IMCL Keynote Speaker Profile: Patrick Condon

“It’s not housing that costs too much. It’s land that costs too much.” The first of a series of profiles of June 2021 IMCL speakers and their work

Author Patrick Condon (at center) will discuss his new book Sick City: Disease, Race, Inequality and Urban Land, at the 57th IMCL conference in Carmel, IN. June 8-12, 2021. Photo courtesy Pacific Cities Sustainability Initiative of the Asia Society.

Patrick Condon is a long-time Professor of Urban Design at the University of British Columbia, a highly influential urbanist, a popular speaker, and an author with noted works including Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities: Design Strategies for the Post Carbon World. He has also been frequently mentioned on the shortlist of mayoral candidates for the City of Vancouver, Canada. His latest book, Sick City: Disease, Race, Inequality and Urban Land, comes at an especially important time as cities emerge from the pandemic, and struggle with all these issues. Michael Mehaffy, Executive Director of the IMCL, recently discussed the book and related issues with Patrick.

Michael Mehaffy: Patrick, your new book, Sick City, comes at an auspicious time, of course, as we begin to emerge from the pandemic. And this experience has certainly exacerbated the deep problems in our cities, and also revealed their magnitude in a rather shocking way. I’m thinking especially of the affordability crisis, growing displacement and homelessness, and the decline in health and quality of life for a huge sector of the population. Meanwhile our bad habits don’t seem to be changing as fast as they need to — sprawling, car dependent development, which works pretty well in the short term for wealthier people, but once again hits vulnerable populations especially hard. And really everybody loses in that equation — it puts a drag on the whole city, as research has shown.

I guess one could take a pessimistic view at such a moment — but there’s an optimistic outlook implied in your book, am I right? That these problems didn’t come out of nowhere, they have understandable causes, and understandable remedies that we can enact if we choose? Especially when it comes to the underlying economics of the land?

Patrick Condon: That’s right Michael. As an urbanist I am not interested in just diagnosing a problem; there are many books that do that. What I am most interested in is in understanding the mechanics of inequality, as they play out in the urban landscape, and what we can do as urban designers, planners, and local officials to mitigate these systemic pathologies.

Over recent years I have become more and more frustrated by what I see as huge confusion about a simple sounding problem: why does housing cost so much. I am American born but have spent 30 years in Vancouver, Canada. And in that thirty years I have seen housing costs explode from about seven times average wages (which was already considered an unaffordable ratio) to the current ratio of 20 to 1. And it’s very obvious there that this is not a problem of constraints on the supply of housing (by the resistance of NIMBY groups, or an ossified policy process). Vancouver is famous for promoting downtown living in the style of the high rise “point tower” form. We doubled the residential population of our downtown peninsula from 40,000 to over 80,000 in just fifteen years. Prices went up. We legalized secondary suites in single family districts covering 2/3rd of the city. Prices went up. We legalized rear lane houses city wide. prices went up. We built thousands of new units along our arterials. Prices went up. We legalized the conversion of every single family lot in the city to duplexes, each duplex with a rental unit attached. Prices went up, to the point that each new half duplex created marketed for far more than the original single family home. It’s absolute crazy town price wise, and adding supply doesn’t help.

Chart
Housing prices in Metro Vancouver, Canada continue to  diverge widely from many people’s ability to afford them. Here the ability of 25-to-34 year olds to afford homes is shown at the lower part of the chart.

Why does all this matter, and what connection does this have to the pandemic and the USA? The connection is this. These irrational price gains are, counterintuitively in the middle of an economic collapse, spreading rapidly to cities in the US, cities not as familiar with this insanity as we are. And as you say, it’s hitting the young, Black and Brown, and lower income wage earners, inordinately hard. Vancouver is the canary in the coal mine, indicating an untenable future. We need to change our land development practices very soon, or our fragile urban societies cannot be sustained.

So I guess a conclusion to be drawn from Vancouver’s failures is that just adding supply — what some have called “build, baby build” — doesn’t work? And yet so many cities still seem to think that’s the simple answer, or maybe it’s the simplistic one. But I take it that what you’re suggesting is that we need to pay more attention to the underlying economics of the land? What are the issues there?

