While it is clear that visionary planning at the urban scale has lost its ideological value, it is also true that public and private development is happening at an increasingly large scale in precise relationship to economic power. Neither the scale of the city nor the scale of the neighborhood seems appropriate for investigating urbanism today. There needs to be another metric. It would seem that development around nodes of infrastructure, which is yet another scale, is one way to think about the problem.

Peter Eisenman asks: Is neighborhood planning the new city planning?

P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S answers: Neighborhood planning is not a new city planning, but rather a stopgap measure that has stepped in to fill some of the failures of visionary, modernist city planning.

While certainly not a replacement, neighborhood planning became a more prevalent mode of development in many of the world’s most advanced urban areas. Los Angeles is no exception to this trend: after an overzealous use of eminent domain through the 1950s to build roads and centralize capital in the central business district, powerful neighborhood associations backed by lawyers and wealthy residents began to dismantle much of this visionary yet heavy-handed work.

Today, quasi-official neighborhood commissions hold a de facto veto power over any new public projects on their turf, and balkanized neighborhoods have grown increasingly independent in character, heightening the decentralized Los Angeles that is portrayed in the popular imagination. We believe that this struggle between the city and the neighborhood isn’t necessarily a bad thing—just something that we now have the ability to productively complicate with contemporary considerations of the public, technology, and form.

Drawing on the specter of Reyner Banham, who haunts most discourse on Los Angeles in a delightful way, we propose the following four points that demonstrate that neighborhood planning and city planning complement each other, but can only effectively do so by reconsidering their very definitions. These “morphological ecologies”, however, are not descriptive, but are instead speculative, suggesting four possible morphologies that offer material, formal and organizational potential for a better and more innovative urban environment.

Morphology I: PILING / Diversity Over Density

The conventional urban planning notion of the “dense, walkable city” as ideal urban form does not take into account contemporary definitions of environment, city, neighborhood, family, or daily life—and so our notion of the ideal urban form must change. A few trends toward this end are the rise of the single-person household in urban areas, extended and alternative family households due to changing demographics and rising housing costs, and a holistic understanding of the factors that influence the environment. Most are surprised to find that, based on carbon output per capita, Los Angeles turns out to be more “sustainable” than New York, San Francisco, or Boston. This is directly related to the responsive piling of built form in areas of maximum efficiency or, in other words, having a diversity of urban conditions that are responsive at the micro-scale to environment and to social conditions.

Piling and random stacking of primitive units into flexible and heterogeneous wholes

Morphology II: CONSTELLATIONS / Infrastructure Over Individual

Infrastructure—as defined as form that crosses neighborhood thresholds—is a public good that should be the focus of a central authority. This is the essence of a public good: something that cannot be provided by the self-interested forces of the market. The transportation, cultural, educational, water, power, and communication infrastructures are the constellation of objects in an urban field of neighborhoods that ground a city with function and identity. Architects are primed in the set of knowledge that is required to ensure that these public goods reach denizens, as they can elevate the lowly overpass or power line into a cultural amenity that creates place while still mediating between the various stakeholders that urban infrastructure production requires: engineers, public officials, neighborhoods and their representatives, and so on.

Fibrous constellation of disparate movement systems generating new patchy centers

Morphology III: SWARMING / Self Interest As Public Good

Neighborhood commissions have the strongest interdependencies with their nearest neighbors—and this swarm phenomenon can inform how they should view public good as individual interest. Individualism and personal property rights are two values that are fundamentally ingrained into American culture—and particularly the culture of Los Angeles—and they are not going away any time soon.

But the slide of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) toward BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone) can be stalled at the neighborhood scale. Swarming, or the introduction of a simple rule to dictate how nearest neighbors behave toward one another, can have the effect of broad, formal consistency across a large population. By building public goods into the seams between neighborhoods, mutual self-interest can allow for a civic sensibility that is greater than the sum of individual neighborhood’s desires.

Deep changes in behavior, public opinion, organizational patterns and crowd distribution

Morphology IV: RECURSION / Intelligent Sprawl As Smart Growth

Neighborhoods are flexible ecosystems, not fixed entities. New communication technologies and contemporary modes of self-identification can allow for a continuous re-definition of ideal neighborhood boundaries, relationships, and forms. Communities are no longer only defined by ethnicity or socio-economic class, but also by aspiration, PRIZM classification, and self-identified culture. As communities multiply, or become irrelevant, dynamic architecture and adaptable, mediatic systems of signs and symbols allow for the organic shifting of boundaries, splitting of neighborhoods, and the absorption of multiple communities into one.

This kind of responsive urban environment at the cellular level can have striking formal implications at the city scale. We argue that rather than the technocratic considerations of ‘smart growth’, such as TODs (Transit Oriented Development) or uniform walkability, we should be thinking about responsive and intelligent urban landscapes and urban ideals in a culturally substantive way.

Infinite recursive subdivisions in a cellular automata grid

P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S Team from left to right:
Negar Jazbi, Daniele Profeta, Huaiming Liao, Jonathan Crisman, Matt Kendall, Georgina Huljich, Marcelo Spina & Robert Panossian.
Special thanks to Jonathan Crisman