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Notopia: Cultivating the city of the 21st century

Lensaloft newyorkvertical architecturalreview

With the world’s cities growing at a rate never seen before, Terry Farrell is optimistic that digital technologies will determine their future

The extraordinary collective phenomena of human habitat – villages, towns, cities, the metropolis and the human-made landscape – work as dynamic interactions we cannot fully conceptualise or understand. Their complexities and the networks underpinning them have been, until very recently, difficult to grasp, even with the help of the most sophisticated computers. They are a wonder, the results of the creativity of our species. I have no doubt that the city is humankind’s greatest creative achievement, far greater than those of science or any of the arts, including architecture. What we see with the benefit of photography from planes, drones and satellites, for example on Google Earth, is a spectacular collection of forms. I am awestruck and full of wonder at what is collectively achieved. The question that arises is: how did we do all this? What processes made these elements, creating the overall phenomena? 



Student drawing, Farrell, 1963-64: this drawings shows the intricate internal organs of the city and how people occupy it

Many hands over time

One observation is that our environments were not made by Mozarts or Picassos or grand Churchillian political figures or despots like Stalin, far from it. They were created by many disparate hands, made and layered by generations often over centuries or even millennia.

The many hands involve all the people inhabiting our urban areas: not just the designers or the builders, bricklayers and plumbers, but ordinary people that live there. Their needs and actions are writ large upon their houses, streets, shops, schools and gardens. They include the old and young, the clever and the ordinary, the powerful and the disenfranchised alike. Architects, planners and ‘designers’ have only delivered (and this is still the case) a small percentage of the details and general layout of our buildings. Design does not prevail, except in a subliminal self-ordering way.



Favela, Rocinha, Rio. Slums make up on average one-third of the population of cities today. Source: Lazyllama / Alamy 

‘It is scarcely surprising that, since the major preoccupation of urban planners is with the design of cities, they have generally attempted to analyse city forms in terms of the effects of their efforts. That is to say, theories of urban planning have tended to focus on cities in whose form the guiding hand of human design is clearly discernible.

‘The trouble is, hardly any cities are like this. In spite of the efforts of planners to impose a simplistic order, most large cities present an apparently disordered, irregular scatter of developed space … mixed haphazardly. By focusing on regions where planning has created some regularity … urban theorists have often ignored that fact that overall, a city grows organically, not through the dictates of planners.’1

So much is driven by an accumulation of activity guided by instinct or habits, unknown or hidden, that follow or establish patterns of collective behaviour. The DNA of place and the habitat of humans are organised, laid out and improved with neighbourhoods surrounding the civic, the edges growing and emerging over time – layered as they grow and change, emerging from agricultural land and managed landscapes through all the stages that produce villages, towns and cities.

These habitats have been created over time via self-ordering systems to produce super organisms: ‘This phenomenon, known as emergence, is what happens when simple units interact in the right ways and something larger arises.2 

Bologna italy crop

Bologna italy crop

The urban fabric of Bolgna, Italy, showing the organic nature of evolutionary growth

Self-ordering and emergence

This idea is described by Michael Weinstock in his book The Architecture of Emergence.3 It requires ‘the recognition of all the forms of the world not as singular and fixed bodies, but as complex energy and material systems that have a lifespan, exist as part of the environment of other active systems, and as one iteration of an endless series that proceeds by evolutionary development’. This is an idea that has only recently started to become recognised in city-making. Weinstock goes on to state that ‘causality is dynamic, comprised of multi-scaled patterns of self-organisation … To study form is to study change.’ This is as true of urbanism as it is of any other field.

Self-organisation as a subject for study and written texts has been predictably non-linear. It has roots in many crossover disciplines, including the economics of Adam Smith in the late 18th century, the sociology of Friedrich Engels and the biology of Charles Darwin in the mid-19th century. These began to be unified as a result of the mathematical powers of computers, developed by people such as Alan Turing in the mid 20th century. A recurring theme is the search for patterns in micro-behaviour that evolve, shift and emerge as macro-behaviour. Darwin was a typical ‘searcher’ in this field of complexity, in that he immersed himself in his habitats and spent a lifetime observing like a detective – looking for patterns and orders. It is unsurprising that the new mathematics of Turing’s computer age returned to look at biology, but with new eyes and new tools. Biomathematics emerged, but the lessons for all areas, including the city, soon became evident. Research in the field of mycology prompted the study of ants, bees and human behaviour, our habitats and our interactions with them.



