Review: Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software

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I know it is frustrating to explain what a designer does to your friends and relatives. To help explain, I would suggest giving your misinformed friends a copy of “Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software” by Steven Johnson.


Johnson begins with a disgusting example of emergent behavior. Slime molds are multicellular organisms that separate into single-celled organisms under certain environmental conditions. These single-celled organisms will return to their multicellular state once the environmental conditions disappear What is amazing is that no single cell is leading this group. The group emerges from the independent actions of the cells.

The book quickly heads into more interesting examples of emergence. Johnson’s attention is naturally focused on the role of emergence in computers. However, the book takes several detours to look at the role of emergence in cities, which is highly relevant to the work of landscape architects and urban planners.

Cities & Jane Jacobs

Johnson focuses on Jane Jacobs’ book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” published in 1961. Jacobs argued that cities function because of the bottom up behavior of their citizens, not top down bureaucracy. Johnson is particularly interested in Jacobs’ use of computer science research into emergence to explain how this bottom up system functions.

While Jacobs was the first person to suggest a link between emergent behavior and the organization of cities, many landscape architects and researchers built on this work. Unfortunately, Johnson does not go into depth about this varied and fascinating work.

Emergence and Landscapes

Immediately after Jacobs, Ian McHarg used his work as a regional and urban planner in the 1960s to develop a new system for studying natural and urban forms. McHarg’s system relied on extensive mapping to understand the emergent patterns of urban and natural systems as a foundation for design and planning.

McHarg’s system became the basis for modern Geographic Information Systems (GIS). GIS has helped designers around the world study and understand emergent systems and develop appropriate design solutions for the challenges these systems pose. The Seattle firm Jones and Jones is particularly noted for their use of GIS in developing freeway plans that preserve historic and natural resources.

I helped with an emergent project in school that used mapping to understand the communication patterns in a neighborhood. We looked at how many posters people put up on telephone poles by counting the number of staples in a fixed area. We did this for every telephone pole in the neighborhood and created a map. This map became the key to locating posting kiosks in the neighborhood.


It is regrettable that Johnson overlooks the way that numerous landscape architects and thinkers since Jacobs have used emergence in their work. Despite this failing, “Emergence” offers an accessible peek into the high tech world of landscape architecture and computer science. This is a trendy way to explain your work as a landscape architect or designer to confused relatives and friends.

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A Review of “Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software” by Steven Johnson by Logan Bingle is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.