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[to be published as chapter 7 in Tom Mels, editor, Reanimating Places: A Geography of Rhythms, London: Ashgate, forthcoming, August 2004; this edited collection is in honor of the retirement of social geographer Anne Buttimer, who was Seamon’s major dissertation advisor; images used with permission of Cambridge University Press and Christopher Alexander]


Grasping the Dynamism of Urban Place: Contributions from the Work of Christopher Alexander, Bill Hillier, and Daniel Kemmis


David Seamon

Department of Architecture, 211 Seaton Hall

Kansas State University

Manhattan, KS 66506 USA




In the 1970s, social geographer Anne Buttimer taught at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, where I was a graduate student writing a doctoral dissertation under her direction. At Clark, one of Buttimer’s central research interests was the relationship between physical and human worlds and how the particular lived dynamics of that relationship played a role in facilitating place making and human community, particularly in cities. One question she and her graduate students explored was how the everyday time-space routines of individuals and groups helped to transform space into place and how personal and group identification with place could facilitate a sense of locality and urban neighborhood (Buttimer 1969, 1971b, 1972, 1976, 1980; Buttimer and Seamon 1980; Rowles 1978; Seamon 1979, 1993a, 1994, 2000, 2002; Seamon and Nordin 1980; Seamon and Mugerauer 1985).


At the time, social-scientific research examining these topics was dominated by positivist theory and quantitative methods. Through the Continental philosophical traditions of phenomenology and existentialism coupled with her keen interest in French social geography, Buttimer sought a more accurate, comprehensive and empathetic way for examining individual and groups’ day-to-day relationships with their physical, spatial, and social environments (Buttimer 1971a, 1974, 1976, 1980, 1987; Seamon 1987b). In her research on urban social space for low-income housing projects in Glasgow, for example, she emphasized that the everyday world of urban residents is multi-layered existentially. She conceptualized this lived complexity in terms of activity spaces, environmental images, and place identification and attachment (Buttimer 1972). Later, she considered peoples’ experienced links with place and environment through the phenomenological notion of lifeworld—the taken-for-granted dynamic of everyday experience that largely happens automatically without conscious attention or deliberate plan (Buttimer 1976, p. 277; Seamon 1979, 1994, 2002). She argued that environmental aspects of the lifeworld—e.g., sense of place, social space, time-space rhythms, and the lived dialectic between home and horizon—offer a uniquely geographical contribution to phenomenological research (Buttimer 1976, 1980).


Early on, Buttimer recognized that both geographical and phenomenological thinking on the environmental and spatial nature of the lifeworld was incomplete: “phenomenological descriptions remain opaque to the functional dynamism of spatial systems, just as geographical descriptions of space have neglected many facets of human experience” (Buttimer 1976, p. 277). In her writings, Buttimer contributed much toward integrating these partial perspectives conceptually and practically.


In this chapter, I examine how the ideas of three current researchers—architect Christopher Alexander, architectural theorist Bill Hillier, and political philosopher Daniel Kemmis—provide important new insights for understanding the urban lifeworld and for making more vibrant places. I argue that these thinkers’ conceptions of place, though considerably different in some ways, can be drawn together to offer a powerful understanding of how physical-spatial and human worlds might mutually sustain each other by bringing human beings together informally and thereby generating a sense of togetherness, particularly in cities. In turn, this possibility of spontaneous geographical gathering can support a liveliness of place and one kind of implicit environmental belonging.



I begin with the ideas of Christopher Alexander and Daniel Kemmis because their work illustrates a practical movement afoot in public policy and environmental design that attempts to understand useful societal change from the viewpoint of wholes healing themselves. Alexander has been the most visible proponent of this perspective (Alexander 1975, 1977, 1979, 1981, 1984, 1987, 1993, 1995, 2003).1 He deeply believes that built environments of the past—for example, a city like Venice or Oxford, or a building like Chartres Cathedral or a Japanese farmhouse—regularly held a palpable sense of unity and harmony. In his writings and designs, he seeks a way to return a sense of wholeness, vitality, and grace to the buildings and places in which we live. A crux of his approach is what Alexander calls “pattern language,” a practical method whereby the layperson or designer can identify and create the underlying elements and relationships in a built environment that give it a sense of order, vividness, and life (Alexander 1975, 1977, 1979, 1985; Coates and Seamon 1993; Dovey 1989; Gelernter 2000, Seamon 1987a, 1990b).


Alexander understands successful urban place making as a collaborative process of healing whereby the city becomes more alive and healthy through an incremental growth of parts that, over time and synergistically, enriches the whole. Key aspects of this healthy city include small blocks, mixed uses, lively streets, physical and human diversity, distinctive neighborhoods, and human sociability—especially informal interactions in streets, sidewalks, and other public spaces (Adams 2001; Jacobs 1961; Lofland 1998). Crucially important is a design and decision-making process whereby new parts of the city arise in such a way that they strengthen the existing urban fabric and make it more identifiable and coherent. “Design,” Alexander writes, “must be premised on a process that has the creation of wholeness as its overriding purpose, and in which every increment of construction, no matter how small, is devoted to this purpose” (Alexander, 1987, p. 16).