Student drawing, Farrell, 1963-64: this drawings shows people from deep down, travelling in subway/Tube systems up to ground level and the office block. There are many parallels with the activity of termites in a termite mound

It was as a result of these investigations that the city became a selected subject for the study of emergence. Jane Jacobs is often credited with being the first (in any field) to use the term ‘organised complexity’ when, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), she began the first rethink in the modern era of city planning. As she argued: ‘In parts of cities which are working well in some respects and badly in others … we cannot even analyse the virtues and faults … without going at them as problems of organised complexity.4 In his 2001 book Emergence, Steven Johnson observed: ‘Traditional cities … are rarely built with any aim at all: they just happen. … organic cities … are more an imprint of collective behaviour than the work of master planners. They are the sum of thousands of local interactions: clustering, sharing, crowding, trading – all disparate activities that coalesce into the totality of urban living.’5

Christopher Alexander also took up the idea of emergent forms of life: in his four-volume The Nature of Order (2003–2004), he produced an overarching theory of a pattern of organisation from nature to city planning and architecture. Like many other books on the subject written in this period, his work is arguably too deterministic, undermined by a need to find new orthodoxies, new absolutes and a new order, rather than acknowledging the order that is already there. Nevertheless, his astute observations about simple urban artefacts are convincing. These had already appeared in A City Is Not A Tree (1966), in which he describes a scene featuring a newsstand that is dependent on the adjacent set of traffic lights for its supply of customers: ‘The news-rack, the newspapers on it, the money going from people’s pockets to the dime slot, the people who stop at the light and read the papers, the electric impulses which make the traffic lights change and the sidewalk which the people stand on, form a system – they all work together.’ 

Can the architect/planner rearrange or reinvent these physical things to make a more relevant order? Or does design follow, not lead? Jane Jacobs reserves her most withering observation on architectural vanity for Le Corbusier and his misplaced new ordering: ‘Le Corbusier’s dream city was like a wonderful mechanical toy, but as to how the city works, it tells … nothing but lies … There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder and this is the dishonest mask of the pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.’6 

Termite mound drawing

Termite mound drawing

Cross section sketch of a termite mound, Farrell, 2013: the natural, self-organised community of the termite – which is thought to have been around, adapting and forming, for some 30 million years

Evolution and city-making

The overriding conceptual idea for my view of city-making is that, ‘Nothing in science and the humanities makes sense except in the light of evolution.’7 The concluding passage of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) addresses this point brilliantly, in the power and imagination of his words: ‘It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us … THERE IS A GRANDEUR IN THIS VIEW OF LIFE … FROM SO SIMPLE A BEGINNING ENDLESS FORMS MOST BEAUTIFUL AND MOST WONDERFUL HAVE BEEN, AND ARE BEING EVOLVED [my capitals].’ (By the fifth edition, published in 1869, Darwin had shortened ‘entangled bank’ to the more widely quoted ‘tangled bank’). 

Well over a century later, in 1995, Daniel Dennett described Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection as ‘the single best idea anyone has ever had’8 and Peter Watson commented in 2000 that: ‘… various fields of inquiry … are now coming together powerfully, convincingly, to tell one story about the natural world. This story, this one story … includes the evolution of the universe, of the earth itself, its continents and oceans, the origins of life, the peopling of the globe, and the development of different races, with their differing civilisations. Underlying this story, and giving it a framework, is the process of evolution.’9

For the purposes of this essay, the most fascinating aspects of Darwin’s and his successors’ work are not those relating to ‘life’ itself, but those regarding ‘habitat’ and the interactions between the two. It is the same forces that have created habitat for humans, and it is because of this that our built environment can be seen to display not visual disorder, but something of the ‘grandeur’ and ‘forms most beautiful and most wonderful’ of Darwin’s tangled bank. 

It is now some 10,000 years since we evolved from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists, and we have continued to accelerate our development from passive dependency on nature to being its partial master and controller, for good or ill. The profound revelations of the natural sciences over the last 250 years have occurred at the same time as our species has completed the latest and most radical stage of evolution: the urban revolution. But no species is guaranteed survival – far from it. Despite our brains, we clever, adaptable humans may just as readily be building our own demise as our ongoing success.

Newqueenspark edit

Newqueenspark edit

Farrells’ vision for Old Oak Common: cross section of the transport interchange

The brain and towards the smart city

There is an emerging bridge between our increased understanding of the architecture of the brain and the smart city. The ‘architecture’ of the world of computing, with all its increasing capacity, can respond to and increasingly deal with the dynamic complexities of the city, which itself is the result of the community brain-power of its human inhabitants. 

‘In this age of digital hyperlinking, it’s more important than ever to understand the links between humans. Human brains are fundamentally wired to interact: we’re a splendidly social species. Although our social drives can sometimes be manipulated, they also sit squarely at the centre of the human success story.

