Hamilton, Marilyn. Integral City: Evolutionary Intelligences for the Human Hive.
Integral City: Evolutionary Intelligences for the Human Hive.
Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers, 2008.
Pulselli, Ricardo and Enzo Tiezzi.
City out of Chaos: Urban Self-organization and Sustainability.
Billerica, MA: WIT Press, 2008.
Over the past decade there has been increasing interest in the concept of the city as a complex, self-organizing system. Complexity sciences emerged within the physical sciences, as a way of understanding systems that are open, non-linear and subject to complex feedback and interactions that determine system behavior. The two publications reviewed here help give a sense of the disparate ways in which complex systems are being used as a guiding metaphor within the spatial disciplines.
Marilyn Hamilton, in her book Integral City (not to be confused with Nan Ellin's similarly titled Integral Urbanism [previously reviewed in CJUR 17:1 Summer 2008]) is an ambitious manifesto regarding the promise of an "integral systems view" to offer new ways of perceiving urban problems and opportunities. Hamilton is inspired by the work of New Age spiritual guru Ken Wilber, whose "integral theory of consciousness" has been widely adopted as an analytical framework by authors in a number of disciplines. For her part, Hamilton sees the integral approach as being a useful tool to address her broader concern with seeing the urban environment as a complex system. She provides an outline of complex systems theory from the natural sciences, and throughout the text uses the analogy of the beehive as an illustration of a well-balanced integral complex system--one wherein each part of the system is appropriately tuned to its environment and ecology. She contrasts this with current unsustainable civic practices, which approach the city in a non-holistic, piecemeal fashion.
In the first series of chapters Hamilton sketches out her concept of integral urbanism, praises the lives of bees, and introduces ecological indicators as a measure of fitness or wholeness. She moves on to clarify what complex systems mean from a physical science perspective, and how cities can be considered to be complex systems. Finally she introduces a series of mapping tools, including Wilber's integral theory, which Hamilton proposes can be used as a lens with which to analyze civic processes.
Wilber has promoted his ideas and their applicability to a wide range of social issues through the work of his Integral Institute. His theory advocates an integrated, or integral approach to reality, which is considered to have four dimensions--or "quadrants"--within which issues can be situated. Quadrants are organized according to the polarities of interior, exterior, individual and collective. Additionally, quadrants have internal levels, or hierarchies, of complexity (similar in concept to Maslov's hierarchy of needs). The quadrants are seen as forming a holistic framework, with challenges to problem solving being attributed to an imbalance between the quadrants, or the failure to consider one or more of the quadrants entirely.
Unfortunately, her introduction to the integral framework provided in the opening of the book is sketchy at best. Hamilton may be assuming that readers are already familiar with Wilber's work, or she herself may be so immersed within the concepts that she simply neglects to flesh them out for the reader. In any case, her thesis relies heavily on the four quadrant integral framework, and yet this is weakly explicated. With very little background information, readers are expected to tacitly accept that this framework for analysis is useful and relevant to urban theory. The fact that Integral theory has mainly been popularized within New Age circles makes the assumption of its relevance to urbanism particularly challenging for the mainstream reader.
This problem is magnified in subsequent chapters that run through urban issues seen from the standpoint of each quadrant. Too often she provides "motherhood" statements of what "should" happen, with very few insights about what "does" happen--and more importantly why there is so often a gap. The book is filled with statements that, while laudable in terms of Hamilton's earnestness and ambitions, are, in the end, vacuous:
In an Integral City, the design criteria far structures would transcend and include the values of the citizens, enabling life-giving centers and natural boundaries with qualities that served the people and functions they contained (p. 157).
Her writing style vacillates from attempts to offer real world examples of solutions, to appeals for a New Age sensibility about higher consciousness. Too many of the case studies simply seem to illustrate common-sense best practices, rather than relating specifically to any of the meta-frameworks discussed. Each chapter ends with a series of "rules" for implementing an integral perspective. These rules, such as "grow leadership in heart, mind and soul" or "nurture healthy leaders" are similarly both vague and motherhood in scope, simply amounting to "do good things" statements.
Despite her interest in using meta-frameworks to organize ideas, the book itself suffers from an overuse of these conceptual infrastructures, and ends up feeling somewhat jumbled. Although she begins with four relatively distinct "mapping" systems, a dizzying array of subsequent frameworks (generally borrowed from psychology), are inserted throughout the text. This ever-expanding plethora of models quickly becomes confusing and tiresome, while serving to distract from her central thesis.
Notwithstanding these criticisms, the book does contain many useful thoughts and examples. Certainly a more holistic analysis of urban problems would be beneficial, and an excellent corrective to the silo-like disciplinary mentality that tends to solve problems in one sector while moving them to another. Hamilton advances the ecological footprint calculator as a good indicator of civic health that can ensure a sustainable co-existence within our environment. Through her knowledge of complexity theory she is able to offer some intriguing insights about different characters of civic agents; ones that can generate conformity, diversity, allocate resources and assess outcomes. She points out that one useful urban strategy may be to look for leverage points where a small allocation of energy or resources is able to generate a big payback, through feedback loops, within the system. In addition, she has a number of interesting examples of thoughtful civic practices that tackle problems in a more holistic, inclusive manner. Many readers will be inspired by the positive and humane manner with which she advocates tackling urban challenges.
