys, Lace of Country Streets, Country Towns )

Alexander believes land belongs to the living, the dead and the unborn and that most privately owned countryside should be open to the public for walking and camping and recreation. He wants all parks also to be working farms.

The problem is that we are a world made up largely of garbage-spewing slobs. I have been in remote areas where it takes only a few scratches in the soil to unearth cigarette butts and aluminum detritus. This is the same mentality which rendered Frank Lloyd Wright naive when he assumed all suburbanites would grow gardens on their plots of land.

Our biggest value problem is one that would counter slobhood and stasis. This is not being helped by the growth of longevity and the accompanying increase of adults who are losing their faculties. Private property is no remedy for these conditions. Neither is the assumption that people are naturally sanitary, naturally neat, and naturally giving a damn about others.

I suspect this dose of realism is what has turned off most designers and architects to Alexander and relegated him to the ranks of respected prophets that no one heeds. Jean Genet would smile.

We shall continue this exercise until we have forged something doable from the excellent and largely ignored work of Christopher Alexander and associates.