Posted March 24th 2014 at 12:30 pm by
in Uncategorized

Program: Method, Public Good: Madness

Image via Flickr: Amorphica

At this point in the series we return to our original question:

If scientists and designers find a way to see eye-to-eye, if truth and purpose can be united, what kind of city emerges?

In earlier articles we explored the historic dialog between design and science, considered the emerging body of work in Urban Science, and examined the changing role of the planner in a data-driven age.

Does Urban Science have a future? If so, what might that future look like and what actions can we take to ensure a positive outcome?

Every generation has its zeitgeist—a moment where the world collectively turns its head towards the fascinations of a robust youth who shape their concerns in the shadows of the previous generation’s failures. Sometimes, these trends define an era of thought, sometimes not. The next generation of urban designers and planners are currently championing their own zeitgeist: parametricism. Mind you, parametric solution seeking and “complexity thinking” has permeated a variety of fields including industrial design, business and even military engineering.  In the urban design context however, parametricism has applications across scales, starting with experiments at the city, building and materials scales.

At the city scale, we’re looking to uncover consistent trends across observable patterns (land use, conflict, development) to find hidden rules and relationships that underpin urban phenomena. At the building and neighborhood scale we tinker with pre-programmed parameters to uncover the effects of decision-making on the urban fabric through simulation. At the façade scale we think about how surfaces can adapt to changing environmental conditions and uses. Broadly speaking, these trends point to a compelling synthesis of biology, computer science and design thinking, with an apparent focus on parameterizing adaptation in the name of sustainability. In a way, we’re building upon the previous generation’s concern for sustainability, only we grew up with Tommagachis.

One critique of the analytical approach to city-making is that it fails to account for the nuances and complexity of actual human behavior. It is our ability to surprise and create that distinguishes our humanity and makes us at times, pleasantly unpredictable. Models and simulations fall short of being able to anticipate how people will actually behave in response to intervention, which debatably has lead to drastic errors in planning policy and architectural design.

Behavior-shaping through architectural and urban design depends on the idea that our behavior is not predetermined. Understandably, urban designers often find algorithms of human activity disturbing because such tools can rob the designer of his ability to create a novel human experience. However when used to describe natural systems, algorithms never indicate predetermined states, instead they are signals of constraint. Put another way, life operating within constraint generates patterns that can be described with algorithms. Is it not the designer’s task to problem solve precisely within this domain?

If parametricism becomes one of those zeitgeists that changes how we think for the long-run then the designer should prepare for her role to become less prescriptive (vis-a-vis the comprehensive master plan) but equally if not more masterful: designing a system that evolves its own solutions to complex problems. This in part, is what is so appealing and challenging about Skylar Tibbits’s work. Here, physical material is programmed to respond adaptively to novel problems. I find that his role as a programmer of this design-process does not rob him of the ability to create beautiful and functional work. Instead, I see great power in the subtle authorship of a working system.

Of course it’s scary to think of buildings or cities as programmable entities, and a lot of important questions about ethics and power easily bubble to the surface. It’s my opinion that we should address these questions sooner than later, and that this defines the role of today’s urbanist. Future designers and planners must hold the public good in their conscience as they choose what kinds of ideals define the parameters of adaptive urban systems. Therefore, it is important that we declare a distinctly human purpose for our parametric work before embarking on a radical series of amoebic land-use patterns. We need to think about the organic qualities that make cities happy and healthy, and keep these close to our hearts. We may be a long way off from programming real life Sim-cities, so let future generations build using a solid moral compass we can begin crafting today.


Additional Reading:


Post by Emily Royall, a Master of City Planning student in City Design & Development at MIT DUSP.

2 responses to “Program: Method, Public Good: Madness”

  1. Dessen says:

    Emily, you are suggesting that every individual involved professionally in city shaping need to embrace and learn programming languages. Do you know any concrete examples of programming/coding being used in city design? One example often used as a reference might be the IBM control center in Brazil that supposedly monitors a city through sensors. However, I feel that these have never been substantial enough in actually shaping a city. They act more like gimmicky/gadgety appendages added on to an already established city. Hardly designing/shaping a city.

    You pointed at ZHA’s urban design as producing “amoebic land-use patterns”. I’m uncertain if they (with Patrik Schumacher) actually uses legit and substantive coding/programming languages. From what I know, they are more of form-based designs using all kinds of computer softwares to generate their desired forms.

  2. Emily Royall says:


    Thanks for helping get a conversation started! And some great questions.

    To me, city-shaping refers to actively guiding or creating the forces that characterize cities now and in the future. I think the forces that shape cities can work directly or indirectly on space. For example, national trends outsourcing manufacturing jobs overseas impacts land use and property value in shrinking cities across the rust belt: an indirect effect on the shape of a city. A direct shaping of the city would be something like an implemented landscape architecture project or a mandated set of urban design guidelines.

    Programming and mathematical modeling also shape cities directly and indirectly. An example of direct city-shaping using programming and mathematical modeling would be GIS; it’s used as a tool for direct city-shaping. There’s a nice culture of innovation around plug-ins for GIS that make use of math-modeling and python scripting, in particular ( Programming & modeling can also be used to model geospatial trends that designers at City Form Lab incorporate into their urban design work in Singapore & Indonesia ( Also, Dan O’Brien at the Boston Area Research Initiative uses structural equation modeling (SEM) to test the broken window hypothesis (, making policy recommendations for the City. In terms of indirect city-shaping, I’d say that a wealth of city-centric apps (LocalData, Tinder etc.) affect our behavior in, and use of cities.

    The link is to a google image search for “parametric architecture,” which ZHA’s work appears in. Parametric architecture uses parametric equations to model relationships between physical elements of a building system (RhinoWorks for example, is a parametric plug-in for Rhino). In theory, this methodology correlates land use patterns with demographic and geospatial data to make optimal design decisions. Check out MCP 2, Talia Kaufman’s thesis on Parametric Urbanism–she’s taking the first steps to define this process for urban planning. However, many critique parametric architecture for producing organic-appearing shapes that do little to resolve site-specific design problems. Analogously, the concern is that parametric urbanism would also fail to respond to local needs.

    That’s why it’s so important that people who work with cities share their expertise with researchers in these fields. I think planners and designers could take advantage of, and contribute to the body of work being done in these fields by familiarizing themselves with the language of math and scripting. Of course, no one can master all the disciplines involved in city-shaping, but speaking the language of computation can certainly improve our opportunities for productive collaboration!