Obama Pattern Language Primer -- 2

02/08/2009 10:20 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

By Stephen C Rose

This is the second in my series of efforts to converse with a superb online outline of Christopher Alexander's book A Pattern Language. All the posts in this series can be accessed here as they appear.

We are still in the initial Independent Regions section, dealing now with the following cluster of patterns. By giving you direct access to these, my comments below can be supplemented by your perusal of the brief entries for each one.

Through city policies, encourage the piecemeal formation of those major structures which define the city.

  • Mosaic of Subcultures

  • Scattered Work

  • Magic of the City

  • Local Transport Areas
  • Mosaic of Subcultures (May be part of City Country Fingers)

    Alexander says, correctly, that "The homogeneous and undifferentiated character of modern cities kills all variety of life styles and arrests the growth of individual character." He proposes enriching subcultures within cities, indeed breaking them up into "a vast mosaic .. each with its own spacial territory, and each with the power to create its own distinct life style."

    As this goes on you will see that what I am proposing would make this possible without falling into the trap Alexander sets. Most cities of any size are already examples of stratification into class, racial and ethnic groups. The problem is that such stratification, when it is not the product of choice, is oppressive and unjust. What will emerge as we go on is a proposal for just such a vast mosaic. But getting beyond today's oppressive stratification is part and parcel of the change we need.

    Scattered Work (May be part of Mosaic of Subcultures)

    Says Alexander: "The artificial separation of houses and work creates intolerable rifts in people's inner lives." This is the crux of the underlying malaise today. "Use zoning laws, neighbourhood planning, tax incentives, and any other means available to scatter workplaces throughout the city. Prohibit large concentrations of work, without family life around them. Prohibit large concentrations of family life, without workplaces around them."

    We will eventually see that this is only possible when we have fleshed things out to the point of arriving at the macro-decisions that make this micro-development possible. On the micro-level, for example, there would need to be a brand new evolution of what we now call internet cafes, places close to home where people can set up secure contact with their "offices". The reason for this is that not everyone wishes to work at home and for good reason. Therefore we are discussing a culture of work which is close to home. But such a development would be most likely in a community that was set up to have all local needs met by structures within walking distance.

    Magic of the City (May be part of Mosaic of Subcultures, City Country Fingers)

    Alexander sees correctly that access to the magic of the city is not easy in today's metrosprawl. The cost, particularly for families, of living in the center of Manhattan or Chicago is prohibitive. In essence Alexander believes that this magic needs to be replicated and I agree. The answer lies by implementation of "collective regional policies which restrict the growth of downtown areas so strongly that no one downtown can grow to serve more than 300,000 people. With this population base, the downtown's will be between two and nine miles apart."

    This may sound draconian, but it gets the thought synapses on the track of an evolved planning.

    Local Transport Areas (May be part of City Country Fingers, Mosaic of Subcultures)

    Alexander says: "Cars give people wonderful freedom and increase their opportunities. But they also destroy the environment, to an extent so drastic that they kill all social life." Here is Alexander's solution: "Break the urban area down into local transport areas each one between 1 and 2 miles across, surrounded by a ring road. Within the local transport area, build minor local roads and paths for internal movements on foot, by bike, on horseback and in local vehicles; build major roads which make it easy for cars and trucks to get to and from ring roads but place them to make internal local trips slow and inconvenient."

    I have quoted this at length because I do not think we will ever begin to implement any of the essential Alexander ideas if we do not confront the need to largely do away with the private automobile (as we know it) as anything but an ancillary aspect of a fully integrated existence. I think that most transportation within the new settlements that need to be built on the obsolete foundations of metrosprawl will be on foot. Vehicular transportation in wheeled vehicles will be separated from pedestrian areas. Parking that be exterior to the living areas.

    I believe we can devise transit for roads that include wheeled mini-trains, new-fangled bus-like vehicles, priority vehicles for necessary travel, and that cars as we envision them will ultimately be used as needed along some rental pattern.