Stewart Brand on How Cities Learn

On WorldChanging Chris Coldeway discusses a recent talk by Stewart Brand on how cities learn. In 1994, he wrote the excellent book How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built:

The redoubtable Stewart Brand gave a talk at GBN last night on global urbanization, expanding the “City Planet” material he first outlined at a Long Now talk and [WorldChanging] covered in detail. As we stand in 2006 at a point where the world’s population tips from mostly rural to mostly urban, Stewart considers this a good time to ruminate on the nature of cities and the causes and implications of a rapidly urbanizing world.

In typical Brand form, the talk swept from the beginnings of civilization — with a view of one of the oldest continuously occupied areas and discussion of how Jerusalem has been sacked or taken over 36 times — to the future of the world, with a look at the largest megacities of 2015. While the largest cities one hundred years ago were primarily in the US and Europe, these 21st century megacities are profoundly global. With cities such as Mumbai, Sao Paulo, and Karachi dominating the list, Stewart noted the similarity to another era of international cities — 1000 AD.

In asking himself how cities “learn” over time in the way that buildings do, Stewart found that while cities do learn, they also teach: they teach civilization how to be civilized. He discussed Levittown as a counterintuitive example, with its lenient do-it-yourself home customization policies actually facilitating the development of community. Squatter cities in the developing world were another example, with the view that squatter cities are what a population getting out of poverty ASAP looks like: self-constructed, and self-organizing, and vibrant.

Stewart sees cities playing out the same patterns of “pace layering” that he sees in civilization overall. Nature changes the slowest, with culture, governance, infrastructure, commerce, and fashion as progressively faster changing “layers.” Cities specialize in acceleration, in the faster cycles of commerce and fashion, but must balance those with the slower layers at the risk of collapse.

I previously mentioned Stewart Brand on cities in Feb and Sept 2005.

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