Steven Dale on Chapter 6: The Uses of City Neighbourhoods – Are Cities and Villages Fractal?

What can the Mandelbrot Set teach us about cities? CC image via Wikipedia.

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.

Now think about cities. CC image via Wikipedia.

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.
  • Etc.

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.

The Zurich Metropolitan Area (in red). CC image via Wikipedia.

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?
That was a rhetorical question. As any halfway-decent player knows, JFK is clearly Mrs. Roosevelt.


7 Comments Add yours

  1. GREAT observations! In fact, Jacobs elaborates on this exact idea of fractal development in the Nature of Economies. Although she’s speaking less in terms of built-form at that point, it’s implied that the same principles that govern economy would govern other city workings.

    That said, I think it’s also important to note that a common trope in natural development is that more is different. In terms of evolution, for instance, an increasing number and density of cells in communities of interdependent single-cell organisms likely led to multicellular organisms. Although there are similarities between a multicellular organism and an ecosystem of symbiotic cells, they are qualitatively, not just quantitatively, different.

  2. Hmm. I still disagree with you on this. My home village is not at all like a city, and is just as grown-up as Toronto is, if not more. From what you tell me about your town in Switzerland, it sounds like a (very) small city, and not at all like the village I grew up in.

    My Toronto neighbourhood has very little in common with my village. They are completely different animals.

    In my village, if we aren’t home, the neighbours notice. Neighbours keep tabs on one another, whether they like each other or not. When someone walks by the house, they check to see who it is. This isn’t because traffic is rare (though that helps), it’s because they expect to recognize most people and it’s significant if a stranger is walking past the house. (My parents live on the main street of our village, by the way. This isn’t a back road. Villagers just check up on each other a lot.)

    In my neighbourhood (and any I can think of in Toronto), this is not the case. Even on my friend’s quiet residential one-way street in Roncesvalles, the street doesn’t work this way. Most people who walk by are probably strangers, and when and where they are walking is none of our business, just as where and when we are walking is none of their business. We are independent.

    In my village, if the neighbours hate you, you’re in trouble. They can basically kick you out of the neighbourhood through social pressure, or at least make you uncomfortable enough to stop walking around in it. There’s a reason non-white families don’t stay long in our village, and it’s not because the grocery store only stocks 2 kinds of rice.

    In my neighbourhood, I’m a member of the community association and I’ve realised that every one of the people in my community association could hate my guts, and I wouldn’t need to move. If I quit going to the meetings we would simply part ways, while continuing to share the same streets. This is impossible in a village, and it’s one of my favourite things about a city neighbourhood. They have no (negative) sway over where I live.

    I don’t think that villages and cities have *nothing* in common, but they have some really significant differences. There’s a different culture, and a different way of perceiving and operating in the world.

    1. Steven Dale says:

      I wonder if the issue here is qualitative rather than quantitative. Perhaps a low density suburban neighborhood in Florida has more in common with the village you grew up in than it does with a ‘great city.’

      So much of the challenge here is about taxonomy. How we define something is so relative to our experiences. So while I’ve known small villages that certainly don’t function like cities or their neighborhoods, I’ve also known those that do. I’ve also known large cities that are far more dysfunctional (in a purely Jacobsean sense) than small European villages.

      Again, I think it’s a question of scale. Of course a village of 100 is going to be much different than a city of 2 million. But what interests me is not what makes them different but what makes them the same.

      1. I think it’s definitely a matter of quality rather than quantity. To your point Steven, I think I remember Jacobs mentioning that suburban life produces much the same situation as what Heather Ann just described; you’re very involved in everyone else’s life, and if you don’t have good relationships with your neighbours, that’s a big problem.

        I also think that what you’re observing, Steven, might be that small “great cities” and big “great cities” function alike. If we accept that when Jacobs says “great” she’s referring to a quality not a quantity, then it stands to reason that population shouldn’t make a huge difference for cities that have that attained that quality.

