Monday, October 29, 2007

2007 Symposium: Self-Organization and the Recovering City


Environmental Structure Research Group
Neighborhood Centers Development Project


David Brain, Sociologist, New College Florida
Phil Costa, Chair, Neighborhoods Partnership Network (NO)
Stuart Cowan, Physicist/Ecologist, Autopoeisis Llc.
Bruce Donnelly, Planner
Andres Duany, DPZ Planning Team
Audun Engh, INTBAU Scandinavia
Milton Grenfell, Architect
Quintus Jett, Organization Theorist, Center for Digital Strategies, Dartmouth
Gersil Kay, Conservator, Building Conservation International
Michelle Kimball, Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans
Philip Lund, Design+Construction Inc.
Michael Mehaffy, Chair, INTBAU USA, and coordinator, ESRG
Nikki Najiola, Gentilly Civic Improvement Association
Kyriakos Pontikis, Associate Professor, California State University Northridge
Mary Rowe, Program Manager, Blue Moon Fund
Timolynn Sams, Executive Director, Neighborhoods Partnership Network (NO)
Krupali Uplekar, University of Notre Dame
Scott Ball, Director, Professional Rebuilding Registry, Road Home Program

Notes by Michael Mehaffy


This year’s seminar was an experiment: a mix of two participant groups, one more focused on academic research, albeit project-based (the “Environmental Structure Research Group”) and one more focused on practical issues of rebuilding in New Orleans (the “Neighborhood Centers Development Project”). There were individuals who straddled both realms, and individuals who knew more about one realm than the other. Therefore the discussion was occasionally elementary and, in the case of the introductory presentation, somewhat recapitulative. But as I think these notes will show, useful progress was made in both realms.

* * *

At last year’s seminar at University College London, biologist Brian Goodwin spoke about the power of self-organization to produce “maximum coherence at the global level, while simultaneously maintaining maximum freedom at the local level”. This is only an apparent contradiction: the “maximum freedom” is not a freedom to do anything, but to do what is appropriate at the local scale. Thus self-organization implies, in some fundamental sense, a coordination of scales, from the local to the global. That theme returned conspicuously at this year’s seminar.

A key point of discussion at this year’s seminar was, can self-organization be created by design? (Or, as Mary Rowe put it, is that an oxymoron?) Can it be facilitated, or obstructed? (The latter would seem self-evident given the recent lessons of New Orleans.) Is it enough in some cases to simply remove obstructions, such as restrictive and costly codes, as Andres Duany has argued? If it can be facilitated, what are the tools for doing so, in a real environment of complexity like New Orleans?

A fundamental theme that emerged over the two days was that facilitating self-organization would seem to be largely a matter of changing the scale of a given problem – more specifically, breaking it up so that it is a smaller scale than the local resources for the solution. The “grain” of the problem is thus critical --- as is the grain of the operation. One may not be able to “rebuild all of New Orleans” – but one may be able to rebuild a house, and then another, and then another. In time, with adaptive and self-organizing processes, a solution can emerge at the larger scale as well. This solution is not so much “designed” as facilitated.

This year’s seminar took a particular project as its subject, and sought to draw both general research conclusions and specific next steps in that project. It is the so-called “Neighborhood Centers Development Project”, a partnership of ESRG members and key partners in New Orleans, including the Neighborhoods Partnership Network (which has emerged as the “go-to” NGO for city-wide grassroots coordination); the Preservation Resource Center (the most prominent conservation NGO in the region, also active in the wider debate about rebuilding coherent neighborhoods that respect local identity); the Gentilly Civic Improvement Association (an umbrella of neighborhood associations and a promising model for neighborhood-based civic building and planning); and others. Other partners include Quintus Jett, an organization theorist from Dartmouth’s Center for Digital Strategies, who has worked on local mapping strategies and other resources.

