Presentation for Ignite Boise 2 July 16, 2009
Martin Johncox, Alexander and Associates
Homo sapiens has existed for about 250,000
years, yet oldest cities are just 5,000 years old.
Cities share permanence; specialization of skills
among inhabitants; reliance on countryside;
communal buildings; accumulation of resources.
People have created three kinds of cities in
history and their built form reflects their values:
the Cosmic City, the Machine City and the
The most ancient cities were designed to express religious
beliefs; this unity of purpose may give the Cosmic City
great harmony and remarkable beauty. Cosmic Cities
adapted to a low-energy environment and natural
topography and were created with great effort.
Important activities, such
as administration and
worship, typically at center.
Streets and buildings
arranged to express spiritual
beliefs; walls and gates
topography and used local
materials, producing a
striking sense of identity.
Projection of authority,
enforcement of social
administration ; economic
development and quality of
life were not high priorities.
Build elaborate structures
to display power, obey gods.
Limited to animals,
human feet, carts and
Energy was scarce,
coming only from
gravity, passive solar
and burning things
In Old Beijing,
designers arranged streets
and buildings to improve
the flow of chi, applying
feng shui city-wide.
The Mayans sited
buildings in Chichen Itza
to represent cosmic forces.
After 4,000 years, Cosmic
Cities ceased being the
dominant urban form –
but their influence persists
in other ways.
Starting around the Middle Ages, people began
applying more advanced building and energy
technology. The city was viewed as a kind machine to
power and fabricate industrial civilization. Classic
Machine Cities were at their apex until around 1950
Plentiful steel & power
allowed people to subdue
topography and serve
efficiency and commerce.
Large public works,
skyscrapers and bridges.
The rail station, port
and commercial district
became the new centers of
importance – not the
Efficiency in housing,
tation and commerce.
waterways and weather.
supreme, even if it produces
slums and pollution.
Public areas matter and
merit nice buildings and
comfortable form; North
End is good example.
Very diverse: elevators,
escalators, electric cars,
cable cars, bicycles, boats,
trains and aircraft.
Developers imposed a
mechanistic grid on the
city to promote efficient
Machine grid, cable car allow San
Francisco to conquer very hilly terrain.
Classic American small towns and
Machine Form is versatile, capable of
producing places awful and wonderful,
remains popular in much of the world.
In the Organic Form, the city is viewed as a living creature,
its inhabitants likened to cells and its “health” is paramount.
To survive, the Organic City requires abundant energy,
omnipresent machinery, the automobile and
The Organic City
sprawls, reflecting the
democratic living choices
of its inhabitants.
Hundreds of “land use
zones” mark permissible
areas for families, old
centers, offices and
industry, resulting in
Privacy, convenience, safety and
Satisfaction of residents.
Leaders must balance quality of life
with economic development.
Elaborate bureaucracy looks after
“health” of the city.
Automobile transportation is crucial
(emphasis on convenience).
Majority of energy, money and
attention goes to using, maintaining ,
planning and expanding roads.
The spatial demands automobiles
consume the public realm; the Organic
City has few public plazas.
Young American cities like
Boise. Residents are reluctant to
build grand places, instead
investing their wealth in trans-
portation, parks, public services
Nature, much more than
man-made structures, gives the
Organic City its sense of place.
Critics say Organic City is ugly, a
chaos of parking lots, forbidding
streets and cartoonish architecture.
Most valued places are natural
features and legacy Machine Form
I argue the Organic City is the
natural form of an affluent,
democratic, individualistic society
with abundant energy and advanced
technology. Twitter: @mjohncox
The Cosmic and Machine forms created places of terrible
misery and dramatic beauty. The Organic City is likely
to have neither.
The Cosmic City existed to serve God; the Machine City
existed to serve society; the Organic City exists to serve
Organic City residents feel there are higher priorities
than efficiency – much like Cosmic residents.
Facebook quiz: “What City Type Are You?”
Martin Johncox is public relations director at Alexander and
Associates, focusing on the development, energy, local
government and small business sectors.
He was a reporter and editorial writer at the Idaho
Statesman for nearly 12 years, focusing on local government,
urban planning, growth and development, where he read far
too much for his own good. He would someday like to serve
on a planning and zoning board.
Sources for this presentation:
Good City Form by Kevin Lynch
The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler
A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander
Close-Up: How to Read the American City by Grady Clay
Edge City by Joel Kotkin