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A Pattern Language

On a cold, rainy day there’s nothing like a stolen moment waiting for a prospective client and a thick book to fill it.  What makes it even more profound is when I have a small fixation rattling around in my head and the book is the tome that ties together all the little pieces of thought I’ve been trying to crystallize.  The fixation is human networks of connections that define who we are and where we’re going socially, politically, and technologically.  The book is “A Pattern Language” by the Center for Environmental Structure – Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein, and a few more.

“A Pattern Language” is the culmination of work done through the late 1960s and 70s to define a built world that fits with the social and ecological needs of humans.  It applies understanding from architecture, planning, building, and sociology to create a series of “pattern” that can be applied in ways that give coherence to a whole without forcing a structure that is stifling and mechanical.  The patterns are stated in simple declarations, followed by 2-3 pages of explanation, and a description of how to apply the pattern.

One example is an old favorite of mine, Pattern 167, “Six Foot Balcony”. The statement is, “Balconies and porches which are less than six feet deep are hardly ever used.”  There are two pages of examples of balconies that work and don’t work, and then the conclusion – “Whenever you build a balcony, porch, gallery, or terrace always make it at least six feet deep.  If possible, recess at least part of it into the building so that it is not cantilevered out and separated from the building by a simple line, and enclose it partially.”  Simple and practical.

The patterns aren’t all this simple, of course.  Those of you who are familiar with my complaints about our proposed transit line, the Central Corridor, may not be surprised to see that “A Pattern Language” has quite a lot to say about appropriate transit planning in the concluding statement of Chapter 16, “Web of Public Transportation”:

“Treat interchanges as primary and transportation lines as secondary.  Create incentives so that all the different modes of transportation plan their lines to connect the interchanges with the hope that gradually many different lines of many different types will meet at every interchange.  Give the local communities control over their interchanges so that they can implement the pattern by giving contracts only to those transportation companies which are willing to serve these interchanges.”

There is a lot in here, but those of you who have followed the Central Corridor debate should be able to see immediately where and how things have gotten as ugly as they have by not following this pattern.  More interestingly, the role of companies that serve transit is stressed, which is to say entities that are not necessarily government.  What matters in design is the pattern, not the institution.

That’s ultimately what “A Pattern Language” is all about, after all.  Our built world is often stunningly out of alignment with our social networks because it was built to serve institutions that included development corporations and government first, humans second.  If you approach the world from the needs of people things look a lot different.  In fact, they look a lot more like the network structures we see developing online, more spontaneously.

This is, in many ways, a frontier of “New Urbanism”, but it’s ultimately much more than that.  It’s how our understanding of the needs of humans makes our cities healthier and stronger in the Fractal Era – the developing time when recurring patterns define the structure and not the other way around.  It is about people and the systemic connections that define their networked lives, not the institutions that take care of the mechanical details.

But this work is not remarkably well known among the professional planners that I know.  Many claim to have read it, but when I make arguments based on “A Pattern Language” I can see that we have little common frame of reference for understanding each other.  It certainly hasn’t sunk in, which I find terribly sad.

On a cold wet day, I can curl up with this tome of 1170 pages knowing that what I have in my hands is a distillation of a tremendous amount of wisdom that will, some day, be understood well enough to make our physical world more humane, urbane, and healthy.  It makes me feel warm if a bit wistful.  Once again, knowing what to do has proven a lot easier than making it happen.  Yet through the sound of raindrops outside I know that slowly, “A Pattern Language” will continue to change our built world.

21 thoughts on “A Pattern Language

  1. Interesting reading/article. Please share some more. The first quote on balconies was more definite, the second on transit more open ended. Elaborate further I remember in your c. corridor article you thought the design was a bit “unfriendly”. I know that college grounds sometimes rework their sidewalks when they see that students walk diagonally between buildings. On a very simple level I do notice where some middle aged trees almost completely block stop signs. It startles me that cities or neighbors don’t trim, remove, or replace the stop signs. I almost ran one yesterday. Anyways enjoy the book, doesn’t coffee feel great now on our crisp mornings!

  2. On the same vein I wonder what your thoughts are on soccer grounds ball fields? My son’s team played central and we got to watch the game from elevated bleachers and it seemed so much more enjoyable. Soccer seems to be played on single home fields or in bigger multi field areas each with advantages.

  3. Here I thought you were the only one writing about this. 🙂 I see a lot of stuff from the late 70s that you keep writing about and a few things that are newer, on this sociology and networks. How does it all relate?

  4. This is really neat stuff. I often wonder if there is another way to balance the needs of society versus individuals than all the regulations we have. Have you ever worked with the building codes? They are a nightmare!

    You should make up a reading list of all the books you mention, they seem fascinating.

  5. Dan: I think I should share some more. You’re right, “A Pattern Language” goes from the very specific ‘do this!’ to more general things, but that fits the fact that it covers planning and building. It’s a wild book in some ways.

    Janine: Good point, there was a lot of stuff in the late 70s that got shelved somewhere in the Reagen years. It’s too bad because I think that there was a lot of stuff conservatives have come to realize supports a “small is good” thinking that they often support.

    Jim: A list of books is a good idea. Yes, I’ve worked with a lot of codes over the years, and the old ones are a mess. The newest ones, such as on the River Corridor, are written with a lot of influence of “A Pattern Language”, so I know people somewhere are reading this book. It’s not really a book to sit down and read, but look for it at the library – I think St Paul Central Library has a copy.

  6. You definitely need a list of books that you reccomend. You mention a lot of books that demonstrate how your thinking isn’t as ‘out there’ as it seems at first, but I’d like to see them all together. Start a book club for Barataria?

  7. I will think about the Barataria book list – but the book club maaaay be a bit more than I’m willing to tackle. 🙂 Thanks for the suggestions, everyone.

  8. The kind of planning you are talking about is still considered very radical. It isn’t taught anywhere. Almost all urban planning is old school land-use model stuff that was proven to kill cities long ago. The only thing I can think of is that planners and schools like the Humphrey hate cities.

  9. I find it hard to believe that this is still seen as a radical way of doing things, but my dealings with planners tells me it certainly is. My guess is that this is one of those issues where excessive specialization has ruined a field that is supposedly related to human ecology. “A Pattern Language” is very inter-discipline, and thus easy to marginalized.

    As far as these schools “hating cities”, well, I see a lot of evidence that they are generally rather clueless about sociology, history, and common sense – but that doesn’t mean they hate civilized life as we know it. It’s still possible, of course, but I always have to go with an utter lack of imagination and laziness (relying on the way things have always been) before I go to “hate”.

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