The Living City vs. The Mechanical City
May 2, 2018

A city is a living organism, and we should tend to it as such. A city dies when it is treated as, and functions, as a machine.

The Living City

Cities are complex systems; they are made up of thousands, even millions, of individuals with their own aspirations and needs. A living city is one that is constantly evolving and optimizing to the needs of the people from the bottom up. Living cities are fairly organic and fairly dense (even if the city is small), with lots of small buildings that can be repurposed. They are incredibly green, contain a mixture of uses that tend to be close together and are fast to adapt to changing conditions. Living cities have plenty of small scale chaos (trial and error) at the local level, little restriction on using your property productively, and a high level of incrementalism (buildings that are adapted and added to over the generations as their needs change) — and that incrementalism is allowed by-right. These properties remain consistent, regardless of whether the city is wealthy or poor or what continent its on.

Living cities are more of the exception than the rule today. Modern urban planning favors the ‘mechanical city’ which is the opposite. A living city can go by a variety of names such as informal settlement, favela (a Brazilian name for an informal settlement), a traditional city or the dreaded term, slum. Depending on how wealthy the area is, we either decide to glass case and preserve it (thus, killing it while at the same time worshiping it), or set out to demolish it.


Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. These people are considered poor by first world standards. Why is our reaction to demolish their homes and prevent this kind of development?


Koper, Slovenia. Not much different from a favela except they were able to afford fancier architecture, so we have a habit of glass casing places like this while also killing the systems that allowed these places to emerge.

The Mechanical City

A mechanical city is the opposite of a living city; it’s top down and orderly. A mechanical city is like a machine that needs to be optimized. There has been extensive planning to determine what kind of development is permitted in the city. Every change needs to be passed through an approval body. We go all-in on changes that are large, acute, and untested. There are plenty of rules and regulations to keep everything conforming to an ideal. We trust professionals over those with skin in the game.

The Living City The Mechanical City
Self organizing. Extensive planning.
Trial and error. Approval bodies.
Incremental changes. Acute changes.
Trust in empirical evidence. Trust in experts and studies.
Adaptable to change. Fragile to change.
Dependent on DIY, especially by those with skin in the game. Dependent on accredited professionals.
The building comes before the street is paved. The street is paved before the building comes.
Trust in social networks. Trust in authority.

I don't know what triggered the explosion of mechanical cities during the early 20th century. Perhaps it was Le Corbusier, Robert Moses, or just a byproduct of the welfare state. Whatever the cause, it was a time of great enthusiasm that believed we could rebuild society for the better by putting the "fragilista" in charge. Fragilista is a term coined by Nassim Taleb to describe academics that lack skin in the game - especially those that view complex systems as mechanical (i.e. something to be modeled, reconfigured, and optimized) rather than organic (i.e. something to be probed and tended to).

Historic preservation was a natural reaction to modern urban planning. Unfortunately, while we did preserve the physical structures at a particular point in time, historic preservation killed the living city by walling it off and demanding that it stay the same forever.

Urban renewal is an example of where we try to treat the city as a machine rather than an organism. Slum upgrading and slum clearance are the large scale removal of neighborhoods of low-income housing and redevelopment of sites with public housing or condominiums (often stroads and towers). The assumption is that we can do a large scale reconfiguration of the neighborhood all at once from the top down.

If we were to, instead, treat the city as an organism we would acknowledge that the city is a complex system and we aren’t naive enough to know every answer and understand every second order effect. Rather than changing everything at once, we'd probe it with small scale experiments to see how it reacts. We could attempt to lift a neighborhood out of poverty by addressing specific concerns: providing dwellings with clean water, sewer, and electricity; addressing crime and safety; investing in quality schools; building transit that connects people to the job opportunities; and welfare programs to support the unemployed and disabled. There are many things we could do that don’t require resetting the granular urbanism that took decades of hard work constructing buildings and complex social networks.

My goal here isn’t to idolize one way or another, but to point out the differences to see what we can learn today. The favelas of Brazil are getting the attention of planners and their merits are being recognized as a path for the future; they offer an interesting insight into what cities are like when allowed to develop organically in the modern age, and are living examples of how cities historically developed. Of course, in a wealthy country where we expect everything to be well regulated and built to a final state, we think we're above than that.