Fractality — Isotropy — Perma-circularity: Richard Register, Paola Viganò, and the new foundations of settlement design

As the US presidential election campaign drags on and becomes more and more alarming with regard to the planet’s true needs, I’ve been seeking intellectual and existential solace in my family and also in further forays into the “Ecovillage L.A. 2066” project I outlined in one of my earlier posts.

In this context, I’ve recently been reading stuff by Richard Register, the father of the “ecocity” concept and founder of EcoCity Builders. I love it. In the line of the late great Christopher Alexander as well as the wonderful California bioregionalists of the 1970s, Register is uncompromising in his determination to blur all boundaries between the old and the new, between the traditional and the so-called “progressive.” He’s less averse to towers and tall structures than Alexander, who included a maximum number of four floors as one element of his famous “pattern language.” He appears to be somewhat more favorable to strong densification than the late Bernardo Secchi and my EPFL colleague Paola Viganò with their concepts of the “diffuse city” (città diffusa), the “porous city” (ville poreuse), and the “Horizontal Metropolis.” But Register definitely belongs to the same gene pool of thinkers who judge the design of settlements by whether human beings – and other living species – feel enlivened and find deeper meaning in them. This rich texture of humanistic design approaches seems to me to be a more than welcome complement to complexity science and flow-and-network analysis when it comes to assessing the livability of towns and cities.

In fact, the systems perspective can be made totally congruent with the humanistic one. Certain systemic properties of settlements are called for by the pressing need we have, nowadays, of making our settlements fit for real human beings again. Two of these properties are

  • fractality – the fact for a settlement of being a fractal, that is to say a self-contained whole inside a larger, equally self-contained whole whose beneficial properties it replicates at a smaller scale
  • isotropy – the fact for a settlement of being “the same in all directions,” that is to say offering each inhabitant, each family unit, each neighborhood, etc. roughly the same surrounding field of life possibilities

Obviously, fractality and isotropy are closely connected notions. Isotropy is a necessary condition for making a city livable: Infrastructures ought to be designed in such a way that everyone has similar opportunities for “functioning” regardless of where they live and in which direction they move from there. (On horizontality, porosity, and isotropy, see Paola’s recent article on “Micro Infrastructure,” published in 2016 in Scaling Infrastructure, a book of the MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism, pp. 138-154.) Fractality suggests something analogous: As far inward or outward as you zoom on a map, patterns of access and performance should be similar. This is obviously not enough, however. What counts isn’t just similar opportunities for scant and frustrating existential experience regardless of where one lives – which is, in essence, the hallmark of suburban sprawl and its egalitarian “infrastructure desert” – but similar opportunities for existential satisfaction and fulfillment through the highest possible quality of infrastructure that the settlement pattern can offer. In fact, both isotropy and fractality are necessary, but neither is sufficient; they both stand or fall on the infrastructural density they actually replicate. If the homogenous field that isotropy makes accessible for everyone is of the bombed-out urban wasteland type, not much good is being done. If the fractal is empty or ugly or both, again not much has been achieved. What’s needed is high-quality micro-infrastructure at each locality, fractally embedded in nested circles of ever-widening meso- and macro-infrastructure of similar quality at larger scales.

So it’s actually the combination of isotropy, fractality, and infrastructural density that makes for the most livable mode of settlement. All three are part of the “pattern language” we need for today’s sprawling metropolises. In this regard, as Viganò has repeatedly emphasized, Switzerland’s traditional settlement patterns have solidified into a model of “Horizontal Metropolis” that currently is in danger of being eroded by an all too hasty drive towards strong densification. The specifically Swiss brand of town-and-country meshing, with its remarkable micro-infrastructures replicating essential modules at – almost – all local levels so that virtually all areas of the territory are inhabitable in an equivalent way, is in many ways a fractal-isotropic masterpiece. As I suggested in my previous post on “Ecovillage L.A. 2066,” America’s sprawling metropolises have much to learn from Switzerland’s past achievements, just as Swiss planners should heed the warnings emanating from the history of US megacities in order to understand what happens when the careful planning and maintenance of “dense horizontality” is relinquished in favor of indiscriminate metropolization.

