Cities are from Mars, Neighborhoods are from Venus

John Robb over at Global Guerillas had a post on the Role of Cities in 5GW (Fifth Generation Warfare) and he does make some excellent points, but more could be said about two issues. His post begins:

Saturday, October 21, 2006


During the years between world wars one and two, strategists like J.F.C. Fuller contemplated the role of cities in light of his work on the emerging theory of maneuver warfare (3GW). They speculated that cities, particularly large ones in a strategic locations, could be used to dampen or stop the rapid advance of maneuver forces seeding chaos in their rear areas. This analysis proved out, particularly in the steppes of Russia, as cities proved their ability to first slow and then bleed maneuver forces dry. Within the context of emerging theories of system disruption, that are emerging as this war slowly ramps-up, cities play an entirely different role. As the events in Baghdad are proving daily, cities can be engineered to radiate instability rather than dampen it. This is accomplished through acts that leverage three attributes of modern cities. These include:

  • Extreme mobility and interconnectedness (for example, high rates of automobile and cell phone ownership).
  • Complete reliance on high volume infrastructure networks.
  • Complex and heterogeneous social networks that are held together under pressure.

First, the understanding of cities as a vector of insurgency is nothing new. The Polish Resistance understood this effect very well, and used it to maximum extent in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Of course, most in the West have not really studied this extensively, although Norman Davies’ excellent book Rising ’44 The Battle for Warsaw gives a quite detailed account, (and also properly describes the inaction on the part of USA, England and the Soviets in assisting the ’44 Uprising) A very telling quote is the diary entry of the Nazi Governor-General Hans Frank:

“In this country we have one point from which all evil emanates. That point is Warsaw. If we didn’t have Warsaw in the General-Government [General-Government was the name of the Nazi occupied Poland -ef ] we wouldn’t have four-fifths of the difficulties with which we must contend.”

The other item that should be discussed is the issue of primary loyalties, and how that relates to the structure of a city. Cities are, in reality, collections of neighborhoods each with it’s own identity. This is much more true in traditional European cities, and is also very true in older cities of the Middle East. These primary loyalties grow out of the development of the city based on primary ergonomic factors: the need for humans for supporting networks (such as water distribution) and the comfortable walking distance of average adult person.

Leon Krier had identified a radius of about 2,000 feet as describing the maximum size of a neighborhood, which had originally developed around wells or other public water gathering points, but today is more likely to be centered on a public mass transit points, markets or even institutions, such as places of worship, or even libraries. As the Global Guerilla stresses rise on these neighborhoods, I believe they will prove much more resilient as sources of legitimate power and authority than most observers presently realize, and one of the ways to make the chaos of the USA’s exit be less chaotic may well be to empower these agencies, rather than try to fight them. Once they are in a position of power, more responsibility and negotiating sophistication may grow within those emergent structures. But they need to experience power in order to understand the nature of their responsibility.

Yes, there exist risks in this approach, but it may be the last best chance to avoid the continuance of what is now a total civil war. I don’t think this will change the eventual out come, but it may make it just a little less bloody, and the achievement of even a small decrease in the human cost of this failure is a small victory.

Cities are from Mars, Neighborhoods are from Venus

6 thoughts on “Cities are from Mars, Neighborhoods are from Venus

  1. Well, Tim, I had not heard of that exact project, but I am deeply suspicious of efforts which reject thoughtlessly the urban forms which have evolved over millenia.

    While highly efficient at providing housing, an array of negative consequences has emerged from China’s gated superblock model. With a single entry/exit, and barriers to those outside the immediate gated community, the pattern almost guarantees that people will be forced to use cars on trips that are now walked or bicycled by 80% of the residents. As vehicular traffic grows, streets will become congested, creating corridors of pollution similar to what we saw on our tour. This traffic pattern will also remove people from the pattern of streets and alleys that has supported the rich and diverse urban culture of traditional Chinese cities for millennia.

    Yes, thogh urban forms will certainly change because of technology, what I am against is the thoughtlessness which is evident in the way traditional forms are discarded. From time to tiime we do need very thoughtful, well-considered experiments, and those experiments should be then evaluated with the same care that they were created. This can create a continuous feedback loop of continuous improvement of urban form…

  2. i’ve actually seen the gated superblocks at least , the old style ones and it’s pretty bad. korea is like this too…traffic snarls etc. At least in Korea they had great subway system (seoul) but still….I like the old style walled compound houses but it’s just not efficient when there are so many people jammed into a small space.

  3. Well, the efficiency of those huge superblocks can be deceptive, because if you include the parking, highways, separation distances between the towers, etc., you will find that the density of a development like Corbu’s “Ville Radieuse” is not, in fact, greater than a traditionally developed city.

  4. Interesting. Do you have any studies on this? Not trying to be snippy, but genuinely curious.

    On this tangent, (of traditional development), several cities in the San Francisco Bay Area have changed their zoning laws to facilitiate more traditional mixed use development (i.e. condos/flats above retail). It seems to be catching on quickly.

  5. The important part of the link to the Leon Krier article referenced above:

    A + U, Tokyo, Special Issue, November 1977, pages 69-152. Reprinted in: Architectural Design, volume 54 (1984), Jul/Aug pages 70-105.


    A city can only be reconstructed in the form of urban quarters. A large or a small city can only be reorganized as a large or a small number of urban quarters; as a federation of autonomous quarters. Each quarter must have its own center, periphery and limit. Each quarter must be A CITY WITHIN A CITY. The quarter must integrate all daily functions of urban life (dwelling, working, leisure) within a territory dimensioned on the basis of the comfort of a walking person; not exceeding 35 hectares (80 acres) in surface and 15,000 inhabitants. Tiredness sets a natural limit to what a human being is prepared to walk daily and this limit has taught mankind all through history the size of rural or urban communities.

    There seems, on the contrary, to be no natural limit to the size of a functional zone; the boredom which befalls man while driving a car has made him forget any sense of physical limit.

    The form of the city and of its public spaces cannot be a matter of personal experiment. The city and its public spaces can only be built in the form of streets, squares, and quarters of familiar dimensions and character, based on the local tradition. Whether of grand metropolitan or intimate local quality, the streets and squares must present a permanent and familiar character. Their dimensions and proportions must be those of the best and most beautiful pre-industrial cities, obtained from and verified by a millennia-old culture.

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