Cities = Complex systems (pt. 1)
What makes nice places so difficult to make
But first: on my lil book-writing project MVZK, the very first update is out to my dear early-bird supporters!
Early-bird supporters get a peek behind the curtain on my writing process, and occasionally I share short thoughts on various note-taking aspects that I have struggled with in the past. This week I got to share the way I use Fleeting notes, and that was fun:
It felt so nice to get this first update out. Looking forward to digging in this fall! 🍂
Project update complete, back to regular programming…
Cities are complex? Cities are complex! (But what does that mean?)
There is a mantra in real estate: Location, location, location. What it’s saying is that above all factors, location is the most important indicator influencing the value of a property. If this is the case, why are we not just creating more great locations? Why do we pile into existing great locations, inflating their values to the point of unaffordability?
“Our shortage on nice places is totally self-imposed”, says Daniel Herriges in his Strong Towns article of similar title. The article is equivalent to awareness: yes, we are aware that we’re restricting ourselves, but what are the solutions to move forward with? Strong Towns (the organization) advocates for a mix of permissive policies (to encourage walkable, mixed-use communities), and restrictive policies (to keep cars out of places where they don’t belong), which are all great things. But by codifying these things in law (i.e. “cities MUST be vibrant!”), is it enough? After having travelled to Ireland and Norway where cities and their communities have existed for hundreds of years, I can’t help but think: there must be more to it.
Imagine if we tried to recreate a croissant by solely describing its exquisite qualities: the heavenly airiness of the light interior seemingly protected by the impeccably-flaky outer layers of paper-thin pastry, baked to golden perfection, and the rich crispy-yet-pillowy goodness biting into one of these…
We may end up thinking first that we need a separate material for the crust versus the interior, and experiment with which to do first: build crust and fill interior, or create interior and drape with soft crust that hardens over time? What paper-thin material exists that is flexible enough that we can laminate together and shape into little domes, while being brittle and crispy in the end? What food colouring do we use to recreate the gradient golden hues? For the interior, how do we inject bubbles into a batter so it does not collapse while it’s setting? And most important and difficult of all: how do we make it taste as good as it looks?
Even partial truth is not enough for us. Let’s say you have never seen or encountered the concept of an oven or bread. If you were presented with a croissant in its pre-baked state and someone told you that this pale cartoon-turd-like thing actually turns into a croissant, you’d surely laugh at the ridiculousness of the preposition.
It’s easy to imagine that without context or prior knowledge of the cultural traditions that gave rise to the croissant, trying to reverse-engineer it based on its final form can throw most solutions-oriented thinking into quite a spin. We can twist and contort ourselves to recreate how it works, but won’t ever be quite right, and the crazy thing is that deep down we know it. We can sense a fake versus the real thing. Our basic reverse-engineering skills are just not enough to effectively intervene in complex environments without upending some other delicate equilibrium in the process. Yet, these simplistic solutions are what we keep on peddling.
While the croissant is an example of what I see as “positive-result” solutionism (recreating a desirable result), pain management is an example of “negative-result” solutionism (removing an undesirable result). (Also, these are placeholder words I invented on the fly, there are probably better words for this out there. Maybe you know or have a better name for this? Leave your thoughts in the comments!) For example, a simplistic way to see painkillers is that they treat the symptom and not the cause, creating new feedback loops in the system that have other unpredictable side effects, such as addiction or brain fog. Policies like “war on drugs” are another negative-result solution that tries to address an undesirable socio-economic activity by making it illegal, rather than looking at how it emerged in the first place. It tries, because it has yet to be successful. It’s an impossible task to extinguish by force, because there’s an unending source somewhere that keeps on churning out these results, and its mechanisms are still running uninterrupted.
The unpredictability in solutionism-based results crafting is what we get for using simplistic deduction to solve for results that arise in complex environments. And this is why it’s actually not that easy to pump out more nice places for everyone to live in. Yup, you can’t just zone for nice places.
In the next letter we will explore two facets of complex systems I stumbled across which helped me connect more dots on how we better can approach design in a complex environment. Can we create more nice places? Let’s find out together.