Complicated, not complex

As former Bacon’s Rebellion contributor EM Risse likes to say, urban planning isn’t rocket science — it’s a lot more complex. Ed’s quip came to mind when reading the latest post by Charles Marohn on the Strong Towns blog. The thrust of Chuck’s post is that local government leaders act as if towns, cities and counties are complicated systems — similar to a Swiss watch with a lot of moving parts that interact in a complicated but an ordered and predictable way. But local governments and the economies and societies in which they are embedded are complex systems. The various parts interact with often ill-understood feedback loops. Complex systems have emergent properties. Local government actions often have unpredictable results. It’s an important essay. I urge you to read it.

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3 responses to “Must Read of the Day: Complex Cities”

  1. larryg Avatar

    I am off to read the post but initially, I find the thought cycle to be dead on…

    cities (and even full-service towns) are complex critters that are – at the same time expensive but cost-effective on a per-capita basis.

    but this part: ” But local governments and the economies and societies in which they are embedded are complex systems” .. I hope to get more insight from the article because it gets into the whole realm of why cities and towns are where they are – geographically – why those locations… and are the things that caused them to become what they are – still present?

    Further – what is the role of the State and Federal government on maintaining and sustaining towns and cities?

    I miss Ed Risse – but those core confusing words just whacked me up one side and down the other..!!!


  2. larryg Avatar

    Okay.. so I went and read the Complex Cities article…

    and ” But complicated is different than complex. A Swiss watch is complicated – there are lots of moving parts that interact with each other in a very complicated way – but it is not complex. A complex system has an entirely different set of characteristics.”

    Respectfully – I think the distinction between complex and complicated is in the eyes of the beholder – especially when it comes to cities.

    there is no perfect recipe for cities but we know that water/sewer/electricity/communications/storm water/mobility/etc are fundamental. Any property that is lacking in these basic things is not going to function in as efficient and productive way as those properties that have those things.

    People take water/sewer for granted but water and sewer are not only complicated but complex, I would assert – because … even though we’re talking about an engineered, “built” environment – it’s totally reliant on geography and terrain – which is unique to each city.

    When people ooh and awe over Lombardy street in San Francisco, no one is apparently wondering how in the world sewer works on that kind of a grade or for that matter where the wastewater treatment plant should be – which is a critical thing .. because anything downstream of that plant usually does not get sewer service … water… with poop in it – does not flow uphill.. it flows downhill… thus most cities have clear boundaries – where downstream and upstream do meet and do determine what properties have sewer and which do not.

    the average person thinks not of this at all. the average city leader does not. But the folks who develop property know.. on one very important level – and that is, properties than cannot be served by water/sewer are “not” city or town.. but “outside” of city/town.

    The schema for water/sewer for a given city is an amazing critter… it’s largely based on terrain and the fundamental precept that water flows downhill and pump-stations though a reality are not good solutions.

    so my question is – is water/sewer … complicated or complex? or both?

    and bonus question – does it really matter in the end?

  3. Thanks for sharing this, Jim.

    On the question, is sewer/water complicated or complex….

    I think you are missing the point. A sewer system is complicated. The decision on where to put it and when is complex.

    Cities get more into the complicated realm of business — where they do really, really well — when they limit themselves to logical actions that follow the market and are non-speculative. For example, agreeing to provide sewer service to a development where the tax base and fees clearly exceed the cost of service is a logical move.

    Cities get out of complicated and start to get into the 4th quadrant area of complexity when they start putting in utilities to attract development, a build-it-and-they-will-come type of approach. To a lesser extent, they also get here when they assume obligations that are not financially viable as they then distort their own market, to unknown and complex ends.

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