The Chaos-Order Spectrum of Cities

The idea that the places we inhabit should be humane doesn’t seem like it would be a particularly controversial idea. Yet many cities and towns around the world are built with no regard to the mental, emotional, and cultural needs of humans. It is commonplace to find vast tracts of residential land that look like computer chips or waffle irons instead of organic systems. In order to thrive in cities, humans need a sense of place, the feeling of living in a community, and a rich and varied urban fabric.

Take the development pictured above, in Rotonda West, Florida. At first glance, some might appreciate the symmetry of the district’s layout. Although I have never visited this particular part of Florida, I know how I would feel walking around in it. The entire setup would make me feel like I am walking around in someone else’s dream, in a labyrinth constructed by another mind. In fact, that is exactly what it is — the town layout was probably designed in a single meeting by a handful of urban planners.

Pervading the entire development is a sense of dystopian uniformity. If you lived in one of the town’s seven identical sectors and were dropped into another sector, you would have the eerie feeling of finding everything at once familiar and yet slightly out of place. I don’t mean to single out Rotonda West as a unique example. The vast majority of suburban developments in the United States are master-planned with a degree of order and uniformity that is unnerving and, quite frankly, inhuman.

In a layout like this, control of the physical space is concentrated in the fallible hands of the planner. The city does not organically develop from the people. Instead, its planners dictate the movements of people. All the residents of Rotonda West have no choice but to walk and drive the neat mathematical shapes that have been predetermined by a planner who may never have set foot on this land. Thus cities can have too much order — they can be so symmetrical and neatly ruled that they feel inhumane.

This planning from on high strips cities of healthy uncertainty and imagination. No meandering, no wandering, no exploring. After all, what is there to explore? If you’ve seen one street, you’ve seen them all. These issues are exacerbated by residential rather than mixed-use zoning, which ensures you have no reason to visit streets where you don’t live.

The above image shows what a part of Dallas, Texas looks like from above. Straight major roads are spaced out in a grid, one per mile. At the intersection of major roads are strip malls. Although the city may seem to have a great deal of order, the order and sameness actually makes it more difficult to navigate. This did not matter to whoever designed these neighborhoods. After all, the only routes you need to know are how to get from your house to work, to school, to the supermarket, and to the gas station. The idea of exploring the city on foot or going for a casual post-lunch stroll is laughable in such a city. Again, too much order.

Now let’s take a look at a different mode of city, on where there is a balance between order and chaos, a consequence of organic growth taking place over many centuries at the hands of countless architects and builders. The image below is from Venice, Italy.

Venice, at first glance, may seem impossibly chaotic. How can anyone ever find their way around these narrow, crooked streets and canals? Yet beyond this sense of chaos is a certain structure. The city is constrained by the fact that it is an island, preventing sprawl. The Grand Canal runs through the city as a very prominent landmark; if you get lost, you could imagine simply stumbling around until you reach the Canal, then following it back to a familiar place.

The fact that no two intersections look the same is actually a navigational aid rather than an obstacle — it is much more easy to create mental landmarks when each intersection, piazza, or canal is distinctive than when all of the city’s features are uniform.

Venice illustrates that cities should have a balance between chaos and order. No one wants to live in total chaos. But pure order is just as bad. In a highly ordered, uniform city, you navigate using algorithms. In a slightly chaotic city, you navigate using your sense of direction, your memory, glimpses of familiar streets and buildings.

Imagine you are walking around in Venice. You get a little lost, night is falling, and the shadows of chimneys and lampposts get long and tangled. You stride down subtly curving streets, ducking under archways or bridges here; you run down an alley where you can touch the houses on both sides at the same time. Suddenly you spill out into an open square. The fountain in the middle and the church at the far end assure you that you know where you are, and you are flooded with a warm sense of familiarity and relief.

A city that seems chaotic at first does not stay chaotic. The longer you stay, the more that the different streets and squares become like old friends, as do the people you will inevitably bump into along the way. You develop a mental map, and with it the ability to vary your route, just for fun. Who knows, you might get a little bit lost and stumble upon something new. A little bit of chaos creates the opportunity for serendipity and novelty. Contrast this with trying to create new memories when every street corner looks like every other.

Venice is just one example of a city with a balance of chaos and order. Do not let this example convince you that only wealthy, European tourist destinations are humane cities. Cities with density, character, walkability, and an organic balance between chaos and order exist in all cultures and levels of econmic development, from Fes el Bali, Morocco to Varanasi, India.

Having this balance does not make cities perfect, and they may still suffer from crime, poverty, and health issues. Yet sprawling suburbs have been shown to be damaging to one’s physical health, and possibly to mental health as well. Humane cities must cultivate a sense of local character, encourage interactions between residents, and stimulate the senses and the imagination. Anything less may be fitting for machines, but not for humanity.

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