In his The Good City and the Good Life, Daniel Kemmis (1995) explores the idea of urban wholeness and healing as it might have meaning for urban politics and citizenship: “[T]he refocusing of human energy around the organic wholeness of cities promises a profound rehumanizing of the shape and condition of our lives” (ibid., p. 151). Kemmis describes a way of urban life that involves individual citizens' feeling a part of the city because it provides a place for them to belong. Individuals, he argues, “cannot be fully healthy, physically and mentally, in isolation, but only as meaningful players in a meaningful community.... [T]he healing (making more whole) of cities is serving to… reknit… the often frayed and sometimes severed strands of our humanity” (ibid., p. 152).2


In this sense, Kemmis says much about the lived-process of making community happen, especially through striking vignettes drawn from his own political experiences as former mayor of Missoula, Montana, and former Speaker of the Montana legislature. Perhaps the most valuable dimension of his work is its speaking to how, in terms of a communal and political process, Alexander's theory for healing the city—a theory that Kemmis draws on directly and regularly—needs to happen. In other words, Kemmis attempts to answer the difficult question of how the practical steps of urban change are to be decided by the various parties involved. For Kemmis, this decision-making process is through and through political, whereby he means the realization of the city's possibilities through a civility among different citizens' views.


Though Alexander and Kemmis agree that healing the city is a central need, their understanding of how this healing happens is considerably different. Kemmis—as a politician and political philosopher—sees urban healing fostered largely through civil discourse among citizens and politicians. In contrast, Alexander—as an architect—insists that, before any such discourse can begin, there must first be a basic understanding as to what environmental wholeness is and how it can be strengthened or stymied by qualities of the physical-spatial environment and urban and architectural design. I argue here that, ultimately, both aspects of the healing process—physical and human, material and communal—must be considered and carried out, though I concur with Alexander that a knowledge of how the physical city grounds and stimulates the healing process must inform civil discourse.



Before examining Alexander’s conception of the physical city, it is useful to specify Kemmis’s ideas on political process more exactly because they say much about how individuals come to care for the place where they live and thereby help to make it better. Early on in The Good City, Kemmis discusses what he calls the “good life,” which “makes it possible for humans to be fully present—to themselves, to one another and to their surroundings. Such presence is precisely opposite of the distractedness—the being beside—that is so prevalent in our political culture” (Kemmis 1995, p. 22).


For Kemmis, the city is organic in the sense that it “organizes in its own terms a certain portion of the world” (ibid., p. 177). For this reason, Kemmis argues that the city dweller does not always initiate an active interest in his or her city; more often, the city, in its liveliness and attraction, activates the attention and concern of the dweller, who then contributes to the city. In this sense, place wholeness begets human wholeness and vice versa. This mutual interplay of part and whole, person and world, dweller and city is, for Kemmis, the foundation of civilization: “This fundamental connection between human wholeness and livability and the wholeness and life of the city are all contained in... the word ‘civilized’” (ibid., p. 12).


What Kemmis discusses here, implicitly, is the same phenomenological principle emphasized by Buttimer in her lifeworld writings: that people-are-immersed-in-world-as-world-is-immersed-in-people (Buttimer 1976; Seamon 1993). This relationship is elusive and difficult to give grounded significance because it is a synergistic structure that becomes other than itself when conceptually broken apart (Seamon 1990a). One of Kemmis's strengths is his ability to explore and describe this person-place intimacy through his own political experience. For example, he discusses Missoula's lively farmer's market, which provides a place for the city to work on its citizens by bringing them together and providing economic and social exchange. This “gathering role...enables people to come away from the market more whole than when they arrived” (Kemmis 1995, p. 11)


Kemmis’s central question is how citizens’ sense of responsibility for their place can facilitate a civilized politics. All politics, Kemmis emphasizes, is about power, but the politician who can make the good city happen must always remember that his or her power “is only a form of stewardship on behalf of those whose power it really is” (ibid., p. 153). Conventionally (at least in American government), power has been regulated by a system of procedural and legal checks and balances, but this system too often interferes with politicians' and citizens' exercising the personal responsibility of working out solutions together, “which alone can make democracy work” (ibid., p. 154).2


Kemmis argues that good politicians remember they are stewards of power, which they barter to make a better city, through listening to what citizens say but also listening to the city itself. The need is to meet with many different people, to get them to talk to each other, and—when the moment seems right—to make the best decision possible on behalf of the city. In the end, says Kemmis, the mark of the good politician is “knowing when to let the world work, and when to work on the world” (p. 177).


If this phrase sounds like the language of German phenomenological philosopher Martin Heidegger, it is. Throughout The Good City, Kemmis refers to Heidegger's essay, “Building Dwelling Thinking” (Heidegger 1971), which argues that human beings can only design and make policy if they dwell in place and belong (Mugerauer 1994; Stefanovic 2000). For Kemmis, the good politician is open to the needs of both people and place so that, as the right moment arises, he or she can use power to make the next step toward healing the city:


[I]f the city is constantly responding to what it has already created and to what fortune brings forward, then the next act of creation must always be some paradoxical blend of will and acceptance....This blend is precisely the defining characteristic of the good politician.... (Kemmis 1995, pp. 178-179).


On the other hand, this kind of practical openness to what the city might become cannot happen if ordinary citizens do not partake in the political process. Unfortunately today, community involvement too often becomes special-interest groups fighting for power. The need, says Kemmis, is to draw into the process people who can be civil and take responsibility for mediating extremes and finding a middle point of possibility. To be a citizen involves “the ability to teach or encourage one another to speak so that you can actually be heard by others who do not already share your view” (ibid., p. 192).


Though this process of motivating citizens and healing place is not necessarily easy, immediate, or guaranteed, Kemmis believes that, if citizens really look at and listen to their place, then it can “say” what it needs. For example, he discusses the development of a riverfront park system along the Clark Fork River just south of downtown Missoula, which in the 1980s had been largely destroyed economically by retail competition from outlying suburban malls. To stimulate an economic renaissance, Missoula’s leaders implemented tax-increment financing, which leveraged private investments in downtown improvements and store renovations. This early success spawned additional downtown investments, which in turn stimulated the creation of a downtown riverfront park that would eventually spur on both sides of the river the creation  of additional parks connected by walking trails.


