The city as self-organization

The largest known human artifact during history is the city which belongs to the most complex space-time structures existing in the world. Being with us for 6000 years, it represents the rise of civilization and have survived all socio-cultural changes. In the city, new surprises are always waiting around the corner and possibilities exist to open new relations and change one’s life today.

The existence in town mostly works surprisingly well. Although itself tremendously complex, the city is a kind of complexity problem solver and complexity manager. Despite this, the science and technology which lay behind its creation still cannot handle sewage disposal problems, traffic jams, exhaust pollution or poverty ghettos in Western métropoles. As a self-organizing system, the ever-changing, pluralistic city seems uncontrollable, unpredictable and unplannable. Marxists has always stated that the urban system under capitalism is chronically unstable and seems to jump from one steady state to another. Today, this is emphasized by the crisis of the welfare state and the global trend towards privatization.

Irrespective of its temporary state, the city has always been the object of intense planning efforts. This infringement in values of liberal freedom and market economies is motivated by shortcomings of the “invincible hand of the market” which have to be counteracted. Preparedness is also necessary to achieve moral goals that are not necessarily capitalist or liberal. Predictability, control and effective social engineering is the core intention of the planning effort. The problem is that the control functions themselves are self-organizing systems and as such uncontrollable and give rise to bureaucracy.

The growing bureaucracy in modern societies is a special problem area of its own. Today, when official laws and regulations of all kinds rapidly increase through deals between special interest groups, the way is paved for bureaucracy. Overwhelmed administrators require assistants, the more the better, which gives status in the hierarchy. The base of the growing bureaucracy pyramid is in constant growth and the more administrative jobs there are, the more new jobs are being created. The administration becomes and end itself and the paperwork becomes rituals, not questioned by anybody.

Urban development is characterised by today’s accelerated social transformation with disorder, instability and diversity. Most big modern cities show social and cultural pluralism in a spatial mosaic of coexisting ethnic groups. Even if inhabitant only care about their immediate neighbours, large segregated districts emerge, as short- range, local interactions create new large-scale structures. Many layers of the city are elements which overlap or enfold each other and create complex, dynamic systems. New structures are created by selforganization which changes the system and develop it further into new changes. This happens by itself, with no central planning to regulate the process or public authority to be the second player. It works with neighbour interaction, pattern recognition and all kinds of feedback.

The formation of buildings, trail systems, transport and supply networks and other parts of the community, show significant analogies to phase transitions known from physics, like cluster formation and aggregation. It essentially occurs in a state between stable behaviour and chaotic regime with a fine balance between order and chaos. Often, a reason for the phase transition is increased energy consumption leading to a disintegration of the stable or frozen structure by increasing the connectivity of the system. Another reason for phase transition is the sheer increase in size. In cities, the result is a development into neighbourhoods and satellites.

Although the city as a whole show stability, local areas may exhibit unstable or chaotic behaviour. The interplay between order and chaos might show up in the movements of cars on the roads, of pedestrians on pavements and other urban phenomena.

The animals in a herd, the ants in an anthill and the bird in a swarm can all be treated as if they were atoms, with no personality, subjectivity or individuality. That the inhabitants of a city act and behave collectively can, however, not be taken for granted. They can act in concert, but also like free agents with personality and subjective individuality. As such they can plan, take decisions and act accordingly. In social systems like the city, self-organization involves the mental reflections and purposeful actions of their elements, which creates their own reality. Social systems are unique as they consist of subsystems that can set goals for themselves. The example par excellence here is man. A complication is that systems involving humans to some extent, do not follow the laws of physical science. Human participants can alter the path of evolution so that past patterns no longer continue into the future. But interaction on the local and individual level will, sooner or later, determine the behaviour and structure of the global city level. Freedom only matters on the level of the individual human life.

It is obvious how the city tries to keeps its unstable elements under control by the use of jails, madhouses and other institutions in order to allow a smooth process of development.

Source: Skyttner Lars (2006), General Systems Theory: Problems, Perspectives, Practice, Wspc, 2nd Edition.

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