Perma-circularity adds a crucial layer to this much-needed reflection on fractally isotropic settlements. It has to do with Register’s long overdue rehabilitation of a key word – the word “village.” Here is what he writes about it:

“An ecocity ‘fractal’ is a smaller fraction of a city serving all of the city’s essential functions, with essential parts all present and well organized. Smaller than a whole city and more easily built, the ‘fractal’ or ‘integral project’ becomes like an ecologically informed, fully functioning village in the city and a model for thinking about whole cities as ecocities. Residential spaces, shops, offices, clean manufacturing, recreation facilities, food availability in several forms, schools, and elements of nature in that location including proper orientation towards sunshine, precipitation and views all present and properly organized.”

Ecocities Illustrated, Oakland, CA: Ecocity Builders, 2016, p. 17

I revel in these words: “…an ecologically informed, fully functioning village in the city and a model for thinking about whole cities as ecocities.” This is what projects such as “Ecovillage L.A. 2066” have to seek inspiration and strength from: a philosophy of radical fractal isotropy, predicated upon something that only the notion of perma-circularity can capture properly: circularity and permanence as a method of existential design, as a way of ensuring that infrastructures are so well suited to what makes us “reinhabitory” humans, or “humans-living-in-place,” that we cease wanting to draw our material, social, and spiritual resources from afar and that we systematically seek the nearest, most ecologically innocuous, most sufficiency-based sources of matter, connection, and meaning. The bioregionalist movement launched by a handful of northern Californians in the 1970s – at the behest of Peter Berg and Raymond Dasmann – had understood this perfectly. They offered the concept of reinhabitation as the cornerstone of a countercultural strategy for reversing the destructive trends of de-territorialization and loss of place-based identity they had been observing already since the 1960s.

Already in the mid-60s, in his book The Destruction of California, Raymond Dasmann lamented the changes brought upon southern California, and Los Angeles in particular, by a set of trends we would today diagnose as an explosion of the linear growth mentality and an eradication of all traces of ancestral perma-circular wisdom. Richard Register, whose sympathies for the bioregional movement are clear, has recast this plight in contemporary terms, insisting on the fruitfulness of the “village” as a relevant design category for today’s challenges, and linking this to Los Angeles’s contemporary predicament:

“Los Angeles improved the automobile in the 1960s with the ‘smog device’ rather than improving the city in which the automobile, along with low-density development, paving and a cheap energy supply, are all integrally linked. The result was locally improved air quality, ‘proof’ that the sprawling city of cars could be ‘improved.’ The rest of the world’s cities and even towns and villages followed. The result: global climate change, accelerated extinctions and biodiversity collapse and other true disasters we have yet to face honestly.

Villages, as well as cities, have been radically damaged by the automobile. Yet in their traditional form, with every opportunity for ‘access by proximity’ because of their small size, they [i.e., villages] can model whole systems design for neighborhood and small town scale up to downtown and whole city scale. In many ways, understanding the built environment as appropriately laid out in the soil and on the surface of the planet is as important as things get, and thus the best of villages is crucially needed in this age that claims to be ‘urban.’”

Ecocities Illustrated, Oakland, CA: Ecocity Builders, 2016, p. 112

Wow. This is it. This is what we need to gain full confidence that perma-circular, fractal isotropy can pave the way (pun intended) for metropolitan areas as vast as L.A. to become a metrochorio, or ‘mother-network of villages,’ as I called it in an earlier post. And if, in addition – as we should – we seek inspiration in the ecovillage variant of the village, we might be well on our way if not to reshape, at least to reimagine Los Angeles as a model for the future. Pioneering thinkers such as Viganò, Register, and others – I’ll review Paul Glover’s 2012 book Los Angeles: A History of the Future in my next post – show us a way ahead that’s not necessarily easy, but exhilarating and, above all, urgently needed.


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