‘You might assume that you end at the border of your skin, but there’s a sense in which there’s no way to mark the end of you and the beginning of all those around you. Your neurons and those of everyone on the planet interplay in a giant, shifting super-organism. What we demarcate as you is simply a network in a larger network. If we want a bright future for our species, we’ll want to continue to research how human brains interact – the dangers as well as the opportunities. Because there’s no avoiding the truth etched into the wiring of our brains: we need each other.’10

This is all paralleled in the splendour of the city, which has developed in perfect co-evolution with the human brain. ‘This leads to a fundamental question: can a mind emerge from anything with lots of interacting parts? For example, could a city be conscious? After all, a city is built on the interaction between elements. Think of all the signals moving through a city: telephone wires, fibre optic lines, sewers carrying waste, every handshake between humans, every traffic light, and so on. The scale of interaction in a city is on a par with the human brain. Of course, it would be very hard to know if a city were conscious. How could it tell us? How could we ask it?’11 

And … ‘If you were to look out over a city and ask “where is the economy located?” you’d see there’s no good answer to the question. Instead, the economy emerges from the interaction of all the elements – from the stores and the banks to the merchants and the customers.’12 

Inner ring road

Inner ring road

‘The Road to Renewal’, Farrell, 2013: new places from post-industrial backlands once again provide the neighbourhood high streets

Planning a city in the digital age

The planning, organisation and governance of our towns and cities is being rapidly transformed by the ever-increasing ability to use big data to capture, analyse and forecast. ‘The technologies of our modern era allow us to store unimaginable amounts of data and run gargantuan simulations.’13

At last we are beginning to be capable of solving the apparently unsolvable, to predict and plan for the city in all its dynamic complexity and diversity. Pattern-searching is a powerful way for digital technology to unravel the complexities of the city, and it is the same with the brain: ‘At first the foreign electrical signals are unintelligible, but the neural networks eventually extract patterns in incoming data. Although the input signals are crude, the brain finds a way to make sense of them. It hunts for patterns, cross-referencing with other senses.’14 

As with the brain, so it is with the city. Working with nature, guiding, steering and understanding what exists, is the first step in planning the future city. The aim is to understand the city as a natural phenomenon in its self-ordering complexity.

Stephen Marshall, Reader in Urban Morphology and Planning at the Bartlett School of Planning, University College London, draws a parallel between the role of the urban planner and that of a gardener tending, say, a beanstalk. The bean can grow well on its own, but with the added support of a cane it will prosper even better – a happier beanstalk and a happier gardener. This analogy emphasises that the role is ultimately one of stewardship, supporting and cultivating natural tendencies to the benefit of both nature and the human community. A memorably clear depiction, and one that is a world apart from the view of the architect and planner as essentially the visualiser and even inventor of the form of the future city, directing and controlling the vision for what the city ought to be. 

1943 road plan for london

1943 road plan for london

Abercrombie Plan for London (1943): an eight-lane limited access highway, a proposal demolishing all existing urban centres in its path and fracturing London irrevocably. Source: City of London

However, nature is not as self-sufficient in this partnership as the analogy implies. It would not be accurate to suggest that, once given a supporting cane, the beanstalk could then be left to its own devices. After all, the length of cane, its position and its strength, the spacing between plants, their orientation, the soil condition and the microclimate are all part of an environment designed by the human mind. 

This kind of complex planning and arrangement is a fuller development of the metaphor for town planning that can be taken further: to establish a microclimate you might perhaps need a walled garden as a place for growing, and this might be accompanied by the rotation of crops elsewhere, and the introduction of trees to provide shade and shelter. You might also construct greenhouses, using a building type that benefits from the discovery of how to harness the sun’s rays, using glass technology to assist growth within a transparent enclosure. And this bean habitat is most likely related to transport and trading – the canes are no doubt imported. So here is the hand of planning, the hand of design, manifested in a much larger way than would at first be implied by Marshall’s analogy. Human culture, human thought and complex community building with all its social interrelationships are ultimately expressed in the city itself, a phenomenon which can only be seen here on Planet Earth as a result of the collective human brain.

The role of ‘gargantuan’ data collection is to help understanding the existing city and how it has evolved to this point. The next stage will be working with this understanding as a basis for projecting and simulating potential futures for the city and the places within it.  

