Carfree Times

      Issue 38

30 March 2005     
Looking Around
Venice, 2001


Diese Ausgabe auf Deutsch.

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Carfree Design Manual

Work on Carfree Design Manual continues, with the first three parts in full draft. It should be published late this year.

Carfree Cities Availability

Both the paperback and hardcover editions of Carfree Cities are widely available. For details, see the
Ordering Information page.

Zazzle Poster

The Reference Topology for Carfree Cities is now available for purchase from Zazzle. A small proportion of the revenues comes to me.

World Carfree Network

18-21 July: Towards Carfree Cities V

Budapest will host Towards Carfree Cities V (TCFC V). The program and registration form are now available on the conference web site. (Register before 30 April 2005 to obtain a discount.) This is the fifth conference in the series organized by World Carfree Network. TCFC VI will be held in Bogotá in 2006.

Carfree Pilot

World Carfree Network is considering the launch of a Carfree Area Pilot Project. Cities around the world would compete to be the test site for the transformation of an existing urban area into a carfree and motor-vehicle-free area. It would become a human-scaled, lively, architecturally-rich place with many active destinations and events. The winning city or cities would receive financial, consulting, and other support from World Carfree Network and its partner organizations. The transformation itself would be shaped by local people. Anyone interested in helping should contact Organizational work will be done at the Budapest conference.

Car Busters

Car Busters, the magazine of World Carfree Network, held its first writing contest, seeking fictional accounts of a post-petroleum future. The winners will be published this April in issue #23.

German Conference

Münster will hold a conference on the "Gartensiedlung Weissenburg" carfree project on 9-10 April.


News Bits

Car-Lite Paris or, Damn the Cars, Full Speed Ahead!

I'm not obsessed by cars. I'm obsessed with the health of Parisians. Is it my fault that the automobile is the city's major source of pollution and that it takes up two-thirds of the road surface? Things have to be brought back into balance.

While this story has been reported as "Carfree Central Paris," that's an exaggeration. However, militantly pro-pedestrian and pro-cyclist Mayor Delanoë is planning dramatic reductions in central Paris traffic by 2012, with most of the improvements coming by 2007. Delanoë is already a Parisian hero for his Paris Plage project and other pro-people, anti-car measures.

By 2007, the city will:

  • Reduce speeds to 30 km/hr
  • Remove a lane from the Seine's riverside highway to create a bike lane
  • Reduce the width of several other streets
  • Convert several grand boulevards to two-way (i.e., slower) traffic

Under the plan, cars of non-residents and tourist buses would be banned from a 5.6 square kilometer (2.1 square mile) area north of the Seine, according to Journal du Dimanche. Several major roads, including the heavily-trafficked riverside highway, would be closed to traffic. Bicycle routes would be opened and non-resident parking fees raised.

The project would affect everyone in the first, second, third, and fourth arrondissements, from Place de la Bastille to Place de la Concorde (one of the noisiest urban spaces on the planet, due almost entirely to extreme road traffic).

Only one household in four in this area owns a car, and it is expected that residents will favor the plan by a large margin. Businesses are expected to oppose it. Christian Gerondeau, of the National Federation of Automobile Clubs said, "The plan will turn Paris into a ghetto and cut off the capital from its hinterland. The car is indispensable to economic and cultural activity." Right. Just tell that to the Venetians!

The proposal supports Paris's bid to host the 2012 Olympics, which is founded on strong environmental protection.

Mayor Delanoë campaigned in 2001 on a platform of creating more "civilized space" in Paris, where traffic has steadily worsened and pollution has soared. Delanoë promised that he would "fight, with all the means at my disposal, against the harmful, ever-increasing and unacceptable hegemony of the automobile." He said that fighting the car is "a duty, but it also reflects the aspirations of a majority of Parisians." He pointed out that "private motorists, who make up a quarter of road users, use up 94% of Paris's road surfaces."

Since his election, he has dramatically reduced the amount of road space available to cars, giving rise to such bad gridlock that few people are willing to brave it any longer. Unlike in so many cities, this is seen as a benefit. Deputy Mayor Yves Contassot said, "It's only by making life hell for motorists that we will force them to give up their cars." The strategy seems to be working! Space is being set aside for buses, taxis and bicycles only. Cars have to squeeze into what's left over. Drivers were, predictably, outraged.

Delanoë views his popular closure of the highway along the Seine as the first stage in a plan to reconquer both banks of the river and eliminate cars entirely in favor of what he calls gentle traffic - "anything without an engine."