Kemmis emphasizes that, at the start, neither citizens nor politicians could have imagined the chronological order or physical shape that Missoula’s downtown revitalization would take. The success of the original risk that Missoula’s leaders took in implementing the tax-incentive program led to private entrepreneurs and public and private agencies taking additional risks, many of which also proved successful. For Kemmis, the incremental, serendipitous piecing together of Missoula’s downtown and riverfront is what he visualizes when he ponders Christopher Alexander’s definition of environmental healing—that “every new act of construction… must create a continuous structure of wholes around it” (Alexander 1987, p. 22).


Toward the end of his account of downtown Missoula’s redevelopment, Kemmis tells us that the riverfront parks and trail segments are still not connected in one complete walking loop allowing users to experience Missoula’s river district as a whole. Yet he trusts, as Alexander would, that there are enough environmental parts in place so that now Missoulians feel the lack of an environmental whole. He predicts that eventually this feeling will generate the public will to complete the riverwalk system. He explains:


The riverfront trail literally reaches out to join itself, putting pressure on the intervening parcels that prevent it from doing so, and then whenever it succeeds in filling in one of those gaps, it encourages whatever touches it to a greater wholeness as well (Kemmis 1995, p. 171).



As the example of downtown Missoula indicates, Kemmis's understanding of the city is much obliged to Alexander's vision of urban healing and wholeness (Alexander 1987), to which Kemmis refers regularly in Good City. He also argues, however, that Alexander, as an architect, gives most attention to physical healing but that, "as important as the physical body of the city is, it alone cannot make the city healthy" (Kemmis 1995, p. 14).


Kemmis's effort to move beyond the physical healing of the city is both Good City's strength and weakness. On the one hand, he gives an invaluable picture of the process of human give-and-take that must underlie and motivate actual building and policy decisions. On the other hand, he seems to suppose that civilized mediation among participants will somehow lead to the right decisions as to how the city will constructively change without necessarily the need for any precise understanding or specific expertise as to what the material city is and how it works. Alexander’s work suggests otherwise by laying out a process of conceiving and designing that goes far in providing a practical method for envisioning the physical revitalization of urban districts and the city as a whole.


In New Theory, Alexander (1987) seeks to develop a design process organized around seven rules—see table 1—that he believes can provide a healing action and lead to a renewed sense of urban place. In studying these rules, one notes that they attempt to guide the design process by fostering a good fit between new construction and the existing urban environment.3 For example, rule 1—“piecemeal growth”—says that the best construction increments are small, thus there should be an even mix of small, medium, and large construction projects. Building on rule 1, rule 2—"the growth of larger wholes"—directs how specific design projects can be seen to belong together and therefore requires that "every building increment must be chosen, placed, planned, formed, and given its details in such a way as to increase the number of wholes that exist in space” (Alexander, 1987, p 248).



Table 1. Alexander’s Seven Rules


1.    Piecemeal growth.

The grain of development must be small enough so there is room and time for wholeness to develop, thus building increments must not be too large and there must be a reasonable distribution of functions and project sizes.

2.    Growth of larger wholes.

Every building increment must be created in such a way as to increase the number of wholes that exist in space.

3.    Visions.

Every project must be imagined intuitively as the appropriate next element for healing the existing structure.

4.    Positive outdoor space.

Every building must create coherent, well-shaped adjoining public spaces, including streets, walkways, plazas, parks, and gardens.

5.    Layout of buildings.

The ordering of every building—its massing, placement of entrances, layout of circulation, etc.—must be coherent as a whole unto itself and in its relationship with the larger district of which it is part.

6.    Construction details.

Every building must generate smaller wholes in its physical parts—in its structural bays, columns, walls, windows, etc.

7.    Formation of centers.

Every whole must be a “center” in itself and must also contribute to a system of smaller and larger centers within and around it.



Of these seven rules, the most pivotal is the last—formation of centers—which, in Alexander’s work beginning with New Theory, becomes the primary conceptual and practical means for clarifying and extending his earlier “pattern language” ideas (Alexander 1993, 1995, 2003). Most simply, a center is any sort of spatial concentration or organized focus or place of more intense pattern or activity—for example, a handsomely designed window, a well placed kiosk, an elegant arcade, a welcoming building, a lively plaza full of people enjoying themselves, or an entire city neighborhood that is well liked and cared for (see especially Alexander 2003, chap. 3). Whatever its particular nature and scale, a center is a region of more intense physical and experiential order that provides for the relatedness of things, people, situations, and events. In this sense, the strongest centers gather the parts in a relationship of belonging, including city dwellers.4 Further, where one finds life and wholeness in the city, centers are never alone but mutually implicated at many levels of scale: “The wholeness of any portion of the world is the system of larger and smaller centers, in their connections and overlap” (ibid., pp. 90-91).



In New Theory, Alexander illustrates the use of centers and the seven rules through a simulation experiment conducted with architecture graduate students at the University of California at Berkeley in a design studio taught by him and faculty colleagues Ingrid King and Howard Davis (Alexander 1987). The nineteen students in this studio focused on thirty acres of the San Francisco waterfront just north of the Bay Bridge and, at the time, destined for future development. The major task the students faced was to transform these thirty acres, for the most part empty, into a district of buildings, streets, plazas and parks that would all contribute to a sense of place, vibrancy, and wholeness. Eventually, the students converted the waterfront site into an a set of places that included such elements as a pedestrian mall, a main square, a waterfront park, and a market and fishing pier (see figures 1 and 2).




Figure 1 (left). San Francisco waterfront site to be developed (from Alexander 1987, p. 105; copyright 1987 by Christopher Alexander and used with permission).


