1 Creation

Buildings in Barcelona Spain
Barcelona, Spain. Image courtesy of Author.

1. Human settlements are the product of different forces and serve to satisfy the human needs of inhabitants and others.

Settlements are born from human needs. Satisfying core physical needs—such as access to clean water, air, food and physical safety (Law 3)—are critical starting points. However, given that settlements also facilitate human interactions, they are created to accommodate and formalize collective values, desires and requirements. In the words of Kevin Lynch, “The form of a settlement is always willed and valued, but its complexity and its inertia frequently obscure those connections” (Lynch, 1984, p. 36).

Lynch’s quote speaks well to the complex, diverse forces and needs that give birth to settlements, and one of the most obvious forces revolves around the natural context (Laws 3132). In the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Guns Germs and Steel, for example, Jared Diamond shows how geography and conditions that were favourable to agriculture led to the birth of a number of civilizations and their respective settlements. These civilizations, in turn, created technologies, social institutions, immunities to diseases and other cultural phenomena that led to certain societies overtaking others.

Economic forces, such as trade, are also clear drivers in the creation and development of settlements. For example, if a number of towns require a large market centre to serve them, a settlement may be created in an area that best suits this purpose. Trade, moreover, is often associated with access and transportation, with the birth of countless historical settlements occurring at the intersection of major roads and along trade routes, such as the Silk Road.

History is also filled with examples of settlements created by other forces: military, religious, administrative, and/or cosmological forces, to name just a few more. This brings to mind William Morrish’s poetic verbal and visual description of how earth and mountain “evoked powerful spiritual and civic actions resulting in the inauguration of the basic formal and spatial framework of an urban terrain; cities which grow from landform” (Morrish, 2005, p. i).

Regardless of what forces are driving the creation of settlements, however, the fact remains that all aspects of settlements are steered by human needs and desires. This law is summarized well in Janet Abu-Lughod’s “The Islamic City”: “Cities are the products of many forces, and the forms that evolve in response to these forces are unique to the combination of those forces” (Abu-Lughod, 1987, p. 162).

FURTHER READING (full citations found in reference list):

  • Constantino DoxiadisEkistics: An Introduction to the Science of Human Settlements
  • Kevin LynchGood City Form
  • Jared DiamondGuns Germs and Steel
  • Anthony E.J. MorrisHistory of Urban Form: Before the Industrial Revolution
  • Paul KnoxAtlas of Cities
  • William Rees MorrishCivilizing Terrains: Mountains, Mounds and Mesas
  • Darran AndersonImaginary Cities
  • Besim Selim HakimArabic-Islamic Cities
  • Janet Abu-Lughod, “The Islamic City: Historic Myths, Islamic Essence, and Contemporary Relevance” from International Journal of Middle East Studies (1987)
  • Jonathan F. P. RoseThe Well-Tempered City

2. Once created, unforeseen functions and needs must be satisfied, over and above initial ones. These grow with the development of the settlement.

As outlined in (Law 1), settlements are created around specific needs and desires. As time passes, however, they evolve to develop other unexpected functions and purposes that supplement the originals—sometimes overtaking them entirely. Like the initial needs themselves, new potential functions are extremely diverse. The development of industrial, technological, administrative and/or cultural roles are some of the more common.

As populations grow, original and unpredicted functions become fodder for the further development of complexity and diversity of needs (Law 4). This, in turn, increases the chances that early purposes will be replaced, and affect the rate at which this occurs. Such is the case with the many cities, villages and towns founded by the Roman Empire that are thriving today, including Barcelona, Istanbul and Vienna.

It’s important to note that, although it is often believed that growth and increasing complexity are a positive attribute of settlements, these same forces can bring with them the seeds of destruction. Joseph Tainter’s central argument in his seminal work The Collapse of Complex Societies, for example, describes various instances—from the Western Roman Empire to the Maya—where increased complexity carried with it “increased costs per capita” (Tainter, 1988, p. 93) that ultimately reach a point of decreasing returns. Tainter’s insight that “Complex societies historically are vulnerable to collapse…” (Tainter, p.  209) is worth pondering now more than ever before, given the rate of change and transformation at all levels of society.