"Car-free central Paris planned by 2012"
15 March 2005
"A Tale of Two Cities: The Mayors of Paris and London Say 'Enough' to Cars"
Transportation Alternatives
Fall 2002
"Le coeur de Paris sans voiture en 2012"
17 March 2005

But Not in London

London, however, is not expected to follow Paris's lead, in part due to the £100 million that its congestion charging scheme raises each year. (The charge is due to be raised from £5 to £8 per entry this summer, which is expected to reduce traffic by 5%.) Mayor Livingstone, who takes the metro to work, seems to feel that "cities need a certain level of traffic to avoid becoming ghost towns." Right. Just tell that to the Venetians!

Yet everyone seems to admit that the small-scale pedestrianization of Trafalgar Square was a success. My own experience there in the summer of 2003 was that it was much better, and that there was still plenty of room for improvement. The change has, nonetheless, attracted thousands of extra visitors a day. Richard Rogers is Livingstone's architectural advisor and is pressing for a Sunday car ban along the Thames.

Living Streets, which campaigns for pedestrians, argues that too much attention is being paid to the needs of a small minority. Only one in thirteen people entering Central London between 07:00 and 10:00 is in a car; the remainder use public transport, cycle, or walk. A spokesman said, "Many streets in Central London are now so dominated by pedestrians that removing cars is the next logical step. We could have pavement cafés to rival anything in Paris."

"Copying French would cost Livingstone £100m"
15 March 2005

New York Businesses Want Congestion Charging

Traffic congestion is a serious problem for New York City, and some capitalist businessmen are looking at socialist Mayor Livingstone's congestion charging scheme. The money raised would help the ailing Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

New York Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to charge commuters entering Manhattan, but his plan was blocked by state officials afraid of a backlash from heavily-Republican suburban voters who work in the city. Other cities are also reflecting on Livingstone's success in London.

"NYC businesses call for road congestion charge"
17 January 2005
Thanks to Carfree News for picking this up.

New Yorkers Junking Their Cars

New Yorkers are abandoning their cars in droves. It's just not worth the trouble and expense. Car ownership is falling - in 2003, there were 5% fewer registered vehicles than in the peak year of 2000. Figures for 2004 are expected to show a continuing decline. Parking costs are soaring, with Manhattan garage spaces now costing over $400 a month.

"Fed-up NYers ditch their cars"
Transportation Alternatives
14 February 2005

Goliath: The Road Gang

David & Goliath

Goliath (the auto industry, above) had a stone slung at it by David (in this case, the Union of Concerned Scientists, below). The Road Gang ran their ad mainly inside the Beltway at a time when Congress was debating auto emissions.

David: Union of Concerned Scientists

Go here to read the full story and to give UCS money to circulate their ad. The Road Gang is still up to their tricks, more than 50 years after they were first convicted of criminal conspiracy and fined a whopping $5000 per company. (I guess that really taught them a lesson.)

Thanks to Steve von Pohl at
Car Busters for picking this up.
See Stephen B. Goddard's Getting There: The Epic Struggle
Between Road and Rail in the American Century

for all the sordid details about the Road Gang.

Kid-Free Cities???

Central urban areas throughout the USA are experiencing a decline in the proportion of children living in them. This is leading to school closures and a general absence of the liveliness that children always bring with them. "The neighborhood would love to have more kids, that's probably the top of our wish list," said Joan Pendergast of Portland's Pearl Neighborhood Association. "We don't want to be a one-dimensional place." Downtown Portland is growing, but the number of children is static or declining.

The cause seems to be simple: families with children cannot afford the high cost of center-city housing. San Francisco seems to be hardest hit. The median house price is a staggering $700,000, and only 14.5% of its residents are under 18, compared with 25.7% nationally. Seattle, which has more dogs than children, was second.

How do we bring children back into the city? Remove the cars. This makes cities safe places for children and frees up land to help hold down the cost of new housing. We can also use some of that land to make the play spaces that children must have.

Paramedic Bikes Get There First

Paramedic bikes are simple, cheap, and effective. Ambulances in Norwich, UK, take at least 8 minutes to reach a center-city accident, sometimes much longer. A paramedic on a bike is on the scene in 2 minutes on average, never longer than 5 minutes, and sometimes while the call to the emergency hot line is still in progress.

"Paramedic bike gets there fast"
Spokes 32 (Kent, UK)
Summer 2002

One of the daily drawings by drew at

Air Pollution Bad for Kids

Air pollution, even in the womb, may cause genetic changes that increase cancer risk, according to a study from Columbia University. Sixty newborns and their nonsmoking mothers in low-income neighborhoods were followed. Pollutants (primarily vehicular) were measured during their mothers' third trimester.