The partners believe such a resource is still very badly needed. Current efforts to provide such a resource are laudable but should be helped with substantial resources. At the same time, it will not be enough to orchestrate from on high, or to “throw resources at the problem”. This is a very real example of how to provide resources catalytically, to foster the development of additional resources that are locally relevant.

* * *


MM began on Thursday with an overview presentation of the ESRG and its history. He discussed the work of various colleagues including Christopher Alexander, and various collaborations already under way including work on social housing in Latin America, the subject of a paper by DB, AD, MM and other colleagues. AD also has done work in Jamaica and in Louisiana.

MM also explained the work to date in New Orleans, focusing on the neighborhood centers development project. He gave a short presentation on this work and its specific elements, and also updated colleagues on a number of discussions with key government representatives. MM noted there is a “deer in the headlights” quality to government leadership – afraid to do anything too radical, cut down barriers between departments, sectors and specialties. This fragmentation was exactly the problem, however.

MM described a meeting with the executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority the previous week. (attended by TS, PC, MK and MM). He and PC discussed the tone of that meeting, whether the ED understood the issues of “bottom-up” organization, whether there was too much emphasis on the notion of relocation to Baton Rouge, and otherwise "leapfrogging out", starting over with big top-down, blank-slate projects. A discussion ensued.

AD noted the problem is not the technical issues, levees, etc., but the trust in government, which has been eroded. How to rebuild that? He discussed work of Vale and Campanella on “resilient cities” – in all cases they were up and running much sooner. Why was that? Government here promised, then failed to deliver – left people in limbo. Better to be frank, let people self-organize early on and find resources by whatever means. Even meager resources would be better than promises not delivered.

MG noted that government by its nature operates in too much a command and control mode, and can’t let enough happen “bottom up” – this is another realm of social activity. Therefore the challenge is simply to constrain government.

DB disagreed, noted that “government” is not just regulations, but also resources and facilitation of things – commerce, mobility, etc. It is collective action to provide a healthy commons and establish a playing field in which the bottom-up actions can occur – therefore it’s important to specify its role correctly. This is what’s failing.

MM agreed, noted the links are not getting made to move the information as needed. Parts of the network are not talking to one another. Therefore the system is not functioning intelligently, but in a state of ignorance. There is little adaptation, no small grain of growth. All is focused on the large scale catalytic projects and “magic bullets”.

MR questioned whether self-organization could be in any sense “designed” – wasn’t that an oxymoron? MM commented that it can’t be “designed” in the old command-and-control sense, but it can be facilitated or obstructed, in the sense of organized complexity described by Jacobs. It can be “cultivated” not unlike a garden – fertilized, pruned back, seeded, etc.

AD argued that it is important to be realists about power and who holds it – not pretend you can do things without it. MM agreed, noted it’s about the holders of power coming to understand how they can dovetail with these processes, rather than ignoring them and therefore creating failures of information flow – exactly what was happening.

MR said what is important in their work is that the entities get connected and can talk to one another – that is a key.

An animated discussion followed, with KU, BD, DB, AD and others making strong points about process and power. MM said this was useful, but it might be better to turn back to a presentation format, and called on QJ to make a presentation on his mapping work.

QJ, an organization theorist and researcher, noted his work to do community mapping using distributed teams, not unlike a multi-level marketing system. This was important on several levels – it gave feedback on who is coming back where, facilitating patterns of self-organization; it got people talking to each other and collaborating; it identified patterns of process and interruption; and it provided feedback to agencies trying to monitor response to their own work.

He noted the need to balance between “too much chaos and not enough chaos”, and the need to achieve a kind of modularity, to break the problem down to a simpler level.

We discussed this work, and other existing work to create centers. At times this discussion grew heated. Some argued “the centers are already being created, what can we add?” Others argued “nothing is happening, what can we do? We don’t have the power.” MM argued both (contradictory) perspectives miss the point, which is that things are indeed happening, but not at the level needed; what we need to do is look at the problem as one of organization theory and how to kick the process up into a much higher gear. This is what the top-down can do, not with a lot of top-down action, but with strategic catalytic actions – e.g. providing agency data to be integrated, resources to distribute for the bottom-up, publication of materials, guidelines, pattern books, web resources, etc.