Yes that’s the issue precisely. It’s not housing that costs too much. It’s land that costs too much. The cost of building a square foot of interior space has not risen tremendously in the past 30 years, but the price of land has. Land prices have gone up by a factor of 500 percent in just seven years in many city districts, and tragically that land price increase is hitting lower income districts in major metropolitan areas the hardest! Clearly there is something fundamental going on here, and it’s bigger than gentrification, or so called “foreign investors,” or lack of housing supply. Much bigger.

What is really behind it is a global glut of cash in the hands of investors with not a lot of great places to invest. Stocks are overpriced, bonds don’t deliver returns anymore, and after those two, the only thing really left to invest in is real estate. And by real estate, again, I am not talking about the house, I am talking about the land under it. A house a thousand miles from anywhere is worthless, a house on city land can cost a fortune. It’s obviously the location you buy. “Location, location location”! And what we’ve learned up here in Vancouver is that it doesn’t help to rezone land for higher density in hopes that the land share of the house price will go down. All that does is boost the price of the land with the land speculator being the only beneficiary. It doesn’t cheapen the per square foot price of the home at all, and in many cases, as with our duplexing zone change, it has the perverse effect of increasing it.

So I’m sure our conference attendees will want to know, what are the tools and strategies to combat this, that have been shown to be effective? And I guess I should break that into two questions: what are the long-term tools and strategies that might require more systemic reforms that we should all work towards, and then what are the more available and practical ones that we can use now, to fight the immediate crisis? What are we learning from other cities?

Well, there is a long term and a short term approach. I will start with the long term one because I really have to say a few things about the underlying economic mechanics of all this, going back all the way to Adam Smith. It was he who first drew attention to the problem of land cost. In talking about landlords he had this to say (among many other unfavorable things):

“As soon as the land of any country has all become private property, the landlords… love to reap where they have never sowed, and demand a rent even for its natural produce.”

A half century later, David Ricardo, another English economist, put the problem into the form of a law, known to this day as “Ricardo’s Law of Rent” which says, in effect, that virtually all of the productive value of a location will go not to the entrepreneur or the worker but to the land owner as rent. Yet another century went by before the American Henry George fully fleshed out the problem this poses for cities. He said that land rent, or price, will absorb so much of the capital value produced by city entrepreneurs and city wage earners that, in time, virtually all of that capital value gets drained into unproductive land price. When that happens, it threatens the most vulnerable workers with homelessness, and pushes the entire regional economy, and even national economy, to the point of depression. He wrote during the time of Marx, when industrial depressions were a relatively new phenomenon, and he linked land speculation to economic collapse. Spectacular land price speculations do tend to precede spectacular economic collapses. 1929 and 2008 are two cases in point. Also, the seemingly intractable problem of homelessness in our most successful cities, like San Francisco, rather proves his point. That’s why he titled his most important book Progress and Poverty, because the main thesis is that as cities become more and more wealthy, the result is that landowners get amazingly rich, while a larger and larger chunk of city residents live in precarity. Sound familiar?

Anyway, his proposed solution was to eliminate taxes on capital (a factory or apartment building for example) and income (taxes on wages), and to tax land value instead. This would fund all necessary social services and city infrastructure, and unleash the capital creating value of both workers and entrepreneurs. A win-win.

It just so happened that about the same time, the end of WWI, Vienna found itself in a position to implement a housing plan based on this idea. After the fall of the Hapsburg Empire and the enfranchisement of all Vienna citizens, that city (facing an unaffordable housing crisis) imposed a large progressive tax on apartment buildings — which of course was really a tax on location, or land — and streamed that new revenue into various forms of non-market housing. Over the course of a few decades (interrupted by WWII) the city successfully lowered the price of urban land by taxing it heavily, and then used the proceeds to buy land at the bargain basement prices their own taxes produced. Now, over 50% of housing in Vienna is non-market housing. Interestingly, if you want to rent or own a market-rate apartment in Vienna, it is a fraction of the price of a market-rate unit in equivalent cities such as Paris or Berlin. This is because the size of the non-market housing sector provides a brake on the speculative value of market-rate lands.

So the long term approach is to tax land to produce housing, in the way that Vienna did it.