After birth, genetic alterations were measured, and a 50% increase in the level of genetic abnormalities was found among the infants in high-pollution neighborhoods. Dr. Frederica P. Perera said, "We already knew that air pollutants significantly reduced fetal growth, but this is the first time we've seen evidence that they can change chromosomes in utero." She said that the findings underscore the need for government to take steps to protect children.

"Pollution Is Linked to Fetal Harm"
NY Times
16 February 2005

Bad For You, Too

New research strongly suggests that traffic fumes damage DNA, increasing cancer risk. The study examined levels of 8-OHdG in the urine of toll booth attendants. The presence of the chemical is a marker for DNA damage caused by free radicals formed by pollution.

Female toll booth attendants working on a highway south of Taipei were followed and compared with female office workers. Researchers measured urine samples for 8-OHdG and 1-OHPG, both produced by the breakdown of traffic pollutants. Blood levels of nitric oxide (another marker for tissue damage caused by exhaust byproducts) were also measured.

Levels of urinary 8-OHdG were on average 90% higher among the non-smoking toll booth operators than they were among the office workers. Levels of nitric oxide were on average 30% higher. The researchers say their work suggests that traffic fumes boost oxygen free radical activity and therefore cause DNA damage. They called for measures to reduce pollution to protect people's health. One researcher said that if a genotoxic effect could be confirmed, exposure to traffic pollution would have to be reduced.

"Traffic fumes 'damage human DNA'"
BBC News
22 March 2005

Quite Quick Quiet Freight

Railvolution reports that the LEILA-DG freight car bogie has been developed after five years of effort. The new bogie is lighter, has steerable wheels for less rail wear and noise, disc brakes (safer!), built-in diagnostics, faster marshaling-yard brake tests, and rubber sound-and-vibration absorbing elements in the springing and suspension. Finally, low-noise wheels are fitted. The result is an amazing 18 dB reduction in noise compared to conventional freight bogies. This is such a large improvement that it is reckoned that 60 cars fitted with the new bogies would make less noise than a single car riding on the old bogies. It can be retrofitted to existing cars and run at speeds as high as 120 km/hr (75 MPH). Line tests are expected to begin soon.

While Europe has seen remarkable innovation in passenger equipment during the past two decades, freight technology has lagged far behind. This new bogie signals a renewed interest in rail freight, which is long overdue in Europe. (The USA, with dismal passenger rail service, is actually a leader in rail freight.)

"InnoTrans 2004; Part 3"
5:1, page 53

Cutting Car Use Saves Money

UK research has found that "soft transport measures" give a phenomenal rate of return - a benefit of more than £10 for every £1 spent. Methods include:
  • Workplace and school joint travel
  • Public transport information
  • Car sharing
  • Telepresence
  • On-line shopping
Keep it coming!

"Cost Effectiveness of Cutting Car Use"
World Carfree News
Number 18, March 2005
Smarter choices - Changing the way we travel
Department for Transport, London


The End of Weather

Carfree Times will drop the climate change section after this issue. Climate change is no longer a debate, it's a fact. Temperature increases of 11° C (20° F) are possible. The consequences will be terrible: disease, starvation, species extinction.... Global warming may become irreversible within ten years; there's no time to waste. George W. Bush will go down in history as the man who did the most to bring this catastrophe upon us. (Even Tony Blair is worried!) used distributed computing to run thousands of competing climate models to arrive at a deeper look into the range of possible outcomes. No model run showed a change of less than 2° C, and even this seemingly low value means serious trouble.

The Kyoto Protocol has finally come into force, despite desperate attempts by Bush & Co. to derail it. It's much too little, and may be too late, but it is at least a framework for achieving the necessary changes. This same approach worked with the Montreal Accords for CFC reduction and needs to be made to work again, this time with a much less tractable problem.

If you don't yet believe that this is a serious problem, consult the following links:

"Global Warming: Scientists Reveal Timetable"
Common Dreams
4 February 2005
Originally in the Independent/UK

"Global Warming Approaching Point of No Return, Warns Leading Climate Expert"
Common Dreams
14 January 2005
Originally in the Independent/UK

"Climate Change: Countdown to Global Catastrophe"
Common Dreams
24 January 2005
Originally in the Independent/UK

" Alarm at new climate warning"
BBC News
26 January 2005

"Apocalypse Now: How Mankind is Sleepwalking to the End of the Earth"
Common Dreams
6 February 2005
Originally in the Independent/UK

We'll close this discussion by reminding folks that carfree cities offer what is almost certainly the easiest, cheapest, and most effective way to permanently reduce greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, we would enjoy a large improvement in the quality of life. People are beginning to understand this.