FURTHER READING (full citations found in reference list):

  • Constantino DoxiadisEkistics: An Introduction to the Science of Human Settlements
  • Anthony E.J. MorrisHistory of Urban Form: Before the Industrial Revolution
  • Paul KnoxAtlas of Cities
  • Joseph TainterThe Collapse of Complex Societies

3. The goal of settlements is to satisfy the needs and desires of its inhabitants, particularly those related to happiness and core physical needs, such as clean water and safety.

Satisfying core physical needs—such as access to clean air, water, food, and protection from harm—are known to be the foundations of all settlements. In fact, some of the largest building feats in history have revolved around the latter, from the Roman aqueducts to the Three Gorges Dam, the Great Wall of China to the Hollandic Water Lines.

At a smaller scale, fortified and walled settlements are central figures in history, appearing in the earliest known permanent built environments. The “old walled city”, for example, is one of the three basic parts of the Mesopotamian city-state of Ur as described by Anthony Morris in his comprehensive History of Urban Form: Before the Industrial Revolution. Although defensive walls have disappeared from many contemporary settlements, issues of safety remain at the forefront, be it through policing, CCTV surveillance cameras or the creation of “defensible space” neighbourhoods.

In Good City Form, Kevin Lynch defines the core needs he believes are required for a good living environment, grouping them within what he calls “Vitality”. Individually, the components of the latter are “Sustenance” (adequate supply of food, energy, water, etc.), “Safety” (an environment that minimizes physical harm, disease, poisons, etc.) and “Consonance” (optimizing sensory input in keeping with natural rhythms, etc.). These core needs, he argues, are the essential building blocks of sustaining human life and necessarily contribute to human happiness.

Discussions around happiness have been ongoing for millennia. As captured by Aristotle’s often repeated statement “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence,” the issue has been central to the development of different societies across time around the globe. Similarly, scholarship and discussion around the relationship between settlements and happiness have been continuous.

Recent developments in the understanding of happiness and research into cities have coalesced into a better understanding of the relationship between settlements and their effects on one’s psychological well-being. That the design of settlements strongly influences the moods and behaviours of their inhabitants is not necessarily new, but its grounding in research has grown drastically in recent decades, with popular books such as Charles Montgomery’s Happy City forging a clear path on the issue.

Although one may argue the specific elements of the built environment that create ‘happiness’, Montgomery defines it broadly to include Core Needs among Joy, Health, Equity, Ease, Meaning & Belonging, Sociability and Resilience—each of which, he believes, can and should be manifested in the design of the built environment.

FURTHER READING (full citations found in reference list):

  • Constantino DoxiadisEkistics: An Introduction to the Science of Human Settlements
  • Clemens Steenbergen, Johan van der Zwart and Joost GrootensAtlas of the New Dutch Water Defence Line
  • Anthony E.J. MorrisHistory of Urban Form: Before the Industrial Revolution
  • Oscar NewmanDefensible Space
  • Kevin LynchGood City Form
  • Charles MontgomeryHappy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design

4. Fulfilling the needs of those who live in settlements extend beyond core physical needs to social, political, economic and cultural spheres of life.

The success and survival of settlements over time depend on moving beyond basic physical needs to provide meaning and purpose. As introduced in Law 3, Charles Montgomery’s ‘Elements of Happiness’—based on the comprehensive research in Happy City—are helpful here and include Core Needs, Joy, Health, Equity, Ease, Meaning & Belonging, Sociability and Resilience. It is evident that these elements cut across social, political, economic and cultural spheres of life.

With this in mind, Doxiadis puts forth the idea that the survival of settlements over time requires a dynamic balance (Law 2122) across these components. It is important to note that he defines balance as a range within tolerable limits and not a definitive target. Furthermore, he argues that a failure to achieve this balance creates instability within the system and conditions that can lead to the death of a settlement.

