4 Laws of Internal Balance

A street in Panama City
Panama City, Panama. Courtesy of Murielle Faifman.

21. The elements in each part of a settlement tend toward balance.

This combines two of Doxiadis’ original laws, each of which is intimately interconnected. As noted in Law 5, all the elements inherent to a settlement—those cutting across physical, social, political, economic and cultural spheres of life—require being in ‘balance’ in order for the settlement to survive. This balance sits within a range that each settlement strives to stay within.

Doxiadis cites the example of a settlement whose rapid growth spurs the development of shelters to house the incoming population. If the creation of shelters is done within a ‘reasonable’ time frame, the settlement remains orderly and stable. If, on the other hand, it does not respond quickly enough to the forces exerted, instability and disorder can result. Jared Diamond described such cases in Collapse where societal decline resulted from an inability to effectively manage environmental resources relative to the demands of the population.

At the end of the day, a settlement only performs well when balance exists. However, the balance must exist across all scales (Law 0) to ultimately be effective. According to Doxiadis, those scales that do not achieve this balance will need renewal and/or development.

FURTHER READING (full citations found in reference list):

  • Constantino DoxiadisEkistics: An Introduction to the Science of Human Settlements
  • Jared DiamondCollapse
  • Joseph TainterThe Collapse of Complex Societies


22. The balance among the elements of a settlement is dynamic balance.

Building on the fact that the development of a settlement is a continuous process (Law 7), the balance that must be maintained between elements is dynamic in nature. A settlement must respond to the changing forces being exerted on them at any given time, towards gaining some form of balance (Law 21), unless it is hindered artificially.

An increasing and diversifying population, requires more differentiated housing, institutions, facilities, and functions, for example. In the absence of a more formal, ‘official’ means of supplying the latter, informal structures and settlements tend to develop. This process is well described by many well-known authors, such as Mike Davis and Stephen Graham.

Critical to the discussion of this principle is the idea of homeostasis—the condition that describes, “a relatively stable state of equilibrium or a tendency toward such a state between the different but interdependent elements or groups of elements of an organism, population, or group” (Merriam-Webster, 2020).

Referring to the “organic model” of settlement form—one of the three normative models put forth in Good City Form—Kevin Lynch describes the connection between homeostasis and settlement as developing from applying the insights in ecology and biology to the built world. Those who go by this model believe that settlements “…are born and come to maturity, like organisms. (Unlike organisms, however, they should not die) Functions are rhythmic, and the healthy community is stable by virtue of maintaining its dynamic, homeostatic balance. Societies and resources are permanently conserved by this uninterrupted cycling and balancing” (Lynch, 1981, p. 91). Lynch also offers a sharp critique of this model, within the book.

FURTHER READING (full citations found in reference list):

  • Constantino DoxiadisEkistics: An Introduction to the Science of Human Settlements
  • Jared DiamondCollapse
  • Joseph TainterThe Collapse of Complex Societies
  • Mike DavisPlanet of Slums
  • Stephen GrahamVertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers
  • Kevin LynchGood City Form

 23. The balance of the elements is expressed in different ways in each phase of the creation and evolution of a settlement.

As with any dynamic and complex system, the elements and forces exerted on settlements vary with each stage of its development. At the early stages, for example, issues pertaining to the direct manipulation of its landscape and natural setting are paramount: cutting trees, manipulating watercourses, leveling topography, to name just a few, are a top priority. As time passes, buildings must be suitably built—starting out as more temporary, then often developing into more permanent fixtures. This process is ongoing.

Recent decades have seen the development of more sophisticated tools and technologies of design, construction, and destruction. These, in turn, have changed the rate at which development occurs. As a result, the phases of settlement seem to have quickened, with some cities being built seemingly overnight. Thomas J. Campanella’s The Concrete Dragon, thoroughly describes this process in China. As does Rem Koolhaas’ GSD Project on the City II – Great Leap Forward.

Regardless of speed, however, human settlements continue to evolve as new elements and forces in need of continuous stabilization are exerted on it.

FURTHER READING (full citations found in reference list):

  • Constantino DoxiadisEkistics: An Introduction to the Science of Human Settlements
  • Thomas J. CampanellaThe Concrete Dragon: China’s Urban Revolution and What it Means for the World


24. The balance between the elements is expressed differently at each scale of a settlement, while each scale interacts dynamically with others.

Settlements are in a constant state of dynamic change, continuously adapted by its inhabitants in response to the forces being exerted upon it (Law 22). As described in Law 21 and 23, settlements also tend towards achieving equilibrium across interacting scales (Law 0). As such, balance is expressed differently across scales.