Figure 2 (right). Photograph of a wooden model of the San Francisco waterfront project after eighty-nine projects (from Alexander 1987, p. 107; copyright 1987 by Christopher Alexander and used with permission).


Procedurally, the students were asked to imagine themselves as developers and representatives of community groups. On the other hand, Alexander, King, and Davis took the role of an evaluation committee responsible for guiding the growth process. No student’s design idea (the “vision” of rule 3) could be finalized until the committee had evaluated the idea and considered strengths and weaknesses. All faculty and students were involved in all discussions about every project, so there was much mutual understanding as to the project’s progress and ultimate aim.


To illustrate the way the simulation worked, it is useful to review the first phase of the project, which involved development of the northern part of the site as shown in figure 3. To begin, students and faculty visited the site and decided that the northern portion (lower area of figure 3) seemed the right place to start development, since the natural entrance to the site—Mission Street—was there. This decision was then formally announced by the committee, who invited projects that would “enhance the entrance, and create it strongly and dramatically” (ibid., p. 115). One student had the vision of a high, narrow arching gate that would serve as a distinctive entry marker. This idea was approved by the committee as the starting point for the site’s development.



Figure 3. The San Francisco waterfront site after completion of five projects. Note how the first project—the entry gateway—suggests a larger whole—a street and pedestrian mall directed south toward the center of the site (redrawn from Alexander 1987, pp. 40-43; copyright 1987 Christopher Alexander and used with permission).


This entrance gateway was important because it generated a sense of passage that started beneath the arch and continued south. In this way, the gate hinted at a larger whole—a street and pedestrian mall going south into the heart of the site. This pedestrian street was then defined more exactly by the next two projects: a hotel and a café, which fixed the street’s west side and width (an existing building on the east fixed the street’s east side). Soon after, project 5—a community bank—established the far end of the street, which was then completed by a series of increments that included an apartment house, an office building, and various smaller-scale projects like a gravel walk and low wall.


In terms of centers, each project defining the pedestrian street did three things at once: first, it helped to complete one major center already defined; second, it helped to pin down some other, less clearly defined center; third, it hinted at some entirely new center that could emerge later. One example is the hotel (project 2), which wrapped around a garden courtyard. First, in conjunction with the gate, this building helped to complete the southern edge of the site; second, it helped to establish the larger center of the pedestrian street by fixing its western edge; third, in shaping itself around an outdoor courtyard, the hotel hinted at a new center that in later increments would become a large public garden running south from the hotel and shaped by a series of apartment buildings.



After eighty-nine projects, Alexander’s team ended their experiment, though it is clear that additions and refinements were still possible and would be needed if the design were ever actually built. If one studies the model for the project, shown in figure 2, one notes that the final design organized itself around three main areas: first, the area north of the expressway and composed of the pedestrian street and office and apartment buildings; second, the middle section of the site, centered around a main square and grid of streets heavily residential in character; third, the southern part of the site, which became largely a commercial area of factories, warehouses, and nautical facilities.


As this studio simulation suggests, Alexander developed his rule-based approach to urban design because he believes that there must be some sort of reasoned procedure for the actualization of wholeness, whereby decision-makers gain understanding and the city gains realization. In contrast, Kemmis, in his approach to the city, has much less interest in such practical understanding and clear-cut procedure. Rather, he seems to believe that, if citizens and politicians begin to put the welfare of their city first, an understanding of what the city needs to become will automatically arise through civil discussion, mediation, and compromise: "As citizens become more practiced at working together with the city's best interests at heart, it is precisely such structures of wholeness that recommend themselves to their attention" (Kemmis 1995, p. 194).


Alexander might not disagree with this perspective, provided the participants had some degree of informed awareness of what the wholeness of place is and some set of guidelines to keep this wholeness in mind. On the other hand, Alexander says little about how his rule-based approach, through citizen involvement, might actually go forth into building. How, in other words, can his reasoned procedure—the seven rules—be given direction and actualized through real-world participants?5


In the studio experiment, the role-playing of students and faculty was obviously artificial and arbitrary. Ultimately, students had to agree with the judgments of the faculty committee and to work in relation to the rules whether they personally agreed with them or not.6 At the same time, the resulting designs were completed only as paper places and a scale model that never had to face the real-world evaluation of the residents, developers, city officials, politicians, and other constituencies ultimately providing approval, funding, and public support.


In regard to applied direction, this is where Kemmis's ideas are such an important complement to Alexander's approach: Kemmis provides an extended picture of what is necessary, in terms of getting different parties to discuss and compromise, if the urban wholeness and healing that Alexander provides a design means for is to be supported and carried out by the citizenry. On the other hand, Kemmis seems less aware of how a city works physically and spatially. Again, we return to the basic phenomenological principle that people are immersed in their worlds, which first of all are physical and spatial. In this sense, Alexander's design vision is an essential complement to Kemmis's hopeful politics of place, though I next want to argue that this vision is incomplete and needs supplementing by Bill Hillier’s innovative theory of how qualities of physical space play an inescapable role in making lively urban places.



Since the mid 1970s, researchers at the Bartlett School of Architecture and Plan­ning, Univer­sity College, London, have developed convincing con­ceptual and empirical evidence that the phys­ical-spatial environment plays an integral part in sustaining active streets and an urban sense of place. Largely conceptualized by the architectural researchers Bill Hillier and Julienne Hanson, this research examines the relation­ship between physical space and social life, or, more precisely, "the social content of spatial patterning and the spatial content of social patterning" (Hillier & Hanson, 1984, pp. x-xi). Most often, this work has come to be called Bill Hillier's theory of space syntax, the label used here (Hanson 1998; Hillier 1989, 1993, 1996, 1999; Hillier and Hanson 1984, 1989; Hillier et al. 1982, 1987; Murrain 1993; Peponis 1989, 1993).