The Oil Report

Peak oil is still debated only by people who don't have the facts. I will attend the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO) conference here in Lisbon in May. I will to try to spread the idea of carfree cities as a response to the coming decline in oil production. Folks at this reality-based conference will be talking about when peak oil is arriving, not if. The answer of the world's leading experts, almost all of whom will assemble in Lisbon, is probably going to be "very soon, if not now."

We will probably never pump significantly more than we are pumping now and will not be able to sustain this level for very long. Coupled with soaring Chinese demand, static production will soon plunge the world into an oil crisis. Unlike the first two crises, this one does not come to an end.

Oil is now firmly above US$50/barrel and OPEC has been unable to talk down the price. I will go way out on a limb and predict that oil will reach $100/barrel by the end of 2006. That will begin to exert an effect on consumption, and prices may not rise much above that level for some time.

What happens next is anybody's guess. The global production and consumption of energy is on such a vast scale and has such enormous inertia that rapid change is nearly out of the question. We will start to see solar sources becoming energetically and economically attractive. As production of photovoltaic cells, wind turbines, and solar heating collectors ramps up, demand for oil will sag, so the price may not reach the $200/barrel range any time soon, even in the face of declining production. (Of course, if Osama bin Laden shuts down Saudi production, all bets are off.)

The effects will be large and felt almost everywhere. As in the 1970s, look for deep recessions coupled with intractable inflation. Sectors, including agriculture, that are highly dependent on petroleum will be badly hit by soaring energy costs. The airline industry, already struggling, will be especially hard hit.

Nuclear power is quietly back on the agenda. I don't know if reactor designs have actually improved in the 30 years or so since anybody last ordered a power reactor, but I rather suspect that improvements beyond minor tweaking have not been made. (Proposals for safer reactors have been on the table for decades, but the development costs would be substantial.) The waste question is solvable in theory but apparently not in practice.

The big question for humanity is whether or not mass starvation at mid-century can be averted. I think it can, but we have to act now. Carfree cities offer what is almost certainly the easiest, cheapest, and most effective way to permanently reduce energy consumption. At the same time, we would enjoy a large improvement in the quality of life. People are beginning to understand this.

Saudi Arabia Peaks?

Matthew Simmons, one of Bush's(!) energy advisors, says that "we may have already passed peak oil." Speaking to Aljazeera, Simmons said
If Saudi Arabia have damaged their fields, accidentally or not, by overproducing them, then we may have already passed peak oil. Iran has certainly peaked, there is no way on Earth they can ever get back to their production of six million barrels per day (mbpd).
Excessive rates of pumping damage the geological structures in which the oil is contained. Oil that might have been producible is lost forever. Simmons reviewed the record of an obscure US Senate committee meeting in 1974 in which a Saudi Aramco employee claimed the company had been overproducing the giant Ghawar field and that reservoir damage was likely. Some specialists at the time advised cutting Saudi production to 4 mbpd.

Simmons also discovered a fierce debate inside Aramco regarding overproduction.

The company claimed in the early 1970s that it would be able to produce 20 to 25mbpd, then by 1978 it was 12mbpd. Now it looks like 9.8mbpd is the maximum.
Simmons scorns the notion that the Saudis could raise production to 12mbpd or more.
This is dangerous stuff. If we say they have not peaked and then they choose to further increase production, they will only hasten their field decline, and waste huge amounts of valuable oil into the bargain.
In fact, overproduction could be the root cause of recent oil-company reserve write-downs, such as those by Shell.

On the other hand, Saudi Oil Minister Ali Al-Naimi recently said that the Saudis would increase production capacity to 12.5 mbpd by 2010. Whether this can be achieved at all or without damaging oil fields seems highly debatable.

Quite probably we are at or near peak oil production. The other half of the play still has to be written, but the plot is very simple: declining oil production. Forever.

"Expert says Saudi oil may have peaked"
20 February 2005
"Saudi minister: Kingdom can raise oil supply by 1.5 million bpd"
Channel NewsAsia
21 March 2005

Ominous Signs

Exxon's fourth-quarter earnings were $8.42 billion, the highest ever reported by a US company. So, what could be wrong with the oil industry? Plenty. Oil companies are spending a fortune on exploration and not coming up with much new oil. Their reserves are dwindling:
  • ConocoPhillips announced that additions to its oil reserves in 2004 were only about 60-65% of production.
  • ChevronTexaco would not give precise figures but admitted that its 2004 reserves-replacement rate was low.
  • Royal Dutch/Shell lowered its estimated holdings by a further 10%, bringing its total write-down to 5.3 billion barrels. In 2004, the company replaced only about 45-55% of the oil and gas it produced.
We're still dependent on "legacy assets" discovered 40 or 50 years ago. Matt Simmons (see the article above) said, "We've run out of good projects. This is not a money issue.... If these companies had fantastic projects, they'd be out there [developing new fields]."