In many ways her message could be summarized as follows: think about problems holistically; consider many dimensions and many scales simultaneously; and, be aware of interactions. Hamilton's ambitions are praiseworthy, and she is passionate about her goals to create a better world. She states that she is "on a quest to unlock the potential of the city as an intelligent human system" (p. 209). But despite this desire to perceive and intervene within the city in a more holistic manner, the book suffers due to its unquestioning acceptance of what many will consider New-Age practices, without substantive reference to urban theory (an omission which Hamilton acknowledges). As a result, the book is likely to remain marginal within the broader urban discourse, and appeal mostly to those interested in exploring Wilber's integral theory.
City Out of Chaos, an interdisciplinary collaboration by aphysical chemist (Tiezzi) and an architect (Pulsilli), begins with many of the same premises that inform Hamilton's writing. Early in each text the writers cite Wackernagel and Rees' ecological footprint indicator as being a useful tool to assess civic health within the broader planetary ecology. Both books explain complex systems thinking and consider its relevance as an important corrective to master planning frameworks for conceptualizing urban environments. Both books are interested in finding means to understand interacting processes. In addition, both books have a poetic counterpoint that weaves through the text: In Hamilton's case the recurring analogy of the bees; in Pulselli and Tiezzi's it is Calvino's lyrical writing on the city that is peppered throughout. Both see trans-disciplinary endeavors as being key to addressing complex problems. However the texts address the concepts of complexity, chaos, self-organization and evolution in very different ways.
City Out of Chaos begins with a description of Nobel prize winner Ilya Prigogine's pioneering work on complexity theory. The first four chapters provide an excellent primer on complexity theory for the general reader. This include basic concepts and terminology, such as non-equilibrium, entropy, dissipative structures, and the concept of "order from chaos" (from which the book derives its title), originally described by Prigogine. The authors outline how the city can be understood as a complex system, by virtue of its ability to channel flows, manage and transform resource inputs and outputs, and respond to feedback and information. The city is conceived as an organism, which, according to the authors, should exist in a sustainable manner within its ecology:
We believe that certain theories of evolutionary thermodynamics, environmental physical chemistry, and ecology, elaborated in order to understand biological and living systems, can be extended to the study of social and urban systems and can provide new elements for interpreting their function (p. 1).
The authors are careful to caution that one of the difficulties in managing complex systems is the emergence of unpredictable and unintended outcomes that result from the combination of many individual actions. Clmate change is given as an example of how numerous small local changes within a complex system have the potential to trigger unintended large-scale disturbances.
With key concepts in place, the authors begin to explore the mechanics of city dynamics understood through complexity theory. Fritjof Capra's notion of "the web of life" illustrates the interconnected dynamics that must be analyzed in order to obtain a holistic understanding of civic process. Whereas Hamilton appeals to transpersonal psychology to provide a framework to analyze civic complexity, Pulselli and Tiezzi try to quantify and ground this endeavor through a series of scientific investigations, largely undertaken through research at Siena University. This includes the mapping of Emergy--a concept for calculating and diagramming a city's efficiency and metabolism according to the measure of flows, embodied energy, energy sources, stocks and sinks:
A representation of regional systems that shows material networks, such as flows of energy, materials, and persons, and immaterial relations, such as flows of information, is needed to observe the regional dispositions and dynamics of these systems ... A fuller understanding of these dynamic networks, which has much to do with systems ecology, is a prerequisite for programming coherent and durable new processes and spatial configurations (p. 55).
The authors provide a case study of this method used to calculate metabolism in a number of urban systems. This method provides an alternative to the ecological footprint indicator, offering a detailed way of quantifying urban performance and fitness. Another series of studies map mobile geographies in an effort to understand temporal shifts of use and intensities (through the tracking of cell phone usage).
The case studies act as preliminary pointers for the kinds of research that might be employed to understand civic complexity. Though much less ambitious in scope than Hamilton's attempt to set out an overarching framework, the studies are clear and provide concrete data. Less convincing is the concluding chapter's analysis of architecture, which attempts to draw analogies between complexity theory and the stylistic proclivities of de-constructivist work. The parallels drawn are superficial at best. More persuasively, the authors consider how cities and their dynamics might be considered within global flows where the "Bilbao effect" can trigger and capture new energies, flows, resources and social capital into a region.
City Out of Chaos is pragmatic reading for urbanists and designers interested in gaining a general introduction to complexity theory, as well as offering some clear examples of novel analytical tools. For those seeking inspiration about the untapped potential of city dynamics, Integral City opens up a gallery of visionary futures.
Sharon Ackerman, M. Arch
PhD Candidate, TU Delft
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|Publication:||Canadian Journal of Urban Research|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2010|
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