Throughout his writings, Hillier asks if there is some "deep structure of the city itself" that contributes to urban life (Hillier 1989, p. 5). He finds this deep structure in the relationship between spatial configuration and natural co-presence—that is, the way the spatial layout of pathways can informally and automatically bring people together in urban space or keep them apart: “By its power to generate movement, spatial design creates a fundamental pattern of co-presence and co-awareness, and therefore potential encounter amongst people that is the most rudimentary form of our awareness of others” (Hillier 1996, p. 213). Hillier argues that, through a particular kind of spatial configuration—what he calls the deformed grid—cities have historically “exploited movement constructively to create dense, but variable, encounter zones to become what made them useful: mechanisms for contact” (ibid., p. 174).


One means that Hillier uses to demonstrate the relationship between spatial configuration and pedestrian movement is a careful examination of the street and open-space fabric of many different settlements throughout the world (Hillier and Hanson 1984; Hillier et al. 1982).  Many of these places—for example, the French village of Gassin illustrated in figure 4—regularly incorporate the following topological characteristics that together create what Hillier calls the beady-ring structure:

·        All building entrances face directly onto the village open spaces, thus there are no intervening boundaries between building access and public space;

·        The village open spaces are continuous but irregular in their shapes; they narrow and widen, like beads on a string;

·        The outdoor spaces join back on themselves to form a set of irregularly shaped rings;

·        This ring structure, coupled with direct building entry, gives each village a high degree of permeability and access in that there are at least two paths (and, typically, many more) from one building to any other building.


Figure 4. The southern French village of Gassin. Note how the village configuration illustrates Hillier’s “beady-ring structure” (from Hillier and Hanson 1984, p. 90; copyright 1984 Cambridge University Press and used with permission).


The next question Hillier asks is whether this beady-ring structure can be described and measured more precisely. At the start, one faces a difficult recording problem: in terms of everyday function, a settle­ment's open space is one contin­uous fabric but, formalistically and spatially, this fabric is composed of many different parts—streets, alleys, squares, plazas, walls, buildings, and the like. How can this unwieldy network of spaces and things be defined and measured without destroying the seamless nature of the settlement's open spaces?


To address this conceptual difficulty, Hillier suggests that any open space can be considered in terms of its convex or axial qualities. A convex space refers to the two-dimen­sional nature of open space and is best exemplified by plazas, squares, and parks. In that they can have con­siderable breadth in relation to width, convex spaces relate to the beadi­ness of the beady-ring structure. In terms of environmental experience, convex spaces typically become local places—e.g., the site of a weekly market, an open space where children regularly play kickball, or a place where older people gather on sunny afternoons.  By identifying the least number of convex spaces ac­counting for all streets, plazas and other outdoor space, one can con­struct a convex map as shown for Gassin in figure 5.



Figure 5. Gassin’s convex map (from Hillier and Hanson 1984, p. 92; copyright 1984 by Cambridge University Press and used with permission).


In contrast to convex spaces are what Hillier calls axial spaces, which depict the one-dimensional qualities of space and therefore relate to human movement through the settlement and to the stringiness of the beady-ring structure. Axial spaces are best illus­trated by long narrow streets and can be repre­sented geometrically by the maxi­mum straight line that can be drawn through an open space before it strikes a building, wall, or some other material object (see the axial map of Gassin in figure 6).

Figure 6. Gassin’s axial map (from Hillier and Hanson 1984, p. 91; copyright 1984 by Cambridge University Press and used with permission).


Whereas convex spaces speak mostly to the local qualities of a space, axial spaces are significant for understanding a settlement’s global pattern—that is, the way the particular spatial configuration of the pathway fabric lays out a potential movement field that draws people together or keeps them apart. Natural movement is the term Hillier uses to describe the potential power of the pathway layout to automatically stymie or facilitate movement and such related environmental events as co-presence, co-awareness, informal interpersonal encounters, and lively local places and street activity (Hillier 1996, p. 161).



To establish precisely the amount of natural movement that a particular pathway configuration potentially generates, Hillier introduces the concepts of integrated and segregated pathways. The former is a pathway that makes itself readily accessible to many other pathways and therefore is shallow in relation to them. In other words, many other pathways and the users on these pathways feed into this pathway, thus it is well integrated in relation to the surrounding grid structure and more than likely a well-used route along which many people travel. In contrast, few or no other routes feed into segregated pathways, which are poorly accessible and deep in relation to the surrounding grid. Segregated pathways typically are dead ends or elements in treelike grids; one thinks, for example, of the “cul-de-sac and loop” pattern of low-density, automobile-dependent suburbs, or the hierarchical circulation layouts of modernist housing estates.


To measure and map the relative integration of all pathways in a particular pathway system, Hillier develops a quantitative procedure that he calls measure of integration (Hillier and Hanson 1984, pp. 108-09). One product of this procedure is an integration map like the one for Gassin in figure 7, which summarizes the integration values for all pathways in the village. The streets marked by solid lines depict the village's integration core—those streets that have many other streets feeding into them. These streets have the most chance for being alive with street activity, public life, and commerce. In contrast, the hatched lines identify Gassin's segrega­tion core—the streets that deflect activity away from themselves and therefore indicate pockets of quiet and seclusion that are typically residential in character.7

Figure 10. Gassin’s “deformed wheel.” Note that the streets of potentially greatest movement are marked by the solid lines, whose shape roughly suggests a wheel with hub and spokes. In contrast, the hatched lines indicate streets of potentially less movement; overall, they are located in between the more active streets (from Hillier and Hanson 1984, p. 117; copyright 1984 by Cambridge University Press and used with permission).


