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the entropic city.

This evening I went to a conference session about Mumbai/Bombay, at the Grad School of Design at Harvard.  It was part of a conference called “In the Life of Cities,” and it was stuffed with fascinating observations about the this “kinetic city,” whose very dynamism generates a kind of paralysis.  The breakdown of government structure and infrastcuture to provide everything from housing, sanitation, not to mention the rule of law, has generated a kind of urbanism of necessity that empowers slumlords and thugs, real estate developers and a cloistered industrial elite, but also turns out an inspringly high proportion of the urban poor for elections and, as I have experienced it, generated a disarmingly complex and exciting city.

Okay, this may have occurred to you already, but I was surprised to realize as I listened to and reflected upon these talks that this kind of city, characterized by a profound and uncontrollable (by definition) entropy, is exactly what I think is the key to revitalizing communities.  In the kinds of cities and neighborhoods that I talk about on this blog — St. Louis, Boston, Detroit, my hometown of Oakland, CA — there is, more or less, the infrastructural and institutional capacity to make changes, keep residents housed and healthy.  But there’s little sense of residents making the city for themselves, of the urban condition changing out of temporary and incremental necessity, in a way that engages citizens, increases efficient use of space, inspires residents and, as I often point out, diversifies economies.  It allows the past, present, and even the future to exist spatially simultaneously, creating a more authentic and nuanced understanding of time and space.  Institutional structures restrict entropy exactly because it is unpredictable, and neither markets nor planners like things that they can’t expect.

I think this is a problem, and that’s why I focus here on those in-between moments, between what always has been and what we plan for there to be. Building rehabilitations, informal economies, festivals, dynamic public spaces.  I think this is where cities are generative, are true to themselves, and most importantly, where they are resilient.  An environment that is constantly in flux, investigating possibilities and testing changes, is more resistant to crippling change from the outside.  In other words, an entropic city evolves, where as a planned city exists in fits and starts, in booms and busts.

In other words, entropy is a cultural and an economic necessity.  Restricting and channeling change imposes a dominant idea of what change should be, and what existing conditions are undesirable. But it also stifles innovation and creates monocultural economic environments that are vulnerable to dramatic changes.  And, let’s be honest, it’s a lot less fun.

Let me know what you think about entropy.  In the Indian condition, it’s joyful but also, as I noted, horribly debilitating.  But what about in other conditions?  What can we learn from the hyper-urbanism of Mumbai?  And isn’t this where planning is already going, informally, though we still like to talk about “master plans”?  Is it still scary not to think comprehensively?  Is it depression-era thinking that turns towards the incremental, simply out of necessity?



  1. Jeremy Caulton says

    Interesting this – I actually raised this debate on one of my groups on LinkedIn a few weeks back. My personal take on urbanism has long been our misunderstanding of ‘design’ as being the high entropy of urbanism with the low entropy being the complex mature cityscape – order into chaos – or messiness of Raban’s ‘Soft City’. Entropic urbanism allows change which to my mind most modern designs can never do and are so self constraining they cannot adapt as Victorian London has for example or the slums of Mumbai for that matter.

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