02/11/2009 08:48 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama Pattern Language Primer -- 3

By Stephen C. Rose

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.

    PS: To understand why I believe now is the time to reconsider and begin serious application of Alexander's thinking, please read my piece "Our Crisis Is Not Economic.