Shorter term, and with an eye towards this problem in the USA, there are, surprisingly, a lot of ways to do this that are practical, both financially and politically. They all have to do with how we use zoning as a tool. We now have an advantage that neither Henry George nor the leaders of Vienna had back then. It’s called land use zoning. Zoning, and most people don’t really think of it this way, is essentially a tax. Zoning by its nature lowers land value below its so called “highest and best use” value. It’s typically not ok to put a 60 story building next to a single family home, or a pig rendering plant next to a church, even if that’s what the “market” might be demanding. Zoning has survived dozens of constitutional challenges dating back to the 1920s. Originally used to limit incompatible land uses, zoning is increasingly used to insure affordability. Many US municipalities, particularly in California where the problem is most severe, are insisting that density increases granted by the city must be accompanied by affordability concessions provided by the developer (usually in the form of low- to no-cost non-market housing units). This expansion of zoning powers has also survived Supreme Court challenges.

What is most important here is to understand that this process helps to (what I call) “discipline the land market”. The requirement to include affordable housing reduces the potential final financial yield of the project. As such this reduced yield needs to be subtracted from project costs. And the only place to subtract it is in the “residual price” for the land. So inclusionary zoning requirements, properly understood, don’t increase the price of market units — they reduce the price of land.

Finally, some municipalities are now taking this a step further. Cambridge, Massachusetts has passed what amounts to a city-wide inclusionary zoning ordinance. They are allowing a doubling of density on any parcel in the city, if and only if the project produces 100 percent permanently affordable housing, perpetually pegged to median incomes. It is not considered a “taking,” because landowners are perfectly free to develop market rate units in conformance with existing zoning limits. But if they choose the Affordable Housing Overlay path they get double density. Here again the important point is that this “disciplines the land market”. If you just doubled the density allowance city wide, hoping to increase affordability, without insisting on it, the only thing that would happen would be that land prices would also double (or more). In the end only land speculators (or as Adam Smith might put it landlords) would win. The final per square foot rents or purchase price would not drop. Those in need of housing would still be either drained of funds or excluded.

The approach you describe sounds encouraging, and badly needed — especially at this moment, when so many cities are struggling to cope with exclusion, displacement, and declining opportunities for a large part of the population, notably immigrants, the young, and other vulnerable residents.

You recently hosted the journalist Doug Saunders for a conference I had the pleasure of attending. He is author of the remarkable book Arrival City: How the Largest Migration in History Is Reshaping Our World. It seems to me his point was that cities need to offer the “rungs of the ladder” to provide opportunity for all, to start modest businesses, and to collaborate with others to innovate and develop economically, within a fairly diverse and sometimes rather messy environment. All great cities have done this — it’s how New York, for example, took penniless immigrants from Poland and Italy and Ireland, and turned them into shopkeepers and teachers and doctors. And yet one of the problems we have now with the overheated cores is that there aren’t any more rungs — you have to have half a million dollars to start a McDonalds franchise, say, or you’re frozen out. On the other hand, maybe it’s the suburbs that now have more interesting opportunities? And perhaps we can do some innovative things in the suburbs, say with land policies, that we can’t do right now in the city cores? Maybe the suburbs are the new arena for diversity and innovation? What do you think?

Good question. There are a lot of related issues that tie into this. In my previous book, I spent a lot of column inches on the issue of how to design for “Arrival Cities” (as Doug Saunders puts it), places in the developed world that migrants from the developing world are flocking. As center-city land prices increasingly make these locations unaffordable, not just for migrants, but also for the young and the Black and Brown, the idea of the suburb becomes transformed. In the Vancouver region, migrants no longer land in the city of Vancouver but in Richmond if they are East Asian, and in Surrey if they are South Asian. Suburban settings and even their building types are being transformed in the process. Extended families now adapting 1980s cul-de-sac “monster homes” for their extended families, with welding or motorcycle repair shops in the three car garage. This is all part of the out-of-control economic re-sorting of people by class and income across the urban landscape. This is cementing cultural and economic geographic inequality into our urban landscapes as never before. It’s happening now in a way that exceeds previous imbalances caused by white flight. In the context of this conversation, if we wanted to create a more culturally and economically sustainable region, one where commute times and economic, racial, and class segregation issues were no longer getting worse and worse, we would need to deal with the real problem. And the real problem is the out of control world wide inflation in the price of urban land.

Well, that’s a lot to digest to be sure. But let me ask a final question for now: how would you sum this up as an action plan for urbanists? What can we do about this?

