Emergent Urbanism





Emergence is the continuous interaction of systems that respond to contextual feedback, resulting in incremental change over time. This contextual web is interwoven with relationships and these encounters are amplified with every change within the system. They are catalysts for the unfolding or progression of a landscape or system over time, resulting in its evolution. Chance or chaotic events further contribute to the complexity of the contextual network by creating, intensifying and reinforcing relationships. From these encounters through differentiation, self-organisation and simplification, order arises creating geometry within the system with novel outcomes. Emergent systems therefore have the capacity for adaptation, and thus are resilient. Emergent landscapes provide opportunities and challenges for landscape architects who intervene in the system through design; a design is an attempt of managing, arranging and predicting these complex systems. The emergence phenomena therefore can be used as a construct to inform the practice of landscape architecture. 




There is a need to employ a generative process to create spaces and structures within the landscape (1). A generative process is one that is evident in all levels of life from the creation of an embryo to the establishment of a city. It describes how something is made. A generative process is emergent, it arises over time in adaptive response to contextual cues. To achieve the complexity required for the emergence of an apparent form such as a landscape, latent structures unfold through time and differentiation. “Each differentiation adds relationships and brings more interdependence among the centres” (2) that are then revealed through a geometric form of the whole. Simultaneously, a simplification process sheds non-functionalities leaving only the necessary simple geometry in place which contribute to the perceivable form. Unpredictability also referred to as chaos, gives the impetus for further change and evolution by changing conditions in which the structure is situated.

Fabricated systems are arranged and designed, although they may imitate generated systems. Every element of a design represents a decision based on some predetermined requirements, rules or aesthetic reasons. Therefore a design will only address a limited amount of issues, achieve a limited number of goals and sift through only a few variations before focusing on one. Every design decision has the potential to be poorly adapted therefore one bad decision can have exponential unfavourable consequences.  A fabricated design cannot avoid mistakes which may occur at any level or scale in any number, nor will these be evident until the design fails. These can be in spatial arrangement, size, orientation and relationships from a drawn line of a concept plan to the built structure within a landscape. In comparison generated plans which evolve over time to fill specific requirements therefore are mistake-free as the structure undergoes continual modification in response to a changing context.




Comparison of ecological design with designer ecology in parks explores their capacity for long-term sustainability through resilience (3). Designer ecologies are altered or human-designed environments; they represent nature for educational, cultural, aesthetic or other needs. They are not operational ecologies even though they fulfil some economic, ecological and cultural needs, because they do not “program, facilitate, or ultimately permit the emergence and evolution of self-organising, resilient ecological systems” (4). Small parks that exhibit designer ecologies cannot be self-sustaining and therefore resilient unless they are connected to a wider green network of similar ecologies. In contrast adaptive ecological design is the capacity for large landscapes to be resilient through self-organisation in response to change or disturbance. “The ability to self-organize is the strongest form of system resilience; a system that can evolve can survive almost any change, by changing itself” (5). Adaptive ecological design recognises the open, unpredictable, self-organising nature of living systems. As a sustainable approach to design, it is the integration of human culture and nature’s processes; the creation of a “hybridized natural-cultural ecology” (6). Ecological design aims to take cues from nature, mimic its processes, forms and functions while simultaneously integrating a creative cultural response. 

Application of adaptive ecological design is affected by the issue that science of ecology is divided to reductionist and holistic perspectives. Modern ecological science is largely reductionist hence decision makers have the expectation that nature can be measured and controlled; therefore managed and partially predicted. However ecosystems are open, self-organising and dynamic; and are full of diversity, complexity and uncertainty. They continuously emerge through different states and bifurcations. Ecosystems are comprised of numerous operating states each subject to their own unique contextual pressures and may diverge through different states independently from one another.




Emergent urbanism is a bottom-up, tactical approach that acknowledges the phenomena of emergence. Tactical approaches are low cost, temporary, quick to implement and easily adjustable interventions and experimentations based on community and environmental feedback. 

Commonly landscape architecture practice focuses on the end product of a design then resolves the details. This is an issue as the design is therefore not emergent but fixed. A tactical approach imitates the generative process from conception of the need for change. Flexibility, repetition and experimentation can be employed through a bottom-up planted intervention to observe the result of small changes introduced to a site. This is a way of trialling different experiences, responding to local needs or challenges at a site. The outcomes can therefore dictate the direction of the design. For example pop up parks, street greening and open street initiatives can be tested before these places are made to be permanent. Particularly where governments are concerned with generating revenue from landscape projects, ecological proposals need to exhibit benefits to be implemented. If successful these experiments may gain financial support from the government or other interested parties. The landscape that develops in response to feedback attained through experimentation therefore has emergent qualities and will be better adapted to the site than one that is built from a plan. 

We cannot predict how an ecosystem will evolve or change thus any landscape intervention needs to be flexible, adaptable and able to accommodate disturbance. The current design practice aims to predict the consequence of a design based on the analysis of the components of the context. Through tactical urbanism we can embrace the challenges and opportunities that arise from temporary and continuously changing states. Interdisciplinary input, different approaches and exploration of anticipated outcomes depending on local context can be investigated and analysed to formulate a site goal before a design is even conceived.

Emergent urbanism allows generative processes and thus emergence to dominate the urban environment. Emergent urbanists are the interpreters and facilitators of change in an urban context. Through tactical generative processes they can guide human values to appreciate the advantages of allowing adaptation to determine the design of a landscape. They have the capability to shift paradigms to integrate humans and nature as part of a whole system and to facilitate adaptable ecological design. Emergent urbanism encourages diversity, variability and experimentation. It permits losing control over complex systems to let emergence take over; it is about “strategically letting go” (7).




(1) Alexander, C. (2002). Generated Structure in The Nature of Order: The Process of Creating Life. The Centre for Environmental Structure, California.

(2) Alexander, C. (2002).

(3) Lister, N-M. (2007). Sustainable Large Parks: Ecological Design or Designer Ecology? In Large Parks. Etd. Czerniak, J. And Hargreaves, G. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

(4) Lister, N-M. (2007).

(5) Meadows, D. (2015). Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. Retrieved from http://www.donellameadows.org/archives/leverage-points-places-to-intervene-in-a-system/

(6) Lister, N-M. (2007).

(7) Meadows, D. (2015).



Barnett, R. (2013). “Nonlinear Encounters: Emergence in Landscape Architecture”. Harvard GSD. Watch lectureon https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=820vwFYR2lU

Barnett, R. (n.d.). Ten Point Guides to Emergence. Retrieved from http://www.nonlinearlandscapes.com/the-ten-point-guides-to-emergence/