Hillier next asks if these lines of greater and lesser integration indicate some deeper topological structure underlying the settlement as a whole. In fact, after studying the integration and segregation cores of many settlements, both Western and non-Western, Hillier concludes that such a larger global structure exists, which he calls the deformed wheel. The rim, spokes and hub of this wheel are the pathways with high integration values (in figure 7, the solid lines). Typically, these streets are the most used by settlement’s residents and are also the main entry routes and therefore used by strang­ers—for example, a farmer bringing his produce to weekly market or tourists exploring the settlement. Also, most of the largest convex spaces and location-dependent uses, like shops, are on the most integrated streets of the deformed wheel, since these streets are the places of greatest movement.


In the interstices between the most active streets are the most segregated, less used pathways (in figure 7, the hatched lines). Hillier concludes that, for many traditional settlements, the most active areas abut the quietest areas: the places of street life, publicness, and strangers' mixing with residents are a short distance from the more private areas used mostly by residents only. Movement and rest, activity and place, journey and dwelling, difference and locality, publicness and home, lie apart yet togeth­er! Hillier explains:


          By linking the interior of the settlement to the periphery in several directions—and always in the direction of the main entrances to the settlement and the neighboring towns—the effect of the integrated lines is to access the central areas of the town from outside, while at the same time keeping the core lines close to the segregated areas, in effect linking them together. Since the core lines are those that are most used by people, and also those on which most space-dependent facilities like shops are located, and the segregated areas are primarily residential, the effect of the core is to structure the path of strangers through the settle­ment, while at the same time keeping them in a close interface with inhabitants moving about inside the town. The structure of the core not only accesses strangers into the interior of the town, but also ensures that they are in a constant probabilistic interface with moving inhabitants (Hillier, 1989, p. 11).


In regard to cities, Hillier demonstrates that most urban pathway systems have traditionally been an integrated fabric of smaller deformed wheels (usually associated with designated neighborhoods and districts—for example, London’s Soho, Bloomsbury, or City), whose most integrated pathways join together to shape a much larger deformed grid that founds the dynamic of natural movement for the city as a whole (Hillier 1996, chap. 4). “[E]ach local area,” explains Hillier (ibid., p. 171), “has its heart linked to the supergrid lines that surround it by strong integrators. These form an edge-to-centre structure in all directions, and the less-integrated areas are within the interstices formed by the structure….” Hillier is highly critical of most twentieth-century urban design and planning because it often eviscerated this relationship between local and global integration by replacing integrated pathway configurations with treelike systems of segregated pathways. The long-term result is that these “spatial designs create serious lacunas in natural movement,” which in turn undermines the informal sociability of streets and neighborhoods and may in time attract “anti-social uses and behaviours”—for example, unsafe streets and higher crime rates, particularly in the mazelike pathway systems of many public housing projects (ibid., p. 178).



In his theory of space syntax, Hillier appears to provide incontrovertible evidence that pathway structure plays a major role in establishing the kind of place that a settlement becomes. Specifically, he identifies the particular kind of pathway configuration required to foster lively streets and the informal public encounters and sociability that make cities such effective places of contact and exchange (Hillier 1996, p. 174). 8


If Hillier’s conclusion is true, it points toward two revolutionary possibili­ties for understanding and designing cities: first, that urban designers must deal with space before they deal with form; second, that in dealing with space, urban designers must under­stand the city's global configuration as it is and can be rendered through the configuration of axial spaces and variations in integration. Hillier emphasizes that if urban designers ignore the city’s spatial configuration and resulting natural movement, they risk “eliminating all the properties of density, good spatial scale, controlled juxtaposition of uses, continuity, and integration of the urban grid on which the well-ordering and well-functioning of the city depends” (ibid., p. 179).


From this perspective, Hillier would be highly critical of Alexander’s approach to urban design. He would claim that, ironically, Alexander’s urban theory is piecemeal. Because it ignores the integrative power of pathways, the global whole is reduced to its local parts.9 For sure, Alexander envisions the city as an organic whole of rightly placed, interrelated parts: “Every increment of construction must be made in such a way as to heal the city” (Alexander 1987, p. 22). In practice, however, Alexander’s seven rules unintentionally reduce the interconnectedness of urban place to buildable parts—in the San Francisco project, for example, the entry gateway, the pedestrian mall, the hotel, or main square. Alexander’s urban vision holds no inkling of the deformed grid and its potential to energize the city’s parts through a permeable, integrated pathway system. Without this awareness, Alexander does not have available the primary engine for the organic wholeness he so sincerely hopes to create.


This lack of global interconnectedness is seen in the San Francisco waterfront design. Though there is much about the project to praise, its major failing is a poorly envisioned street grid that inhibits local interconnections and movement and provides no clear pathway commingling with the street fabric of the larger city. In his evaluation of the project at the end of New Theory, Alexander is aware of this weakness: “[T]he large-scale structure is not as profound as we wanted it to be. Although the general disposition of the main square, mall, small grid, and so on, is quite nice, and is suitably informal, it does not yet have the profound unity of a place like Amsterdam or Venice” (ibid., pp. 234-35). 10


The larger problem here may well be Alexander’s concept of centers, which, by their very nature, involve focused intensity and are thus much more local than global in their conception and effects. No doubt, the weblike structure of the deformed grid is a kind of center than contains within its mesh smaller, interconnected centers that identify a city’s functioning neighborhoods and districts. The key point is that the deformed grid is global, citywide, and thus whole in its manifestation and results. If Hillier is correct, any theory of urban design must begin at the city’s global scale, carefully studying pathway configuration. This understanding then becomes the starting point for determining how a particular district, through new and existing pathway connections, might gain, through natural movement, a vital relationship with the integration fabric of the larger urban whole. As it stands, Alexander’s urban theory does not have the means to identify or actualize the underlying, integrative power of the deformed grid.11



Does its global weakness mean that Alexander’s theory of urban design is a failure? In fact, Alexander admits in the introduction to New Theory that his approach is “full of holes and incomplete” (Alexander 1987, p. 2). He also recognizes, however, that process rather than form is the heart of wholeness and that “if we create a suitable process there is some hope that the city might become whole once again. If we do not change the process there is not hope at all” (ibid., p. 3).