Well, for a start we can stop falling into the “supplyist” trap. Stop saying that if we just add density, housing will become affordable. It won’t.

Collectively, urbanists have very influential voices, earned over 40 years of trying to make communities more livable, walkable, affordable, and sustainable. As the housing crisis blazes out of control worldwide, we can use our voices in the ever more strident policy debates currently raging. It’s worth remembering that Henry George was more a politician than an economist during his too short life (he died of stroke at age 55). That’s why he catalyzed a revolution in thinking during the Progressive Era. We are still the beneficiaries of his efforts, notably in the form of the 16th and 17th amendments. We are living in a similarly crucial time. Speak out.

Secondly, we can bring an urbanist’s lens to the central question: “How can we build great mixed income communities blending the best of market dynamism with a greater public role in managing the land resource base?” In this way, our work dovetails with many current movements, not the least of which are the ongoing second civil rights wave and the push for “decolonization”. Both of those movements are fundamentally about exclusion from access to urban land. If we think about this right, and use taxing and development tools as our Archimedes lever, we can make great cities and equitable neighborhoods. But in my view, we will fail if we don’t recognize that the real problem lies in how urban land price and urban land speculation, under present circumstances, only enriches the rich, and forces the rest into poverty.

* * *

Patrick Condon will join us at the 57th International Making Cities Livable conference in Carmel, Indiana, June 8-12, 2021 (https://www.livable-cities.org/). His new book Sick City: Disease, Race, Inequality and Urban Land is available for free download (PDF) at

https://uploads-ssl.webflow.com/5efd1c1c4e2740c1bb1bfb69/60001a4f82797d502d088dcf_Sick%20City%202021.pdf

And in print in the US at https://www.levellerspress.com/product/sick-city-disease-race-inequality-and-urban-land/ 

And in Canada: http://bit.ly/sickcitylulu

The Surprisingly Important Role of Symmetry in Healthy Places

New research suggests there might be a “symmetry deficit disorder” in today’s built environments, with significant impacts on health, well-being, and even sustainability.

Urban Symmetry
Two environments in London. Left: Seven Dials, dating from the 17th century. Right: a typical office complex from the 20th century. These environments can be better understood as geometric structures manifesting different degrees and kinds of symmetry.

 

Michael W. Mehaffy and Nikos A. Salingaros

March 18, 2021

Among the many factors influencing health and well-being, the environment might be the least appreciated — but in many ways, it’s one of the most important. Intriguing new research is indicating that, within human environments, the mathematical property of symmetry plays an outsized role.

The relationship between mathematics and architecture is an ancient one, and the topic of symmetry has long been central to both. But the “symmetry” described by classical writers like Vitruvius and Alberti was not limited to the idea of mirroring two sides, as is commonly thought. Rather, symmetry was a much deeper concept, covering many other complex kinds of geometrical relationships. What was important was that there was some kind of measurable correspondence, some sym + metros, or “same measurement,” among the parts as they formed a whole.

Symmetry continues to be a central concept in the sciences today, with important applications to the built environment—as our own recent research has documented. Exciting new developments in mathematics, environmental psychology, neuroscience, and other fields are transforming the scientific understanding of the essential role of symmetry in human experience, and where it goes wrong (and right too). Perhaps surprising—and most important—is an emerging understanding of the key role these characteristics seem to play in human health and well-being.

The field of architecture, for all its aspirations to cutting-edge modernity, has so far been notably backward in applying these insights. Instead, the applications of symmetry, where they exist at all, are mostly confined to superficial explorations of ever more extravagant new aesthetic packaging over what are still relatively primitive object-buildings. The lessons for public space networks, and for healthier human environments more broadly, are largely ignored.

One of the fundamental questions lost in this fashionable mix of art and technology is the ancient topic of beauty, one of Vitruvius’ famous triad of essential architectural components (which he termed “venustas”). Few people today deny the great beauty of many historic and traditional buildings. We often marvel at the incredible diversity of these beautiful structures across innumerable geographic locations, cultures, and periods. Indeed, some wonder why so many buildings of our time seem so inferior—let’s face it, so much uglier—by comparison.

