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How to commission cities: resident answers

How do we apply systems knowledge to real problems – like building or sustaining a city?
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How do we apply systems knowledge to real problems – like building or sustaining a city?

Yunkaporta’s striking picture of civilisations and cities seems to call for subversive modes of design. But how can we build reciprocity in reality? And how can collaborating with our neighbours – figuratively or literally – be taken into account as we consider community actions for global challenges?

As one example, consider the lessons of Sendra and Sennett in their book Designing Disorder (2022). They overturn conventions of urban planning by exploring how cities can be designed to be more inclusive, adaptable, and resilient. They do so in ways that pair with how Yunkaporta views problems of simplistic thinking.

They suggest that an over-planned city limits the capacity for the richness of unplanned ‘disorder’ that fosters community, creativity and resilience. That is, some disorder can be a sign of a healthy, dynamic urban environment. They suggest that the messiness of urban life – including noise, diversity and economic disparity – is not necessarily a problem to be solved, but a condition to be embraced and managed through design.

Successful change, in urban planning or otherwise, is not synonymous with cleanliness, order and predictability. The messy complexity of life will happen regardless, and it’s useful to acknowledge and embrace it on the journey. Identities within a system might be allowed to shift and fluctuate, in the same way as the communities that make up a city.

Traditional urban planning viewed ‘order’ as offering a sense of control, regularity, and predictability in the design and use of spaces. We can imagine its folly: zoning laws, building codes, and planned transportation networks are all aimed at efficiency, so they try to discourage the unplanned and organic. At its worst, such planned order can suppress the vibrancy of city life and limit the potential for the spontaneous, human interactions that give cities their character. More often, such plans don’t map to those who use the city.

Melbourne and Manhattan’s ‘grids’ of streets and avenues offer an example of this thinking, as does the planned city of Brasília.

In Melbourne, you have to look – and live – between the grid, in laneways filled with graffiti and cobblestones, to find the famous cultures of food, drink and revelry that make it such a ‘liveable’ city.

In Brasília, almost as famous as the great planned avenues are the unplanned footpaths. Citizens chart out on their own paths despite – and to spite – the city plan.

Consider the view of Planalto Central at the start of the video below. What do you see? Are people following the paths that were centrally planned, or the ones they desire (Hancock 2020)?

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

Video by Luke Heemsbergen (2023); © Deakin University; from a photo by Arturdiasr (CC BY-SA 4.0 Deed).

Play the video for a closer look. What does this suggest about how the community has been consulted and collaborated with?

Finally, and leading into our next step, consider how New Yorkers understand where they live and what that means. New York – and many cities like it – has an incredibly diverse population, from the ‘old money’ around Central Park to new South American migrants that are literally pushed off buses from southern states. New Yorkers’ experience of geographical boundaries and the meaning of their identities are more fluid than you might assume.

Consider ‘Little Yemen’, a neighbourhood that emerged in 2023, which you can find on Google Maps. This community-neighbourhood is not on any ‘official’ city planning documents. Notably, New York City authorities don’t name neighbourhoods at all.

For The New York Times, Larry Buchanan writes:

Neighborhoods are not forever. Some stay, some change and some disappear. The borders [in NYC] you see on Google are not ