Urban Systems: Integration and the Value of Intersections

People have an extraordinary capacity for compartmentalization. Sometimes we call it attention span: the ability to focus on one task at a time. Sometimes we call it meditation: the ability to clear your mind. Sometimes we call it cognitive dissonance: the ability to pursue an action when in direct opposition to values.

We compartmentalize in infinite numbers of ways. We may define our work/life balance as if they were completely separate entities. Along with the mind/body, public/private, self/community, and so forth.

The opposite of this sort of separation and focus is integration. The hardest math concept  –short of non-linear space and imaginary numbers– is integration. One dynamic solved over a range of states. One equation valued over a range of numbers. One relationship rationalized over a range of conditions.

The truth is, many psychologists contend that humans can process about four variables competently. So you can see why we shy away from complex integration from an urban design perspective.

However, this reticence is paying us back in negative global repercussions, thanks to our insistence on solving for about four things in contemporary urbansim: land use, lane width, lot size, and density.


You know you’re a geek when you think about your workout options in terms of this sort of integration into your lifestyle, via a Venn Diagram. But it does provide for some interesting conclusions about what drives my behavior patterns.

With the advent of spring, I’ve decreased time on my elliptical machine and walking and increased cycling and running. I started to notice how they pay off in different ways. Cycling and walking pay back in health, thinking time, social engagement, gas money, and reduced carbon footprint. Running loses the gas benefit and elliptical’s primary advantage for me is health.

At the intersection of the circles, or where different values overlap, is the place where I get the biggest return on my investment of time. The more integrated the mixture of compatible uses in my neighbourhood, the more likely I am to engage in the activities that build health. And even 10 minutes a day of physical activity lowers risk of heart attack by 28% (Population Health Research Institute, January 2012).

Assembly v. Transformation

Once we’ve compartmentalized our cities into their parts, we tend to reconnect them in ways that are neither holistic nor organic. Michael Mehaffy and Nikos Salingaros make the distinction between assembly and transformation in MetropolisMag’s Science for Designers on Friday:

“The most commonly held and influential idea about design is that it’s the art of bringing essentially unrelated parts into a “composition” or an “assembly”. The funny thing is, from a scientific point of view, this idea is entirely wrong. A much better idea about design is that it’s the transformation of one whole into another whole.”

Applying systems thinking to urbanism is as old as cities themselves. Solutions to both the programmatic and economic demands of complex, interdependent, nonlinear relationships of communities certainly require more than four variables. The collective memory and self-organization of the swarm are required. Michael Mehaffy and Nikos Salingaros on self-organization:

“What turns out to be key is the idea of fairly simple adaptive rules, operating at a fine grain. In the case of life, the grain is the molecular level of DNA, and going up from there, the cell, the organ, and the organism. In the case of human settlements, the grain is the scale of a person, and going up from there, a family, neighborhood, and city. (A big problem comes when we misunderstand the scale of these systems, and try to impose rules at a too-large scale.)”

Gettin’ Paid: Compensation and the Importance of Systems Thinking

All sorts of complicated cost-benefit software and studies have been created to make hard, politically-charged choices, but instead often make for cognitive dissonance. Until cities begin to look seriously for intersections in their transportation value drivers, infrastructure capital investments will remain less than optimal.

Copenhagen’s Bike Account values one mile on a bike is a $.42 economic gain to society, one mile driving is a $.20 loss, after which it’s no trouble to get political buy-in for balanced, results-oriented investment. On the other hand, if you’d like to dive head first into graphical representations of resilient practices, check out Sustainable Lens: a visual guide from Samuel Mann, which is precisely 255 ways to represent resilient human practices with circles.  Beware, it’s intense.

Here’s a roundup of really great blogs and presentations last week. Kaid Benfield summarizes many of the economic and health benefits of active transportation. Gil Penalosa’s presentation to Dallas is an impassioned video describing the benefits of cycling and walkability, and the methods for making it happen on a tight budget. Tom Vanderbilt’s excellent 4-part walking series on Slate laments that walking has become “an act of dwelling on the margins,” thanks in part to not a single dollar in the U.S. federal transportation budget dedicated strictly to walking.

Clearly, a multi-modal community where we have a choice about how we’re going to get around is an ideal intersection. And is by far the one that delivers the highest economic returns. We’re discussed solutions extensively on PlaceShakers, including zoning reform, economic restructuring, urban design, affordable housing, free range children, and community engagement. As usual, we’d like to hear more of your ideas. Thanks for sharing!

–Hazel Borys

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Filed under Planning and Design, Public Policy

2 responses to “Urban Systems: Integration and the Value of Intersections

  1. I’ve read it, but I haven’t really begun to digest it yet. Thanks, Hazel! One geeky question: why does running not save gas and GHG? Because you’re only doing it for exercise, and not to get somewhere you have to go? This isn’t an exact counterpoint, but I often run early when I’m in a town for the first time. 3-4 miles of the streets of the place serves as a great scouting trip for what to come back and see earlier. But I’m almost always coming back on foot, so I wouldn’t have been spending gas to get there.

  2. Thanks for reading, Steve! Yeah, I don’t tend to run to get somewhere, but rather for fitness and thinking. I used to run with friends and colleagues when I lived in Ohio, but haven’t developed those relationships in Winnipeg. When I’m on charrette, I tend toward the elliptical so I can get it done early — I should probably change that habit, because you’re right, it’s the best way to scout urbanism.

    I was just participating in a Sustainable Cities Collective webinar on cycling, where a the European Cyclists’ Federation estimates the health + econ dev benefit to government of cycling at €89.89 per kilometer. Serious healthcare impacts!

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