It’s common to assume that this loss is just the price of progress. Perhaps the “beauty” of the built environment nowadays (if we can even agree on what that is) exists only in the powerful, machine-like logic of buildings, their daring structural innovations, or the clever abstract expressions of their designers. Perhaps the current era pays for its modern conveniences by relegating the experience of “beauty” to the status of a dispensable consumer good.

This is a common view of things—but new research shows that it’s simply not true. Semir Zeki, a neurobiologist at University College London, has surveyed neurological research, including his own team’s, and concluded that the experience of beauty in the environment “is not a luxury, but an essential ingredient in nourishing the emotional brain.” Research in other fields reveals that experiencing places that are perceived as beautiful (including “biophilic” places with natural vegetation, for example) actually lowers stress in the body, improves health and well-being, and even (as one famous study showed) shortens recovery times from surgery!

Common types of symmetry that are widely perceived as beautiful, in (left) a child’s kaleidoscope (using pieces of shell that also include sub-symmetries), a “fractal” pattern generated mathematically on a computer (center), and the natural environment of Bryce Canyon in Utah (right). These beautiful structures typically combine different forms of symmetry, such as reflectional, rotational, translational, and scaling symmetries (including fractals).  Image credits: Left, Pixabay (public domain); center, Pixabay (public domain); right, Michael Mehaffy.

These and other studies unveil a surprisingly strong relationship between aesthetics, well-being, and health. Findings in environmental psychology, neuroscience, medical science, and related fields are pointing to a profound (if under-appreciated) effect of environmental structures–including their aesthetic properties–upon our health and quality of life, along with other more obvious factors. These findings seem all the more important for those who are already more vulnerable, including children, the elderly, and the poor.

The research also disproves the simplistic modern assumption that the experience of beauty is just a subjective phenomenon—merely “in the eye of the beholder.” While there can be great variation among people as to some of what they find beautiful, there are also broad areas of commonality. For example, many geometric characteristics of natural environments and of the human body (like the symmetry of faces) are almost universally considered beautiful. This universality is anchored in shared biological roots, and in the shared ways that we react to certain kinds of structures, according to Zeki: “mathematical principles of symmetry, harmony, and proportion…are part of the cognitive apparatus of all brains.”

This is true not only of natural environments and beautiful “biophilic” vegetation, as Zeki notes, but built structures too: “What universality architectural beauty may possess probably lies in satisfying inherited brain concepts of proportion, harmony and geometric relationships that are more formally expressed in mathematical terms.” In other words, there are discernible geometric properties in surroundings that most people unconsciously find beautiful, and those properties are also conducive to physical well-being and quality of life. That’s a finding with potentially momentous implications.

Environmental designers surely have a professional responsibility to avoid harm to users, and indeed, to actively promote their well-being. The question is not whether there is a place for artistic creativity, novelty, and individual expression—surely there is—but rather, how designers can anchor this creativity within a common framework of sharable characteristics that are most likely to produce physiological benefits for users. It is the business of science to provide exactly that kind of knowledge for built environment professions–just as the practice of medicine relies on the health sciences, for example.

What science reveals is that nature has shaped unconscious preferences so that humans are instinctively drawn toward conditions most beneficial to health and well-being. When we are forced into “ugly” or stressful environments (as revealed by medical measurements), it creates much more than superficial annoyance. The task for designers, then, is to start with those documented factors that will best promote the health and well-being of users, and then explore the infinite possible varieties of expression using those factors.

When it comes to identifying these “salutogenic” (health-giving) factors, our own work on environmental symmetry has yielded fruitful results. Once again, we are referring here to “symmetry” in the broader mathematician’s sense, as a kind of structural correspondence between parts. In addition to the familiar mirror symmetry, we can add translational symmetry (where patterns are replicated), scaling symmetry (where patterns recur at different scales, as in fractals), rotational symmetry (as in the iris of an eye), and other combinations.

Examples of different kinds of symmetry in nature, and in human architectures. Top row: reflectional or mirror (tiger), rotational (Sun), translational (ducklings), and scaling (fern). Bottom row: reflectional (Classical building), rotational (stained glass), translational (Islamic tilework) and scaling (Alhambra). Image credits: Top row, left: S Taheri via Wikimedia Commons; center left: public domain (via Pixabay); center right, public domain (via Maxpixel); right, public domain (via Free Nature Stock). Bottom row, left: Ryan Kaldari via Wikimedia Commons; center left, Thomas Ledi via Wikimedia Commons; center right, public domain (via Pixabay); right, public domain (via Pixabay).