Since there's little money to be made finding oil, the big oil companies are doing what cash-rich companies do best: getting richer by buying other companies. This won't do anything to assure a continuing supply of oil.

The US Department of Energy's International Energy Outlook 2004 expects "conventional oil to peak closer to the middle than to the beginning of the 21st century." [Translation: 2026, if we polish the data right.] However, Princeton geologist Kenneth S. Deffeyes says in his new book, Beyond Oil, that "the peak will occur in late 2005 or in the first few months of 2006." Mike Rodgers of PFC Energy forecasts the peak between 2010 and 2015. Who really knows?

What this leaves unsaid is that demand is continuing to surge, and even a peak as late as 2025 has shortages developing long before then. People are grasping at "unconventional oil," the troublesome sources such as tar sands and oil shale, that are difficult, expensive, and environmentally risky to develop. "Natural gas liquids" are also touted as helping to save the day, but the looming North American gas shortages suggest that gas producers will prefer to include the lighter fractions of these hydrocarbons in the gas stream instead.

Meanwhile, stay tuned for my report from Lisbon.

"The Energy Crunch to Come
Soaring Oil Profits, Declining Discoveries, and Danger Signs"
22 March 2005
First published by


Interesting New Books

And one interesting old book. If you haven't read Robert M. Pirsig's classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, or if it's been a while, I'd suggest it. I recently read it for the third or fourth time. It's a hard, thought-provoking book about the quality of life and the limitations of modern consciousness. As the cover says, "it will change the way you think and feel about your life." Oh, and no, it's not really about motorcycles.

The Nature of Order
Book Two: The Process of Creating Life

Christopher Alexander

The Center for Environmental Structure, 2002

635 pages
US$ 75.00 but widely discounted
ISBN 0972652906

Book One was reviewed in
Carfree Times #37

Numbers in parentheses are page references. In quoted material I have retained the original, unusual typographic treatment.


It's a bad sign when a book review is long and complex enough to require a preface. This review is certainly too long, and took far too long to write, but I am unable to further reduce it. It is worthy of the space I have devoted to it because Alexander is a giant in this field (A Pattern Language is one of the great books of the 20th century), and I have had the temerity to criticise his most recent work.

As usual, before going to press, I circulated the draft of this issue to several people. The reaction to my review of this work ranges from "not bad enough" to "much too harsh." The task that Alexander has undertaken with these four volumes is so large and so important that the criticisms I have leveled deserve an airing. I will, therefore, attempt to organize some kind of discussion of this review and publish it in the next Carfree Times. Before you invest $75 cash and many evenings in this book, you may want to wait two months for the results of this discussion. It really is important to come to a full understanding of what Alexander has attempted and the weaknesses and strengths of the result.


I will begin with a question that has bothered me since I began reading this series: what is the relationship between the "patterns" in Alexander's earlier work and the "centers" in this work? Alexander answers the question in Book Two:

These entities we called patterns were - albeit in an early formulation - somewhat similar to the entities I now call centers. (344)
That puts the reader on firmer footing, which is badly needed in this massive work. Despite the 2000 pages of these four volumes, Alexander is not attempting a unified summation of his life's work - these books build on his earlier works.

In this volume, Alexander examines the process of design and proposes that good design evolves in a step-wise fashion. It is not the result of a single brilliant moment of insight.

Alexander believes that contemporary processes are at the root of many of today's design failures. He believes that the rise of "developers" and the loss of feeling not only go together but are cause and effect. (525) He says:

Many of the processes used today, sadly, are nearly bound to fail. We see the results of this failure all around us. The lifeless buildings and environments which have become common in modern society are not merely dead, non-living structures. They are what they are precisely because of the social processes by which they have been conceived, designed, built, and paid for. No matter how skillful the architects, no matter how gifted, no matter how profound their powers of design - if the process used is wrong, the design cannot save the project (3)

The modern development process is based solely on money, not on tangible physical results. (522)

The pursuit of wholeness, pure and simple, was at odds with virtually every institutional and social reality of the 20th century. (528)

In fact, modern systems often fail in simple and vital tasks. Informal settlements seem to manage to leave a good place for the kids to play (105); many modern designs have not.