Alexander believes that, by regularly having to consider how a particular design part connects to the larger urban fabric, participants will be able to envision projects that both contribute to and speak for the whole. Within the limits imposed by the abilities of participants, each of the design parts presents the whole just as, simultaneously, the whole is present in each of the parts. This approach is extremely uncertain, however, and its central danger has been called the "hazard of emergence":


A part is only a part according to the emergence of the whole that it serves; otherwise it is mere noise. At the same time, the whole does not dominate, for the whole cannot emerge without the parts. The hazard of emergence is such that the whole depends on the parts to be able to come forth, and the parts depend on the coming forth of the whole to be significant instead of superficial. The recognition of a part is possible only through the “coming to presence” of the whole (Bortoft 1985, p. 287; also see Bortoft 1996).


Alexander's great contribution, not only to urban design but to environmental thinking in general, is to seek ways to bring to presence a built world that will enable and ennoble human worlds. On one hand, there can be no real architectural and environmental whole if the vision of that whole dominates, and the parts them­selves are forced into place. On the other hand, the parts are only valuable if they all have their proper place and can be together in a way that is real and non-arbitrary. There is a possibility of genuine belonging.


This idea of genuine belonging is the region of confluence between Alexander’s ideas and those of Hillier and Kemmis. Like Alexander, Hillier and Kemmis interpret the city as its parts belong and have a place. Alexander holds the most utopian hope in the sense that he believes, through correct understanding and practice, we might intentionally recreate the lively urban places and dynamic neighborhood street life that unfolded in earlier cities mostly with no directed effort at all. In spite of its deficiencies, Alexander’s theory is powerful exactly because it attempts to incorporate all aspects of the process of making vital places. Through his vision of wholeness and healing, he hopes to transform failing urban districts, using as a means his seven rules and a constructive dialogue among all parties involved.


As Hillier’s discoveries demonstrate, Alexander’s process of urban design must incorporate a more accurate understanding of how existing "good cities" work, particularly their less obvious global structure. Hillier helps us to see that the city is often fractured today exactly because the wholeness of its pathway fabric has been disrupted. Alexander’s approach, particularly through a deeper formulation of centers and a revised set of rules incorporating the idea of pathway configuration, should be able to accommodate Hillier’s insights. Without this revision, Alexander’s approach

will continue to fail because, in its current format, it assumes a localist approach to place in which the relationship to larger global structure is incompletely understood.12


In turn, Kemmis’s work is important to Alexander’s vision because he unravels a practical middle way whereby citizens, putting their place first, might set aside differences and become involved in the much broader intentional process that Alexander works to construct. In this sense, Kemmis marks the start of a phenomenology of the way by which individuals and groups come together to envision and make the “good city.” Such interpersonal and inter-group dialogue is crucial if Alexander’s approach is to generate a working relationship between participants in the urban-design process and any rules that guide that process.


Ultimately, Alexander, Hillier, and Kemmis all aim to facilitate an environmental and place wholeness, whereby the city is an interconnected mesh of vital neighborhoods and districts. Hillier gets us to see that the heart of urban liveliness is an integrated pathway fabric, while Kemmis gets us to see that urban liveliness can ignite citizen involvement and a virtuous circle of more and more wholeness. In its comprehensiveness, Alexander’s vision holds a place for the ideas of both Hillier and Kemmis and points toward an integrated theory and practice that might transform urban placelessness into lived places of exuberance (Adams 2001; Murrain 1993; Relph 1976, 2001).



At Clark University in the 1970s, we only dimly understood how the physical and spatial aspects of the urban lifeworld contribute to its liveliness, community, and a sense of place. We knew, phenomenologically, that the habitual body’s expression of routines in time and space contributed to the possibility of place regularity (Buttimer 1976, 1980; Seamon 1979, 2002; Seamon and Nordin 1980), but we had no clear understanding of the ways the intimate dialogue between physical and human worlds could facilitate or inhibit lived place. Nor did we give attention to how citizens and policy makers might come together to decide fruitful planning and design for their place.


In this sense, the works of Alexander, Hillier, and Kemmis are pivotal for remaking place in the city and for extending in unimagined but crucial ways the work on urban lifeworlds begun by Buttimer and her students at Clark in the 1970s. When coupled together, the ideas of Alexander, Hillier, and Kemmis offer fresh insights into Buttimer’s Clark legacy and provide a remarkable vision for recreating, through intentional design and generous participation, robust urban places.



1. Several of Alexander’s works include other contributors. Because Alexander is the principal author, I use his name as the citation, but all contributors are listed in the reference entry.


2. Kemmis examines the political basis for this argument in his earlier Community and the Politics of Place, which argues for "a politics which rests upon a mutual recognition by diverse interests that they are bound to each other by their common attachment to a place" (Kemmis, 1990, p. 123; also see Kemmis 2001).


3. In studying the seven rules carefully, one notes that they have two related functions: first, rules 1, 2 and 7 help the designer to recognize and understand environmental wholes; second, rules 3, 4, 5, and 6 help to create new parts in the whole that should lead to healing and a stronger environmental order.