AD noted that the programming is critical, and expertise is needed: “garbage in, garbage out.” DB noted that it is critical for residents to do their own mapping, and build capacity.

We discussed the resources that would be helpful for such centers. All agreed that pattern books, contractor lists, the other things listed in the prospectus are critical. KP noted there are other needs besides houses – public buildings, and neighborhood infrastructure. MM agreed there need to be resources to allow participation on these things also. It has always been a goal that the centers could ultimately become neighborhood planning centers, with devolved planning functions.

TS noted that resources vary greatly by neighborhood, and it is important to let them develop and adapt their own.

MR noted it is important for centers to talk to each other, and swap resources. They need to be able to watch the self-organization process.

DB noted it may be backward to start with the resources, may be better to start with the centers, and then develop resources bottom-up. TS agreed, noted greatly varying conditions in different neighborhoods. DB noted perhaps what is needed is a kind of infrastructure.

MR suggested the Neighborhoods Partnership Network (in lead role for this partnership) might serve as a broker for those from outside coming in to provide resources –a coordinating point.

KU noted what the partnership can do is serve as a “squeaky wheel” to give a louder voice to residents and to ensure that their needs are heard and the right resources are delivered.

TS noted that while the LRA is emphasizing “safer, smarter” etc., people are jnot doing well.

AD noted that people are being punished for trying to rebuild; a key need now is to “suspend the punishment.” Noted many people did not have debt, cannot afford new houses up to code. If we want to help them we should consider innovative suspensions of the usual code – explore a self-build ordinance.

MM noted it is not enough to suspend codes, and helpful resources are also needed for rebuilding. KP asked if actual building resources would be provided – a builders’ yard, etc? Apprenticeships with trained carpenters, etc? NPN has been working along these lines – a “Rebuilding Together” program. All agreed this is a promising avenue to develop.

* * *


We began the day with a recap of the previous day, a discussion of the emerging themes, and a goal for the day’s outcome: to set next steps for development of the centers.

BD proposed an emerging theme as follows:

“Bottom-up processes can work when the problem is smaller than the scale of the community.”

We followed with a discussion of this notion, and the following points were discussed:

  • Central authority is not used to impose a new order, but to change the scale of the problem (break it into smaller and more manageable problems).
  • The GRAIN is critical. The size of the elements that are to be managed and adapted. (The “grain of adaptation”.)

But you can’t just say “let them eat self-organization” – you need distributed resources:

design resources
Analytical tools
Information resources
Forum for peer-to-peer and expert interaction

Coding is critical – both suspending the current onerous and overly prescriptive codes, and providing more “generative” codes, and codes that provide coherence with minimal intrusion.

Also needed:

“Diagnosis” of technical, economic and legal feasibility for the specific structure
Analytical tools for understanding the social context and its trends
Technical support in the actual process
Stability for self-organization, minimal ambiguity
* The centers should advocate for owning and developing the plan

We discussed workshops (“charrettes?”) that the partnership would provide to existing centers, to provide info and get feedback, and further develop better resources.

These workshops would plan the implementation, diagnose each place, and so on.

They would facilitate a learning network for the local neighborhood leaders/facilitators, along the model “teach a man to fish”.

Design-build issues:

volunteer work – insurance, minimal skill levels?
Lack of skills – need for training
Need for reliable self-help guides

What is needed:

Assessment and diagnosis
Design and construction documentation ability (basic drawing)
Plan of action – permits, self-help, contractor assistance etc
Building workshop – materials, tools, learning sessions etc

Can we call on Restore Media for partnership/assistance?

We followed with a series of presentations. (These had been planned for the previous day, but were suspended when the discussion with New Orleans residents began to dominate the format.)