In most natural environments, the different forms of symmetry occur together and in combinations with others. Our work and others’ has found that this compound symmetry has a particularly strong association with the experience of beauty. When these compound symmetries contain high levels of interrelatedness, as is evident in many natural structures, we refer to this as “deep symmetry.” (One could say that there is a “symmetry of symmetries” in these structures.) Such structures (including built environments) have many layers of symmetrical sub-structures built up into a very complex interrelated whole.

“Deep symmetry” also interrelates specific objects with their surroundings, and to us as viewers too. This deep symmetry extends mathematically to the larger scale of urban spaces, neighborhoods, and city regions (and ultimately to the Earth, and even the Cosmos). This new understanding of the symmetrical relatedness of buildings and cities rejoins the sadly separated disciplines of architecture, urban design, and planning, within a larger natural framework.

The human body as a whole incorporates such “deep symmetry”—especially so in bodies universally regarded as particularly beautiful—as do many natural environments. This kind of structure can be contrasted with what we might think of as “shallow symmetries”—merely pasted together symmetrical structures that do not interrelate. By contrast, many contemporary designs exhibit shallow symmetries (like the endlessly repeated window units in the example at the top right of this article).

Some examples of “deep symmetry,” in the human body (left), in a natural environment (center) and in human architectures (right). In each case, multiple symmetries and distinct kinds of symmetries are combined and interrelated through further symmetries. In the sculpture of Michelangelo’s David, the irises have rotational symmetry, the face has reflectional symmetry, the hair has scaling symmetry, and so on. The rotational symmetry of the sun in the middle is combined with the reflectional symmetry of the water and the translational symmetry of the repeating birds, and the scaling symmetry of the water patterns. Taktsang Monastery in Bhutan repeats translational groups with reflectional symmetry as well as elements with rotational symmetry, and elements with scalar symmetry, all in translational symmetry as they adjust to their positions over the rocks. Image credits: Left, George M. Groutas via Flickr; center, @Chiaralily via Flickr; Right: Douglas J. McLaughlin via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s important to note that the mathematics of symmetry is not some mysterious occult realm of knowledge, or mystical set of secret formulas. In fact, it is widely comprehensible, and widely useful in practice (as Vitruvius, Alberti and other pioneers demonstrated). Indeed, as the cognitive scientists George Lakoff and Rafael Nuñez pointed out, mathematics itself is simply the symbolic manifestation of the human process of cognitively ordering the environment—that is, of modeling the symmetries of experience. (What we call a “formula” is nothing other than a mathematical symmetry between one side of an “equation” and the other.) The ability to model these symmetries of experience was the key to the evolutionary survival of humans, and, more recently in history, to the development of advanced language, mathematics, and science.

This symmetry-modeling is an example of our inherent order-seeking, meaning-seeking behavior. We are constantly striving to find “meaning” in the world—that is, to relate ourselves to experienced structures, to find patterns of coherence and consistency, and to replace informational disorder with a coherent understanding of our surroundings and ourselves within them. (We might call this view of things a “symmetric structuralism.”) We evolved to instinctively seek this kind of meaning in environments, and it is reassuring and satisfying when we find it—whether in a formal and symbolic sense, or a more tacit and perceptual sense. Justifiably, we refer to this experience as “beautiful.” (In a similar sense, mathematicians often describe certain formulas as “beautiful.”) The unsurprising corollary is that environments in which we do not find this meaning—commonly called “ugly”—are stressful, and potentially harmful to well-being.

It turns out that the built environments that most people find most beautiful, including historic and traditional ones, possess this meaning-rich structure that we refer to as “deep symmetry.” Importantly, there is also a strong (and not coincidental) correspondence with those environments that produce the most positive measurable effects upon well-being.

The architect Christopher Alexander set out to catalog the forms of this deep symmetry, referring to “fundamental properties” that we observe repeatedly in things that we experience as beautiful or full of life. He found that he could do it empirically with just 15 geometrical categories (Figure Four). Many of them correspond directly to forms of symmetry (e.g., “local symmetry,” “levels of scale,” “echoes”, and so on). Others are more complex mixtures. Nonetheless, Alexander’s work shows that it is possible to empirically map the geometric characteristics of deep symmetry –  and moreover, to find a surprisingly close congruence to the vast and diverse array of natural and historic human environments that possess it.