      2. Marco Covi says:

        I agree with Nathan and Steven. It’s all about taxonomy/quality. Jacobs mentions how former suburbs incorporated into the city (gray-belts) function somewhat unsuccessfully as neighbourhoods because according to her theory a successfull city must be diverse and mixed with primary and secondary uses in every corner. Heather’s neighbourhood of Roncessvalles is a downtown neighbourhood. And like someone else said recently in this week’s post, downtowns are increasingly becoming playgrounds for the rich because of the high property values. Toronto’s dowtown is also more likely to be politically active and get more attention from politicians because of the increasing opportunity for diverse uses and interests through geography (businesses and residences close to one another). Even in the age of gloablization and mass technology linking us together, downtown neighbourhoods in Toronto at least seem to get their voices heard more so than say a diverse enclave in Scarbarough Village for example. For the powers that be it seems that it is out-of-sight out-of mind for gray belts like harlem or former suburbs like Rexdale or Scarbarough or Southwest Chicago. As Hulchanski’s/United Way’s work shows, it seems that there are 2 cities growing apart from one another in income and political engagement. This has a lot to do with the built geography of the regions. In the inner-suburbs we have apartment mega-projects that are isolated from one another…like islands in the middle of nowhere. Although people try to be politically active and many are somewhat successful in effecting change, many are either too poor to be able to show up to every meeting because they need to work more than one job/take care of children or they are totally isolated because of the megablocks, apartment islands and superhighways that physically bisect their neighbourhoods making it inconvenient to travel. This is similar in old neighbourhoods that were designed as suburbs. Harlem, Washington Heights and parts of Brooklyn and Queens are no different besides their age and residential density (not diversity of use). Large blocks and distance from amenities because of a separation of primary uses (residential from work) have hindered these places so that they seem like villages to themselves and not connected to the broader city or neighbourhood by traversing different streets for a coffee, doctor appointment etc. Many of my friends in North York and some friends from Jane and Finch for example, have never even gone downtown except if they work there (one highschool friend had never even ventured out of the Jane-Finch/Jane Sheppard area). They have supermarkets that they must drive to in the neighbourhood (not walk because it is too far) and that is about it in terms of their neighbourhood travels. The same can be said of office campuses at Keele/Wilson (Ont. Gov) or Mississauga or as Jacobs’ example illustrates, lower Manhattan’s financial district which is alive with people only at small intervals during the day that cater to the office employees. It’s no wonder that only big chain stores can afford to do business in gray belts, inner-suburbs and areas of the downtown that are only zoned/built for 1 use. Nature dictates that biodiversity reflects ecosystem health. I think cities are no different. Diversity in use in a district is important to the political and economic health of cities.

      3. Interesting points, all.

        Marco, you’re correct that some neighbourhoods in Toronto become very isolated and people stay there and rarely venture outside. We just had a bunch of kids running around in 401 Richmond where our office is last week. They were from Rexdale and were visiting the downtown for the first time (average age was around 10). Incredible!

        I feel like we’re veering close to saying that villages are similar to dysfunctional (failed) city neighbourhoods, which I don’t think is true either. Perhaps one needs to have lived in a (functional) village in order to see this, I am not sure.

        My village is functional. There’s high citizen engagement and a vibrancy of a different kind. It just has a different function. It doesn’t facilitate friendly anonymity, which I think is one of the functions of a good city neighbourhood/street (see previous posts on street safety and trusting strangers). Instead, everyone knows everyone. When the Ice Storm hit in 1998, we immediately met at the Legion Hall (no need to announce where we would meet) and then checked on all of the elderly people who lived alone — no need to figure out who they were or go knocking on doors: we knew them already. This worked because the village’s function facilitates day-to-day nosiness.

        I used to live in a tower block in North York, and it wasn’t walkable but I walked the 30 minutes to the No Frills (cheap grocery store) because there was no alternative unless I wanted to add $5 to my grocery bill by taking the bus for 2 stops — and that bus only came every half hour, so good luck with that. The street life was non-existent, it was completely dominated by cars, there were TONS of people living in my neighbourhood because there were so many towers, and few of them knew each other. I lived there during the Black Out in 2003, we didn’t meet up anywhere. It wasn’t clear where we would go or who to ask. We didn’t even know the people living on our floor, let alone where the elderly people were who might need assistance. And we never found out.

        That neighbourhood had as little in common with my village as my current thriving downtown neighbourhood does. My downtown neighbourhood doesn’t know where the elderly folk are either: we have friendly anonymity, but anonymity still. And that’s not a bad thing.

        I haven’t lived in a suburb (at the ground level, at least), so I have no idea how those neighbourhoods function.

      4. Having grown up in a city-swallowed suburb and knowing many friends who grew up in newer ones, I would say that to an extent, they do function similarly to a village. You know everyone intimately; news travels quickly through inhabitants (for better or worse).

        But it does depend on the suburb. If you ever drive through the Bridal Path (which is only debatably a suburb, but shares many characteristics with some high-end ones), it’s designed to defeat ANY kind of public life, friendly anonymity or sometimes uncomfortable intimacy. Properties are fenced off and enormous (making walking distances proportionally enormous), houses are far from the street, there are fewer sidewalks than most neighbourhoods, no nearby amenities (go to Google streetview, try to find even a mailbox or a pay phone, let alone a corner store) meaning driving is a must any time you need to do something, etc.

        My swallowed suburb was very different. I knew every person on my street, probably partly because our houses were close to the street, no one fenced off their property, people sat on their porches, we shared some local amenities like mailboxes, a corner store, etc., and many people on the street also had kids around the same age, which meant motivation to share resources such as eyes on the street. In many ways, this was village-like.

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