Thus, if balance is to be achieved at a scale that is controlled at the individual level—say, the scale of a room or house—it would be expressed very differently than one where larger groups of people are involved—such as highway traffic.

Making things more complex, the forces exerted on settlements that must find resolution often cut across interacting scales. Transportation is particularly relevant to this issue since it touches a variety of scales across time, speed and distance—from walking down the street to regional access. This, in turn, has very physical and tangible effects on issues such as street widths and public realm design. Jarrett Walker’s wonderfully accessible book, Human Transit, speaks well to this issue of balance and scalar solutions related to public transit.

This idea also forms the basis of many important books and ideas—including Christopher Alexander, Ian McHarg, Jane Jacobs and Renee Chow to N.J. Habraken, Jan Gehl, Edmund Bacon, and Wenche Dramstad—each of which adds a voice around problems and solutions to human settlement at different scales. In real terms, one can strongly argue that this law exemplifies the ultimate problem of settlements: balancing solutions unique to specific scales with a keen understanding of how they will affect the greater system.

FURTHER READING (full citations found in reference list):

  • Constantino DoxiadisEkistics: An Introduction to the Science of Human Settlements
  • Jarrett WalkerHuman Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives
  • Christopher AlexanderA Pattern Language
  • Ian McHargDesign With Nature
  • Jane JacobsThe Death and Life of Great American Cities
  • Renee ChowSuburban Space
  • N.J. HabrakenStructure of The Ordinary
  • Jan GehlCities for People
  • Edmond BaconDesign of Cities
  • Dramstad/Olson,/FormanLandscape Ecology Principles in Landscape Architecture and Land-Use Planning


25. Across all scales of settlement, achieving balance within the range of the human scale is critically important for its long-term success. This scale corresponds to the extents of one’s control, as well as the body and senses—roughly a ten-minute walking distance.

In the wake of the growing popularity of Transit-Oriented Development, the significance of the ten-minute walking distance has become very well known. So, perhaps it may come as a surprise to many that Doxiadis stated it almost half a century ago. It is worth noting that I slightly altered this law, as Doxiadis elevated the human scale as the most important scale within which to achieve balance. But in light of the many contemporary settlements that have thrived despite a blatant disregard to “the human scale”, I chose to lower its importance slightly.

After decades of neglect, the human scale has risen as one of the most significant motivations behind transforming settlements, however. So, one could argue that Doxiadis’ original sentiments on the issue are more accurate. This is clearly exemplified by increased interest in Transit-Oriented Development, mentioned above, as well as the popularity of the writings that speak to this.

Among the most common are the books of Jan Gehl. Building from the seminal research of anthropologist Edward T. Hall and his concept of proxemics in the 1960s (studying the use of space and its effect on humans) Gehl’s insights into the human senses and its implications on the design of cities have become an anchor for best design practices around the world. These are used specifically towards creating pedestrian-oriented environments.

This being the case, the (homeostatic) argument that settlements tend toward equilibrium around human scale and experience is still on the table (Law 22). If not the most important variable with respect to human settlements, current experience shows that it remains critical to its long-term well being.

It’s also worth noting that discussions around walking distances have diversified since its early days, as well. Initially, walking distances were measured simply ‘as the crow flies’ but more recent endeavours have also included the impact of street geometries and land-use, among other attributes. In Happy City, for example, Charles Montgomery compares a ten-minute walking radius within two different contexts—the gridded Midtown, Atlanta and a suburban counterpart, Mableton, composed of a dendritic pattern of cul-de-sacs. The research showed that the influence of street geometries and land-use patterns greatly influences the behaviour of residents. In his words, and in keeping with the observations of Jane Jacobs: “Connectivity counts: more intersections mean more walking, and more disconnected cul-de-sacs mean more driving” (Montgomery, 2013, p. 186).

Furthermore, culture also matters. In A Geography Of Time: On Tempo, Culture, And The Pace Of Life, for example, social psychologist Robert V. Levine highlights how one’s sense of time is greatly influenced by culture, extending to the pace of a person’s gait.

FURTHER READING (full citations found in reference list):

  • Constantino DoxiadisEkistics: An Introduction to the Science of Human Settlements
  • Peter Calthorpe The Next American Metropolis: Ecology, Community, and the American Dream
  • Hank Dittmar and Gloria OhlandThe New Transit Town: Best Practices In Transit-Oriented Development
  • Jan GehlLife Between Buildings and Cities for People
  • Edward T. HallThe Hidden Dimension
  • Charles MontgomeryHappy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design
  • Jane JacobsThe Death and Life of Great American Cities
  • Robert V. LevineA Geography Of Time: On Tempo, Culture, And The Pace Of Life


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