Alexander clearly understands the weaknesses of today's planning-on-paper process. Speaking of dreadful contemporary designs, he says:

They can be created when conceived on paper. They are conceptual. But in their abstractness, they are barren, not of flesh, and they could not possibly have been created as a result of an authentic process of unfolding. (128)
Regarding the "structure-destroying transformations" in a desert tract-house development, he says:
And there is a further sense in which such planned communities, and indeed nearly all developer-built artificial communities, are based on structure-destroying transformations. This comes not from their failure to be consistent with the land where they are built, but merely from the fact that they are planned at all, rather than "grown." (122)
Central to this book is the concept of unfolded structure: good design is a dynamic, not static process. Any single act of design is either a "structure-preserving" or a "structure-destroying" transformation, a matter considered at length in Part One of this book. Any change to a place or building either improves the quality of its internal and external relationships or does violence to them. He believes that most modern design is ruined by structure-destroying transformations. He believes that these are an unavoidable result of projects designed at one stroke by a single individual:
[T]he prevailing wisdom about architecture suggests that since a building is a complex whole, a designer has to do everything all at once, in a kind of incredible artistic tour-de-force, where he sees everything all at once in a single coherent vision. This is nonsense of course. But it is based on a rhetorical question something like this; "How could one possibly succeed in design, doing one thing at a time, since a complex whole is a unitary undivided whole which cannot be separated into parts?"

It is precisely the trick of the unfolding process to solve this problem. The unfolding process allows you to go one step at a time, precisely because it is based on a sequence which permits this without disturbing or screwing up the unfolding of the whole. (317)

This is a radical claim, but it's quite well supported. These sequences are not iterative. While this accords with my own experience and method in drawing the 81 districts of the Reference Topology - I almost never went back - I don't think all design yields to a sequential approach.

In Alexander's view, each step is taken in order and worked until the best possible solution is found; then the next step is taken up. Feedback is thus explicitly excluded (unless it is built into the sequence itself, which is not the case in his examples). He believes that these sequences, once fully developed, are empowering:

Who knows the most about a place? The people who live there and work there. Who is capable of providing all the detailed twists and turns, the detailed nuances, the detailed lovely subtleties, required to create a well-adapted structure? The people who live there, and the people who work there. (558)
I fully share this belief. In the forthcoming Carfree Design Manual, I will argue that community-based urban design is the only effective and economical way to attain truly beautiful and functional urban communities.

Alexander believes that sequences can be defined for urban design at all scales. To the extent that this is possible and yields good results, it would be a great simplification of the process. In the introduction to Part Two, he says,

Instead of using plans, designs, and so on, I shall argue that we MUST instead use generative processes. Generative process tell is what to DO, what ACTIONS to take, step by step, to make buildings and building design unfold beautifully, rather than detailed drawings which tell us what the END-result is supposed to be. (176)

The essence of the successful unfolding is that form develops step by step, and that the building as a whole then emerges, coherent, organized. The success of this process depends, always, on sequence. (129)

In this vision, the craft of the architect - the forming of the environment in its beauty, in its majesty, in its humanity - is to be assisted by semiautonomous generative sequences that help millions of people to become creative. (560)

He gives convincing illustrations of this approach and believes that generative (morphogenic) sequences can be defined for the built environment. When correctly executed, these sequences always lead to a good final result. This is a long reach, and I don't think he has proven his case, but the idea has great merit and is worth testing.

He somewhat undermines his case when he gives three maps of Amsterdam's development up to 1800 and remarks:

If we look at the evolution of traditional Amsterdam (page 99), we see how gradually the canals were formed, bridges were built to span (and thus enhance) the canals, edges were formed for the canals, houses were built one by one along the canals - all enhancing the canals - and slowly, over two or three hundred years, a wonderful living harmony was built. (97)
While it is true that the area he depicts developed over a long span of time, the last and by far the largest addition (the famed Grachtengordel) was planned at one stroke early in the 17th century and constructed according to plan during the ensuing 75 years. I am, in fact, criticizing this method in Carfree Design Manual precisely because the design was done on paper and not in direct response to the opportunities of the site. What saves this district is that individuals built the houses one-by-one, and few of them are precisely alike. At the same time, their design was constrained by the overall plan, yielding excellent harmony. While this is indeed one of the world's most attractive urban areas, I believe that the Grachtengordel would have been better still if it had not been laid out on paper.

