May 13 2013

A Language Designed for Urban Planners, By Urban Planners: A Review of “A Pattern Language”

A Pattern Language CoverA tremendously ambitious book, A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein attempts to create a language that developers and urban planners can use to shape our environment.  The author’s intent is to create a universal language that can be applied to all development projects, in an attempt to encourage the creation of more functional, magnificent places.  Such an undertaking is colossal by its very nature, and while the authors haven’t written something that is flawless, they have succeeded in crafting a book that I believe will be a truly great resource for urban planners, designers, and developers alike.

A Pattern Language is volume two of a two book series.  This creates an issue for this reviewer, since the authors admit from the very first pages that A Pattern Language is best utilized when taken within the context of its companion volume, The Timeless Way of Building.  As the authors state, “We have been forced by practical considerations to publish these two books under separate covers, but in fact, they form an indivisible whole.”  In other words, I have been able to review the language without seeing exactly how the authors intended for it to be used.  I would recommend that anyone interested in reading A Pattern Language also consider reading the companion volume to get the full experience that the authors had intended.

The book consists of 253 separate sections.  Each section describes one specific pattern.  “Each pattern describes a problem which occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to that problem, in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice.”  Each pattern is presented in the same fashion:

  1. A pictSection 3_City Country Fingersure is shown to give the reader a visual example of the pattern;

  2. An introductory paragraph presents the framework for the pattern;

  3. A bolded headline defines the problem with the pattern that the author hopes to solve;

  4. Evidence is presented to show the reader that the problem does, in fact, exist;

  5. A bolded solution is presented to the problem in the “form of an instruction – so that you know exactly what you need to do, to build the pattern;”

  6. A diagram is displayed that visually depicts the solution;

  7. A concluding paragraph describes other patterns that this particular pattern is related to.

Item seven may be the most important item in that list because it gets to the crux of the authors message – no pattern can be evaluated separately, but instead must be viewed within the context of all related patterns.  “It says that when you build a thing, you cannot merely build that thing in isolation, but must also repair the world around it, so that the larger world at that one place becomes more coherent, and more whole; and the thing that you make takes its place in the web of nature, as you make it.”  For instance, if we look at pattern 53 within the book, Main Gateways, we must also look at patterns 14 (identifiable neighborhoods), 37 (house clusters), 41 (work community), 95 (building complex), 98 (circulation realms), 110 (main entrance), 112 (entrance transition), and 98 (circulation realms). All of these patterns are intricately linked together and are critical to the success of one another.

The authors fully admit that the language was created to be adaptable for any situation.  As a result, “each pattern may be looked upon as a hypothesis like one of the hypothesis of science.”  In this way, the parameters of each pattern are intended to be tested under real world conditions and adjusted accordingly.  The flexibility of A Pattern Language is its biggest strength – it allows for professionals to use the language as they see fit, instead of trying to force a strict ideology onto them.

Overall, A Pattern Language proved to be a very refreshing read.  It is a unique addition to the array of materials already at the fingertips of urban planners and other design professionals, providing a truly fresh way of looking at the built environment.  What do you think about the idea of breaking down the built environment into a series of related patterns?  As a professional, do you think that is practical to view the environment in this way?

A Pattern Language is currently available from Amazon in hardcover for $40.00.

Credits: Images and data linked to sources.

Sean Glowacz

Sean Glowacz holds a Masters of Urban Planning and Public Policy degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Sean spent two years at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning as a Research Assistant. His work focused on various tasks related to the GO TO 2040 plan, the comprehensive regional plan to help Chicagoland’s seven counties and 284 communities plan for sustainable prosperity through mid-century and beyond. Sean was then employed by Kane County for three years as a Land Use Planner, primarily working on their Quality of Kane campaign, an effort to help bring Healthy People, Healthy Living, and Healthy Communities to Kane County through cutting-edge planning policies and practices. Currently, Sean is employed by Target Group, Inc., working on large scale economic development projects in the City of Chicago. Currently residing in Chicago, Sean introduced readers to an array of urban planning projects that are taking place throughout the Chicagoland area.

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This entry was posted on Monday, May 13th, 2013 at 9:40 am and is filed under Urban Planning and Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


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