Christopher Alexander’s “Fifteen Properties,” found repeatedly in common natural structures, and in human structures that we experience as beautiful and full of life. Image credit: Michael Mehaffy, from open sources under fair use.

What about the many contemporary environments that do not display this deep symmetry? They may have a very shallow or learned, cerebral form of symmetry, or a mere veneer of symmetry (like a thin product packaging). Research is beginning to reveal that this shallow symmetry is associated with environments that produce stress, and may contribute to illness, depression, and other disorders.

For example, Penacchio and Wilkins (2014) show that visual scenes that lack the scaling and other multiple symmetries found in natural environments “provoke discomfort, and even headaches and seizures in susceptible individuals.” Le et al. (2016) confirm that “patterns with unnatural statistical properties are uncomfortable to look at … with consequences for brain metabolism, and possibly also for health.”

The journalist Richard Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to highlight research evidence he found documenting the negative impacts from lack of contact with natural environments and forms, especially for children. Now we can see an even broader phenomenon, and one that is closely related: we’ll call it “symmetry deficit disorder.” The deficit in the experience of deep symmetry in modern environments causes an actual disorder in human beings—that is, we identify a geometrical condition that can impair the function of the body and mind. The cause of both disorders is ultimately the same: people seem to have an innate need to connect with the biological structures, and their symmetries, that drove the evolution of humans.

How did this “symmetry deficit disorder” come to be so pervasive in contemporary times? Was something as serious as this accidental? After all, we noted earlier that places and periods throughout history produced beautiful buildings and environments with deep symmetry as a matter of routine—in spite of many other problems those societies faced.

As also noted earlier, some people think that society simply made a calculated trade in the modern era, sacrificing this ordinary—and older—environmental beauty based on deep symmetry for sanitation, medicine, technology, and the like. Very well, they say, we got more sterile, machine-like buildings, but they were orderly and functional, and occasionally costumed with imaginative artworks. What’s wrong with that?

Too much, actually. It’s not only that these environments are taking a documented toll on human health and well-being (by the evidence of data regularly emerging from the medical professions). They are, like the resource-guzzling technologies that made them, profoundly unsustainable (by the evidence of data coming from energy and resource use).

Once again, history offers important and humbling lessons. Consider the Pantheon in Rome, say, which has lasted 18 centuries, in large part because it has been treasured as beautiful by each of the 80 or so generations that kept and sustained it. Yet today we pat ourselves on the back for calling a building with a lifespan of 60 years “sustainable,” and very many new buildings are demolished or fall into disuse after only 40 years or so.

On the left is the Pantheon in Rome, built 18 centuries ago, and exhibiting many forms of compound symmetry. On the right is a new “green” skyscraper, whose symmetries derive mostly from its veneer of plants. The underlying structure is a fairly ordinary stripped-down object-building, of the kind that has been fashionable since the early 20th century. It is common for such buildings to be demolished within a half-century or so. Image credits: Left, Evan Qu via Unsplash. Right, Victor Garcia via Unsplash.

A deeper level of unsustainability is caused by the disordered processes that disrupt ecologies, resource bases, and, no less, the human quality of life. In that sense, the mathematical ugliness of the built environment is a manifestation (and a warning indicator) of deeper dysfunctions, and deeper asymmetries. This problem cannot be dismissed as “merely” an aesthetic one. The remedies, therefore, must be more than aesthetic—they must dig at the core of the processes that generate these ugly places, as well as the ugly products themselves. Process and product are inseparable.

Chief among these processes are the economic and cultural valuations of consumption, disposability, and novelty. Most people already recognize (or suspect) that our cultural and technological systems do not rest on a durable footing. As we have written about before, one way to address that shortcoming is to reform the runaway economies of scale and standardization, which are proving so destructive. While there is a useful role for these economies—in nature and in human systems too—there is also an essential, and largely missing, need to temper them with economies of place and differentiation. Rebalancing systems in this way is essential to the transition from an unsustainable “depletion economy,” to a more sustainable, regenerative, “repletion economy.”