David Bain discussed his work studying the Vietnamese Catholic neighborhood of New Orleans East and its lessons. He noted it is not just a “strong leader” model as the mythology would have it – or a strong hierarchy, e.g. the Catholic Church. Rather there was a lot of individual one-on-one support for families, providing security, information, resources. There was a lot of contact and communication. David discussed the role of relationship bonds and various kinds of ties – strong versus weak community ties. Both are needed, and the weak ties actually serve to bridge groups.

Kyriakos Pontikis presented his work with design-build systems, and his use of custom, low-cost forming methods. He discussed its relation to Chris Alexander’s methods and the desire for generativity and community participation in design. This dimension is crucial for the centers.

Audun Engh discussed his work with the Council for European Urbanism, INTBAU Scandinavia, and the planned 2008 climate change conference in Oslo. He also discussed the European School for Urbanism and Architecture, an EU-funded initiative for development of an architecture curriculum focused more squarely on timely issues such as climate change, sustainability, etc. He discussed some of the lessons that could be exchanged with New Orleans, including local building crafts, sustainable local employment, sustainable building practices based on regional patterns, and the like.

Stuart Cowan discussed his work with Autopoiesis and his background as a physicist and ecologist. He discussed his hopes for the ESRG and its agenda, and in particular the role it could play in sustainable and climate-neutral building.

MM noted a number of emerging activities on this topic: the CEU Oslo Conference on climate change and urban form in 2008, a proposed California charrette, a CNU “Green Council”, etc.

David Brain discussed his involvement in the Florida House Institute for Sustainable Development on similar themes.

Stuart discussed opportunities for sustainable infrastructure and retrofit – venture capital is now flowing, opportunities are available – but how to integrate? A key issue is monetizing ecosystem services – integrating externalities into the economic exchange.

New Orleans is a case in point – the ecosystem services of restored wetlands have not been accounted for. They amount to billions per year – yet no mechanisms are there to represent their value.

What are the enabling policies, what are the best practices? There is an urgent need to document this and draw the lessons from here.

“Al of this comes together in New Orleans” – Audun Engh

What are the new mechanisms – self-organization, monetizing, market mechanisms? This must be a priority of research. (e.g. the Nobel prize for economics was in “mechanism design theory” in this very area.)

We need to confront issues of anti-urbanism in green thinking.

We need to tackle the scale of the problem – ways to break it down to a finer and more manageable scale (suitable for treatment by local governments, for example – a topic in the planned upcoming California charrette.)

Bruce Donnelly described his work. He noted he is deeply worried about cascading failures – perhaps there are key catalytic nodes that get more results than others? Is it possible that NO may be too far gone, that it passed a point of intractable urban failure in the 70s? But maybe other systems can be restored. Where are the key points to hit? Catalytic processes? CDCs?

Maybe the goal is not to replicate centers endlessly – but let them spread as rhizomes, and cut the tendrils to form individuals later (or let them fracture of their own accord)

There is an issue of trust – building up trust in small cycles. Model of Grameen Bank – gradually build up the system.

Grow existing networks
Engender them with small trickles - do not "flood" them
Let them disconnect naturally
Let one kind of trust trickle into another kind of trust, build up bandwidth

As David B said, the challenge is to build up resilience through the existing network… conserve the existing network. “When things are disrupted in a conservative system, many of the biggest innovations occur in response.”

“NO will get rebuilt, is getting rebuilt – the question is, how to do it fairly, with quality, and sustainably.” – David Brain

The group developed the concept of a workshop that could be exported to any of the existing centers – almost like a “SWAT Team” to mobilize quickly, come in to existing centers, listen to needs and concerns, provide resources, develop resources further, and thereby grow the resources through direct contact.

MM will develop a draft proposal for such teams, along with the resources they might carry initially. He will circulate these to the partners and symposium members for discussion, and then the group can decide how to implement (through NPN, through a partnership, with other funding NGOs, etc.)


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