A couple weeks ago I stated in a post that “I cannot agree with Jacobs when she says that ‘Great cities are not like towns, only larger.’ Great cities and great towns function in very much the same way. In my experience a great city is nothing more than a fractal arrangement of great villages and towns that happen to sit next to one another.”
This comment generated considerable discussion with numerous people taking exception to the idea. I’d like, therefore, to expand upon that discussion here – especially as much of Chapter 6 deals directly with this very issue.
In my work, I tend to inform my understanding of cities from a Naturalist perspective. Please don’t confuse that to mean “Garden City” or any such nonsense. What I mean is that I inform my work by observing and understanding (admittedly generally) the natural processes of the world around us and applying it to how cities grow, thrive and die. And one of those natural processes I feel that underpin how our cities function (or not) are fractals.
For those unaware, fractals are mathematical or real-world patterns that are self-similar at different degrees of scale – meaning they are the same up close as they are far away. That doesn’t mean they’re exact, but they’re similar.
Look at a tree. A tree’s branches look very similar to it’s trunk. And the branches that branch off those branches look remarkably similar as well.
Or look at your body. Then look at your arms and your legs. Then look at your fingers and toes. Or your arteries, veins and capillaries. Or how about highways, arterial roads, neighborhood roads and alleys.
They’re all self-similar at different degrees of scale.
Great cities, neighborhoods and villages are like that too. A strong neighborhood has a centre; a focal point. So do strong cities. In fact, a strong city is likely to have many focal points. And more often than not, those focal points just so happen to be the centres of neighborhoods. A home has a centre as well; it’s called the kitchen.
The basic idea here is that these things exist on a fractal continuum where each exists as the central organization unit of the others:
- The room is the central organizational unit of the home.
- The home is the central organizational unit of the block.
- The block is the central organizational unit of the neighbourhood.
- The neighborhood is the central organizational unit of the district.
- The district is the central organizational unit of the city.
- The city is the central organizational unit of the region.
- The region is the central organizational unit of the territory.
- The territory is the central organizational unit of the state.
- The state is the central organizational unit of the continent.
- The continent is the central organizational unit of the hemisphere.
- The hemisphere is the central organizational unit of the Earth.
That’s what I mean when I say a great city is nothing more than a fractal arrangement of great villages and towns. They are self-similar at different degrees of scale. Jacobs as much as admits this herself when she refers to “the city as a whole,” “street neighborhoods” and “districts” all as neighbourhoods.
Well-functioning villages and towns often act in very much the same way as neighborhoods do. Admittedly, that may not be the case in North America where the massive friction of distance prevents villages and towns from acting as neighbourhoods; but that’s a distinct and unique feature of the continent not shared by many other regions of the world.
In North America, most people can’t live in one town and work in the next town over because the next town over could be a two hours’ drive away. In other places, the next town over is a 20 minute walk. In that situation, larger geographic regions function as de facto cities with each town functioning as de facto neighborhoods within those cities.
Consider the Zurich Metropolitan Area of Switzerland. This is a primarily rural region of farms and pastures with 3.8 million residents and the modestly sized city of Zurich (population of ~ 370,000) at it’s centre. This region contains hundreds of little towns and villages spread across 10 different cantons (the Swiss term for province or state). Movements between the towns and villages are constant.
At every degree of scale it is self-similar. Yes Zurich is the biggest city and therefore has certain characteristics the smaller towns will not, but again, we’re talking about similarity not exact replication.
We can draw a simple analogy: A big city is to a village as an adult is to a child. Are they different? Of course they are. But they’re also remarkably similar. And, just as an adult begins life as a child, a city begins its life as a village. In fact, before that. With the possible exception of insta-places like Dubai, a city begins when more than one person decides to put down roots and say: “This is where I live,” and starts to change, alter and improve the land around them – resulting in a village.
Whether accidental or intentional, Jacobs’ perception of cities and neighborhoods is deeply fractal. While never explicit, she continually revisits the idea of self-similarity. She may say things like “cities are not a collection of repetitious towns” but she contradicts herself when, for example, she says that “successful street neighborhoods . . . are small scale in the sense that the lengths of fibers making up a rope are small scale.” She doesn’t say it, but she’s clearly invoking fractals.
Once you begin to think of a city or region in fractal terms, you begin to see them everywhere – and that’s why I see great cities and great towns as fundamentally the same thing.
- Chapter 6 is such an odd chapter because it’s really two separate chapters; one dealing with neighborhoods and one dealing with districts.
- The discussion of districts is really a textbook on how people can organize districts in order to effect political change – or prevent it. Pay close attention to it.
- Jacobs’ discussion of activism in Chapter 6 is deeply intertwined with geography and place. How do those concepts function in a world of social media where people try to effect change without regard to place?
- Professor Florence’s comment that “a city of a million is required to give me, say, the twenty or thirty congenial friends I require” is wonderful. But it also has to be understood carefully. Florence is saying that a city of a million is required to give him the thirty friends he requires, but he is not saying that all cities of a million will provide him with the thirty friends he requires. There’s a difference there. It’s subtle, but important.
- Is it just me or did anyone else notice that Jane Jacobs and her sister basically invented Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon 33 years before the game appeared? And if so, what movie is Mrs. Roosevelt?