Ecm34 section edit

Ecm34 section edit

High-density mid-rise residential: silo-thinking about daylight and sunlight limits our holistic city-making, such that Notting Hill, Marylebone and Dulwich or even Paris could be built at all today

Smart city; study areas

We have undertaken studies, particularly in London, to advocate ways forward in particular areas of current public concern. These ideas and concepts would benefit from more smart-city thinking. I reflect on some of them here to help identify their further scope and implications.

A fundamental part of city-making concerns the efficiencies of movement and place-making. The huge rise of motorised transport gave rise to many planning proposals, like Patrick Abercrombie’s plans for Hull, Plymouth and London just as the Second World War was ending. These and similar proposals for the next 30 years demonstrated two preoccupations. The first was total focus solely on accommodating this huge rise of motorised transport to the exclusion of existing places (Abercrombie planned a limited access motorway for central London that would have totally obliterated vibrant urban centres, for example Camden Town, Primrose Hill and Maida Vale). And secondly, it had no regard for the city as a whole: London would have been left permanently fractured to accommodate motorway growth.

The main characteristic of such proposals is that they were all based on guesswork. Faced with cities’ innate and vast complexity (long before computers were involved in city-making), they relied on the simplest measurable, zeroing-in on car movement to the exclusion of all else. As a result of public protest – inspired by protesters such as Jane Jacobs, who similarly opposed urban highways promoted by New York’s planning supremo, Robert Moses – these plans were abandoned, even though the protests themselves were based only on counter-guesswork.

Wind forward to today. We have existing environments hugely compromised by pedestrian underpasses, pavement railings, one-way traffic systems and gyratories, all being rethought to give place-making more priority. But we also have smart systems that will change movement and related place-making in ways that Abercrombie could never have imagined. Driverless cars, dedicated cycle lanes and hire bikes galore, smart motorways, pedestrian crossings that adjust to demand, and congestion charging are all the beginnings of policies, technologies and approaches that will transform both movement and place-making, all due to the power of digital analysis. This is just the beginning.

Picture1 edit

Picture1 edit

Just as 1950s plans solved only one aspect of the city at the expense of all else, the present-day thinking on London’s easterly expansion is severely compromised because we convince ourselves that the river and docks are still full of very large ships

Silo-thinking in the face of city complexity continues – for now. Extra runways and airport capacity have been tackled almost solely from the air travel/air business perspective. Railway operational/funding/procurement silos have left some major UK projects all the poorer. The efficiency of planning and designing our future cities will be severely limited unless we think more holistically, using those gargantuan powers of computers and digital analysis to enable more joined-up decision making. We need to model options that combine economic and political opportunities with practical matters like operational sequencing and integrated development.

The liveability of our future cities will be similarly constrained too. In the case of London, there is general agreement that growth should go in an eastward direction. If you look east from the top of Canary Wharf tower, you see vast areas of empty, unused land, primarily where docks and industry were located. But Abercrombie-era thinking is alive and well. Though the docks are now empty, the River Thames is still seen as a Grand Canyon divide, imagined to be full of river traffic. We need to reprioritise our thinking in favour of urban bridges like those of central and west London, to enable buses, taxis, pedestrians and cyclists to be able to locally and spontaneously cross the river. We need this to then urbanise and grow London eastward by more than 1 million people (we are hoping to add a population the size of Birmingham to this part of London). Data-gathering, measurement and simulation will be key as we abandon fossilised, siloed and special-interest thinking.

This is not just about movement: it is fundamentally about liveability, since the river and historic docks could, once again, be pleasurable places to be. Once, a little over one hundred years ago, before the Thames Estuary was industrialised, there were nine piers, zoos and public gardens along a river full of pleasure boats. Vast numbers of Londoners holidayed in the estuary. Landscape regeneration is the first infrastructure investment element needed to give east London the same liveability as west London and the Thames Valley beyond. This landscape link to liveability has today been developed into a considered proposal for the whole of London as a ‘National Park City’. Led by Daniel Raven-Ellison, there is now an initiative to log open spaces, trees, parks and rivers, supplementing the Greater London Authority’s Green Grid work on identifying landscape spaces that could be linked. All this will underpin advocacy for connectedness, with all the health benefits this would bring. Issues such as pollution and life expectancy, general well-being and daylight and sunshine regulations will all need to be analysed together as mindsets change.

Npc edit

Npc edit

National Park City: we need to improve the accessibility and integration of our green and wild spaces so that they can be used to their full potential

One of the important revelations arising from the National Park City work is that development and increased density, if planned properly, aid the richness of ecology and nature provision. The myth of density equalling concreting over cities and crushing biodiversity is exposed by measuring, say, the habitats that go with back gardens that are themselves a result of roads, houses and garden walls in high-density environments. Our work on mid-rise, high-density housing suggests that were this approach applied across London, we could meet theoretical growth in population numbers quite easily – London is only half the density of Paris or Greater New York. We need tools to compare cities objectively, to understand global city-making, what works and is healthier and what doesn’t, and how we could add ecological richness with more trees and accessible landscaped public places.