Although this law highlights a number of important factors, one of the most significant is the fallacy of claiming the significance of a single sphere over others. In the contemporary world, it is common to judge and plan settlements according to economic indicators and measures alone. As a single facet of a complex set of human needs to be met, Doxiadis would argue that this approach is insufficient.

FURTHER READING (full citations found in reference list):

  • Constantino DoxiadisEkistics: An Introduction to the Science of Human Settlements
  • Charles MontgomeryHappy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design

5. Human settlements are created and maintained by their inhabitants.

It is clear that the initial creation of settlements can be, and have been, created by external agents—be it institutions or governments. It is also evident that the labour behind the initial physical construction of a human settlement is not necessarily done by those who live in them—the largely transient labour market that serves as the foundation of China’s recent rapid development is a strong contemporary example. However, this law states that the long-term success and survival of settled landscapes correspond to those who are willing to dwell in and maintain them over time, both economically and physically.

One of the most influential writers of the past century on the subject was Jane Jacobs, who described the subtle and ‘complex order’ between city inhabitants and their built environments. Her keen observations within The Death and Life of Great American Cities about store owners who maintained the life of the street socially and physically clearly demonstrates this at the smaller scale of inhabitation. This is echoed in her often repeated quote: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody. (Jacobs, 1989, p. 238).

Allan B. Jacobs’ wonderful ‘visual diagnoses’ described within Looking at Cities elaborates on Jane Jacobs’ sensibilities, speaking to issues around the maintenance of buildings and their implications as potential indicators of social change in an area. Unlike Jane Jacobs, however, he is interested in what these physical changes mean and the ties between the social, economic and physical fabric of urban settlements.

In How Building Learn, Stewart Brand addresses this issue from yet another angle, introducing the idea that different elements of the built environment that relate to different scales—“Stuff”, “Space Plan”, “Services”, “Skin”, “Structure” and “Site”—change at different rates. Accordingly, each element is affected, transformed and maintained by different agents based on their complexity and scale. Thus, furniture—or “Stuff”—is typically used and maintained directly by its users, while “Site” (legally defined lots and boundaries) is affected by a different series of agents.

This is related to issues of control and controlling agents, a topic N.J. Habraken’s Structure of the Ordinary addresses well. In his words: “Whenever physical parts are introduced, displaced, or removed from a site, some controlling agent—a person, group of persons, organization or institution—is revealed. Control thus defines the central operational relationship between humans and all matter that is the stuff of the built environment. As dynamic patterns of change echo throughout the built environment, they reveal the structure of control. In light of the built environment’s organic patterns of growth and change, and the transformational ‘behavior’ of its forms, it appears to act very much as a living whole” (Habraken, 2000, p. 8).

Despite the different approaches and focuses of each author, the fact that inhabitants continuously create and maintain their respective settlements is explicitly stated or readily assumed to be evident. We all partake in this process every day.

FURTHER READING (full citations found in reference list):

  • Constantino DoxiadisEkistics: An Introduction to the Science of Human Settlements
  • Rem KoolhaasGSD Project on the City I – Great Leap Forward
  • Jane JacobsThe Death and Life of Great American Cities
  • Allan B. JacobsLooking At Cities
  • Stewart BrandHow Building Learn: What Happens After They’re Built
  • N.J. Habraken Structure of The Ordinary

6. Settlements are created only when they are needed and live only as long as they are needed—that is, as long as they are satisfying the needs of the forces placed upon them.

Given that human settlements are created to fulfill the needs of their inhabitants and the diverse forces acting on them (Laws 1, 2, 3, 4), it’s clear that once those needs are no longer satisfied, the settlement can be vacated and/or destroyed. As discussed in Laws 34, the needs to be met cut across physical, social, political, economic and cultural spheres. Instability within, or across, any of these can lead to the desolation and/or elimination of a settlement. The many resource-based ‘ghost towns’ around the world that are vacated after resources are depleted are an explicit example of this process.

The Goggles’ award-winning Welcome to Pine Point web documentary that explores the erasure of the former mining town of Pine Point in the Northwest Territories of Canada, speaks particularly well to the impacts of this process and how human lives are affected.

FURTHER READING (full citations found in reference list):


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