Alexander claims that errors can be weeded out of sequences by testing:

If one applies a sequence of steps to a given context, and if one then observes the unfolding process, it is possible to identify, unambiguously, whether the process engendered by the sequence at any time contradicts itself - that means, whether one is forced to backtrack, because step B which comes at a certain point in the sequences forces one to undo the results of the previously taken step A. (306)
However, this conflicts with his statement that feedback is essential to the design process - his design sequences seem to lack it. (I wonder if Alexander is not subconsciously aware of the demands of successive steps while thinking about the current step.) My own experience of design suggests that this step-wise process does not work for many problems. For example, in yacht design, every decision affects everything else. The designer can't always know beforehand what to do. The design of a boat must be iterative - nothing can be decided with certainty until many other things have been decided to some level of approximation. A good solution is thus approached by a series of approximations.

And yet Alexander does call for feedback in the design process. He complains:

...the line was drawn on a drawing board, without any opportunity for the line to be modified, or adjusted, according to realistic perception of actual difficulties and opportunities on the place itself. I claim that in a professional planning/design/development process, this failure of adaptation is inevitable, and that at the time of its creation no process was put in place to remove those mistakes. (187)
Now, this is not precisely the same as the absence of feedback in design sequences. Alexander says of the making of traditional wooden houses in Norway:
The modern process leaves no room for feedback. The process goes on without regard for the character of each log and its position in a building. The traditional adzing process allows each timber to be hewn, shaped, and carved according to its place in the house. (92)
This is a case where design sequences do work, without the need for (or possibility of) iteration, because each timber is adapted as well as it can be to the then-existing whole, and the following timber is adjusted to what has gone before. There is thus no feedback in the formal sense. However, the carpenter will also know character of his remaining logs and probably adjusts his decisions on the basis of what he knows is to come. This sounds like a process that requires an inordinate amount of time, skill, and experience. I believe, however, that if people focus intently on the work they are doing, this awareness can develop in the span of a few years.

Apprenticeship may be the most effective means to pass these skills on. The mentor simply points out in passing certain features of the work. An alert apprentice picks this up as it comes and becomes a journeyman in less than a decade. (The apprentice system has the advantage that the adolescents entering the system are still young enough to develop completely new pathways of thought and to learn skills that are based in intuition, not formal process.)

The computer-driven production of custom parts will be taken up at length in Book Three, but Alexander mentions it here. This is a development I have been hoping to see for some time. It would bring an end to the imperative of using standard-sized, mass-produced parts to control costs. It brings an end to a century of "Taylorism" (516), which killed the centuries-old apprentice system. Taylorism is today's "de-skilling" - don't hire expensive people with broad skills; hire poorly trained people and teach them to perform one task. Regarding the opportunities afforded by computer-controlled production, Alexander says:

Deep in our hearts, I suspect we know that every situation is unique, each person, each moment, and therefore each place, must be unique. To live in a world which denies this truth, by creating an appearance of sameness, and then perhaps forcing us unique creatures into that mold of sameness, is degrading and impossible to bear. (331-332)
For all of his life, Alexander has sought ways to create wholeness in places and buildings. He has attempted to do this using Cartesian methods to define and dissect "wholeness." I think his failure to achieve a tangible understanding of wholeness and methods to create it results from his refusal to abandon the Cartesian method despite his own obvious understanding of the limitations of Cartesian thought. (He discussed this at great length in Book One.)
As I have observed, modern people are, very often, not holistic perceivers. Instead of seeing the wholeness and acting on it, they (especially if they are educated in verbal concepts at modern institutions) now perceive according to invented categories, which often blind them to the wholeness which exists. (116)

Our current modes of perception are not always tuned to seeing wholeness in the world around us; and the exact definition of the structure of wholeness - the system of centers at all scales, with their attendant degrees of life and coherence - is cumbersome and hard to grasp when we try to grasp it by analytical means. (370)

Yet he still agrees to play the game by the rules of Descartes. This is a critical matter. We need to develop non-Cartesian thought processes to handle those tasks for which Cartesian methods yield unhealthy results.

As in Book One, Alexander sometimes reaches too far. Regarding the "fundamental law about the creation of complexity," he says:

The law states simply this: ALL the well-ordered complex systems we know in the world, all those anyway that we view as highly successful, are GENERATED structures, not fabricated structures. (180)
What about ships and airplanes? These designs have for decades been worked out in complete detail on paper, and these objects have to be regarded as "successful," notwithstanding the fact that today's ships lack the grace they still universally possessed long after the advent of paper plans. Generation is clearly not suitable to some design projects. I suspect, however, that it is ideal for many tasks and will pursue this approach in my own work.

Like Book One, this book is long and arduous. Unlike Alexander's earlier work, it meanders and repeats. I think those involved in urban design had better read it, but we should hope for a more succinct and useful treatment from another hand in the not too distant future.