Similarly, while we can welcome visual novelty and excitement in human environments, durability, profoundness, and deep symmetry play a much more essential role. The latter qualities maintain the human race on a viable evolutionary trajectory, whereas their neglect or suppression could trigger catastrophic consequences. Unfortunately, contemporary systems of production over-value the shallow appeal of the new and exciting, with the consequence that there is a “race to the bottom” to build ever cheaper, ever more disposable, but ever more superficially exciting, environments lacking deep symmetry altogether.

Architects have become complicit in this auto-destructive system, for fateful reasons. At the turn of the 20th century, architects signed up to support the unbridled industrialization of the human environment (and its unsustainable development, and ultimately its dehumanization). Fatefully, they became essentially a marketing arm for this unsustainable economic transformation. Rhapsodic theorists from great universities legitimized the cachet of a novel type of fine art, by eulogizing its allure, thus providing compelling packaging for this new—and toxic—industrial product.

Ironically, it is not altogether easy for architects themselves to see this. (We say this as researchers and teachers of architecture ourselves.) Through a process we have previously called “architectural myopia,” architects—like other professionals—have their own lenses through which they see the world and their work. For example, the research literature repeatedly documents that architects have fundamentally different judgments from common people as to what constitutes a beautiful building.

For architects, a “good” building is more likely to be stripped down, dramatic, unadorned—an example of what we have previously termed “geometrical fundamentalism.” From their cognitive perspective, this geometry seems most appropriate for contemporary times, with its focus on machinery and power. At the same time, they have a prevalent aversion for the ornate patterns of nature, and of historical design forms. Instead, trained architectural taste is consistent with an early 20th century fantasy of a “modern” future defined by that bygone era’s stripped-down futuristic images.

The new research coming from social psychology, environmental psychology, and other fields, is helping us to understand what is going on—how those individuals who are removed from the flesh-and-blood reality of a situation must substitute their own “construals” for that reality, often with negative impacts on others. The lesson is that all of us see the world through our own cognitive biases, and with our own “bounded rationality“—sometimes with unintended consequences.

Architects (and other futurists) do experience beauty, just like everyone else. But as research shows, the beauty they experience largely ignores key attributes of the natural and physical world that all of us share—the structura naturalis as we refer to it (Latin for “natural structure”). Rather, they are much more focused upon the beauty of their own mental constructions (shared mostly among other architects)—what we refer to as structura mentis.

There is an essential place for both kinds of structure. After all, the beauty of literature and of other arts comes largely from the mental symmetries of structura mentis. This is the important domain of symbol, allegory, metaphor, and all the other rich capacities of literature and the arts.

But when it comes to the impacts of the actual physical environments where humans live their lives, specific geometries do matter, as the research shows. The health and well-being of users (and of the natural environments upon which we depend) must take priority over the individual prerogatives of artistic expression.

The new insights on symmetry in the built environment offer fertile ground for further development of practical tools and approaches. They cut through the meaningless “style wars,” and transcend considerations of which kind of object-building we might like or dislike, or whether or not we are “modern” and “with it.” Instead, they simply provide a growing body of evidence about why certain environmental characteristics are beneficial, and how we can create more of those beneficial environments.

This comes at a particularly urgent time when the world is urbanizing at a historically unprecedented rate, with profound impacts upon future resource use, ecologies, and quality of life. Clearly, we cannot afford to remain mired in the same old “business as usual” patterns.  Professional responsibility and good citizenship demand that we recover the methods for enriching the symmetries of our human environments. As the new research shows, these places do have profound impacts upon us — and increasingly, it appears, upon our future.

A few more buildings that exhibit high degrees of compound and deep symmetry. Left, Santa Caterina del Sasso Monastery, Lake Maggiore, Italy; Center, Central Market, Valencia, Spain; right, Byodo-in Temple, Hawaii. Image credits: left, public domain (via Pixabay); center, @nosoylasonia via Photohere; right, @little_plant via Unsplash.

Michael W. Mehaffy, Ph.D., is a researcher in architecture based at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, and director of the International Making Cities Livable conference series. He is the former president of the Goose Hollow Foothills League neighborhood association in Portland, and he now lives in the Columbia Gorge with his children and grandchildren.

Nikos A. Salingaros, Ph.D., is a professor of mathematics and architecture at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

This article first appeared on Planetizen.