All of this efficiency and liveability will undoubtedly help make for better sustainability. Smart city ideas are many and diverse but have yet to be integrated and connected or indeed generally advocated. The work of the London architect and carbon consultant Simon Sturgis, on embedded energy, involves a methodology to enable valid comparisons between building new versus adapting existing, for example. This work needs to be more widely projected to include roads, bridges and all the infrastructure that make cities work. Coping with rising sea levels, greater rainfall and the drainage implications cannot be undertaken in isolation.

The real power of computerisation is not just about dealing with complexity. It is also concerned with explanation and advocacy, invariably via visual means, to enable more widespread appreciation of what the city is and what options and decision-making processes underpin what it could be. Part of our Farrell Review15 for the UK government proposed ‘urban rooms’, some physical and some virtual, to be set up to familiarise and engage with inhabitants to understand the past and to more fully reveal the likely outcomes of future proposals affecting their neighbourhood, village, town or city.

Gettyimages 811189024

Gettyimages 811189024

We have now, post-Hiroshima, the ability to completely destroy an entire city in a moment; all its collective memory, cultural and economic powers, and of course most of the population, can readily be extinguished


The growth of cities internationally is a phenomenon of our time. Indeed, urbanisation is accelerating at such an extraordinary rate that, in the 21st century, one of our main activities will be city-making. Not only are rural populations moving to cities (if they haven’t already done so), but cities are increasing in population due to increased childbirth and life expectancy. Global urban inhabitants already equal the total worldwide population in 1939. The number is expected to double in this century. London was the largest city in the world in 1900, but will not be in the top 100 by the end of this century. Yet London is projected to double its 1970 population by 2100.

The views in this essay are coloured, perhaps somewhat optimistically, by many successful urban habitats. I absolutely acknowledge there are problem parts of cities and problem cities as a whole. The stupendous rate of urban population growth means that the future success of cities is by no means certain. Slums are growing, now constituting one-third of urban territory worldwide. In some cities, for example Mumbai, two-thirds of the population are estimated to be slum-dwellers. 

There are also the effects of warfare which is increasingly aimed at urban centres, partly for symbolic reasons as that is where the collective culture dwells, partly because that is where the soldiers and populations are likely to be located. Cities are becoming frontline battlegrounds, unlike the open countryside warfare of past centuries. From Hiroshima, the London Blitz and the mass bombing of German towns in the Second World War, to Raqqa, Baghdad and Kabul today, cities are increasingly subject to wartime destruction. On another front, the increase in global weather events suggests that there will be new interrelationships affecting the urbanisation of the planet: sustainability, economic and political tensions will surely affect this with potentially more slums and more conflict. 

However, my optimistic view of cities is based on the astonishing progress of the last 50 years. When considering war-torn cities after the Second World War, it is noticeable that many have not just recovered but have improved: London, St Petersburg, Berlin. Hamburg, Manchester and many more have gone from almost total destruction to astonishing splendour in their physical presence as well as their cultural and economic well-being. I (and many others) have, perhaps inadvertently, been a student of cities in my worldwide travels: New York, Philadelphia, Hong Kong, Sydney – the list goes on, all celebrations of the human species in our urban habitats. 

With greater understanding of those habitats, the expansion of 21st-century cities can be determined for the better by new digital technologies, essential to understanding, planning and nurturing the growth and complex changes the future holds.

1. The Self-Made Tapestry: Pattern Formation in Nature, Philip Ball, Oxford University Press, 2001.

2. The Brain, The Story of You, David Eagleman, Canongate Books, 2015. 

3. The Architecture of Emergence, Michael Weinstock, John Wiley & Sons, 2010. 

4. The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs, Random House, 1961. 

5. Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software, Steven Johnson, Penguin, 2001.

6. The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

7. The Origins of Creativity, Edward O Wilson, Allen Lane (Penguin), 2017.  

8. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett, Simon & Schuster, 1995.

9. Terrible Beauty – A Cultural History of the Twentieth Century: The People and Ideas that Shaped the ModernMind, Peter Watson, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2000. 

10. The Brain, The Story of You, p175.

11. Ibid, pp214-15.

12. Ibid, p54.

13. Ibid, p198.

14. Ibid, p182.

15. The Farrell Review,

This piece is featured in the AR’s May 2018 issue on Intensity – click here to purchase a copy