Alexander has done us a huge favor by opening up this new field, which points in a very hopeful direction. It is a pity that these first two books are weak efforts to translate his understanding into useful theories. For the next issue, I will review Book Three. It appears to be more useful in guiding actual design. In the mean time, let us hold on to the ideas that the processes of design are crucial and that morphogenic sequences could be powerful tools in the hands of citizen designers.


The Post-Automobile City:
Legal Mechanisms to Establish the Pedestrian-Friendly City

James A. Kushner, Southwestern University School of Law

Carolina Academic Press, 2004

176 pages
ISBN 1594600015

The Post-Automobile City is James Kushnerís assessment of how US society came to be dominated by the automobile, its effects on public transport, land-use, and housing, but also (most importantly) how we might reverse these trends and return to people-centred communities. Kushner is nominally based in the USA, but has lectured and travelled widely in Europe. It is his insight into the divergent US and European experience of transportation and cities which forms the basis for this comparative analysis of both past public policy failures and future opportunities.

The book begins by examining the role of the car in late 20th Century American society, starting with the systematic, state-subsidised processes of suburbanisation and the dismantling of efficient public transport. It goes on to consider the subsequent loss of local amenities, the decline of vibrant communities, and social exclusion caused by car-based land-use patterns.

Following a discussion on the geo-political perils of continued oil dependency, the remainder of the book concentrates on strategies for delivering an alternative model - the post-automobile city. Using examples drawn mainly from continental Europe, Kushner examines the ways in which progressive, integrated transportation, housing, and locational policies can promote urban regeneration and re-establish liveable cities as places that provide access to essential services, opportunities, and quality of life. Themes include pedestrianisation, traffic-calming measures, parking reduction, and a review of European carfree housing projects. Whilst this material might be familiar to many readers, the significance of this book is that it describes in clear terms the motivations and fiscal and regulatory mechanisms used to establish a wide range of people-friendly policies, from national to community level. Of course, it would be simplistic to suggest that there is no opportunity for policy transfer from the USA to Europe: There are many examples from American cities of innovative best practice. Kushner touches upon the Smart Growth and New Urbanism movements in the US, which aim to re-establish high-density, walkable, and transit-orientated communities with a quality urban realm and a sense of place.

As a study in comparative policy analysis, the book highlights the pivotal role of the automobile in destroying civic society. However, anyone looking to this volume as a shortcut to some form of carfree utopia will be disappointed: This book is not about immediately eradicating automobiles nor demonising motorists, but rather the social, economic, and political realities of alleviating chronic car-dominance. Thatís not to suggest that Kushnerís position is incompatible with the objectives of the carfree movement. He offers a systematic indictment of the auto-centric transport policies, tax framework, and stealth-subsidies which continue to support the entire property development, auto manufacturing, and infrastructure sectors and serve to mask the true costs of car dependency. Moreover, The Post-Automobile City is based on detailed research, which draws upon a wide range of legal, governmental, and professional sources. It provides a comprehensive and meticulously referenced resource for policy makers, academics, and advocates involved in transportation, urban renewal, or community planning. Kushner shows that much successful work is already being done towards the post-automobile city, and that such measures are more equitable and more efficient than an outmoded infatuation with the car.

Reviewed by Dave Morris
(Loughborough University, UK)


The Professional Two-Monthly Magazine Of Rail Transport Worldwide

M-presse s.r.o.
Zelená c.p. 1083
160 00 Praha 6
Czech Republic

€10.00/single copy

Semi-monthly magazine with a strong European focus on rail, mainly from the rolling-stock perspective. Also strongly focused on passenger equipment but with some freight as well. Includes not only line-haul heavy-rail operations but also metros and trams. Very nicely produced and much more interesting than the US rail trade journals which, last time I saw them, were mostly advertising.


Hot New Links

The links below will open in a new browser window:

The New Modernity

An Architecture for Our Time

Why the Western Economic Model Will not Work for the World

The Future Isn't What It Used To Be Changing Trends And Their Implications For Transport Planning [PDF!] (VTPI)

World Transport Policy & Practice


The Neighbourhood Initiatives Foundation

Road design? He calls it a revolution

Adaptions to Main Roads [PDF!]

A Tale of Two Cities: The Mayors of Paris and London Say "Enough" to Cars

They're Not Making More (Review: Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil)

The Public transport and priority to pedestrians and bicycles as a basis for the quality of life in capital cities [PDF!] General Assembly of UCUE, Lisbon, 27 September 2002 (I would be very grateful if someone would volunteer to read and summarize this document!)


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