4. On the theme of belonging, see Bortoft 1985, 1996; Seamon 1990a, 1993a.


5. This is not to imply that Alexander is oblivious to the many deeper structural changes required socially, economically, and politically for his design approach to actually work in the real world. In fact, he has discussed this need for major societal changes in a number of writings—e.g., see Alexander 1985, chaps. 3 and 4; and Alexander 1987, pp. 239-42.


6. Interestingly, Alexander points out that this unspoken agreement between students and committee became stronger as the students had more experience with the rules: "in the last stages of development, the students were able to function almost entirely without guidance from the committee, since the rules had been completely absorbed and understood" (Alexander 1987, p. 110).


7. Eventually, the question must be asked if in fact the pathways indicated by the integration measure as being potentially most used, actually are. To answer this question, Hillier and his research team counted pedestrian volume on pathways and compared the rate with the pathways’ integration values. These studies have shown that spatial integration is a good predictor of movement, in the sense that highly integrated spaces are typically more used for movement than spaces that are weakly integrated (see Hillier 1996, p. 161; Hillier et al. 1993, pp. 29-66; Marcus 2000 p. 109-111; Read 1999, pp. 251-264).


8. Hillier provides an effective argument for claiming that “movement in the urban grid is, other things being equal, generated by the configuration of the grid itself” (Hillier 1996, p. 5 and pp. 167-70). He convincingly demonstrates that the grid presupposes other elements like placement of functions, land uses, and densities: “the structuring of movement by the grid leads, through multiplier effects, to dense patterns of mixed use encounter that characterize the spatially successful city” (ibid., p. 6).


9. In his most recent work, Alexander (2003, p. 417) briefly discusses Hillier’s ideas, explaining how they demonstrate that “it is not really possible to keep function and space separate.” Unfortunately, Alexander seems to miss Hillier’s much more important point that global structure presupposes and animates local parts.


10. In his most recent work, Alexander (2003, chap. 5) identifies fifteen properties of centers and attempts to move beyond the piecemeal criticism by incorporating more integrative qualities like “levels of scale,” “deep interlock and ambiguity,” and “gradients” Even so, one still worries that he continues to emphasize the parts of the whole at the expense of  its underlying degree of global interconnectedness (Hillier’s relative integration).  As a means to understand art works, decorative objects, and the formal properties of architecture, Alexander’s emphasis on local qualities of wholeness provides helpful insights because these things are more or less independent physical entities that do not house human lifeworlds. On the other hand, the fifteen properties cast an incomplete understanding when one applies them to the larger-scale environmental fabric within which the lifeworlds of real human beings actually unfold.


11. An exceptional effort to develop a simple but effective way for urban designers to incorporate pathway integration and permeability is illustrated in Bentley et al., 1985. This work draws indirectly on Alexander’s “pattern language” format and therefore also offers a useful indication of how Alexander and Hillier’s vision of the city might be integrated.


12. Because of their localist emphasis, Hillier is strongly critical of most current scholarly and design efforts emphasizing “place.” He levels his harshest criticism again Oscar Newman’s theory of “defensible space” (Newman 1973, 1980) but no doubt he would also criticize phenomenological research as well as other place-grounded designs like architect Andres Duany’s “new urbanism.” Hillier writes: “The current preoccupation with ‘place’ seems no more than the most recent version of the urban designer’s preference for the local and apparently tractable at the expense of the global and intractable in cities…. Places are not local things. They are moments in large-scale things, the large-scale things we call cities. Places do not make cities. It is cities that make places. The distinction is vital. We cannot make places without understanding cities” (Hillier 1996, p. 151).



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Table 1. Christopher Alexander’s Seven Rules for Urban Design (from Alexander 1987, chap. 3; copyright 1987 by Christopher Alexander and used with permission).


Figure 1. San Francisco waterfront site to be developed (from Alexander 1987, p. 105; copyright 1987 by Christopher Alexander and used with permission).


Figure 2. Photograph of a wooden model of the San Francisco waterfront project after eighty-nine projects (from Alexander 1987, p. 107; copyright 1987 by Christopher Alexander and used with permission).


Figure 3. The San Francisco waterfront site after completion of five projects. Note how the first project—the entry gate—suggests a larger whole—a street and pedestrian mall directed south toward the center of the site (from Alexander 1987, p. 41; copyright 1987 by Christopher Alexander and used with permission).


Figure 4. The French village of Gassin (from Hillier and Hanson 1984, p. 90; copyright 1984 by Cambridge University Press and used with permission).


Figure 5. Gassin’s convex map (from Hillier and Hanson 1984, p. 92; copyright 1984 by Cambridge University Press and used with permission).


Figure 6. Gassin’s axial map (from Hillier and Hanson 1984, p. 91; copyright 1984 by Cambridge University Press and used with permission).


Figure 7. Gassin’s “deformed wheel.” The streets of potentially greatest movement are marked by the solid lines, whose shape roughly suggests a wheel with hub and spokes. In contrast, the hatched lines indicate streets of potentially less movement; overall, they are located in between the more active streets (from Hillier and Hanson 1984, p. 117; copyright 1984 by Cambridge University Press and used with permission).




David Seamon was a doctoral student at Clark University in the 1970s under Anne Buttimer’s direction. His dissertation was published as A Geography of the Lifeworld (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979). Today he is a Professor of Architecture at Kansas State University. His teaching and research emphasize a phenomenological approach to place, architecture, environmental experience, and environmental design as place making. He has edited or co-edited Dwelling, Place and Environment: Toward a Phenomenology of Person and World (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989); Dwelling, Seeing, and Designing: Toward a Phenomenological Ecology (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1993); and Goethe’s Way of Science: A Phenomenology of Nature (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1998). He is editor of the Environmental and Architectural Phenomenology Newsletter.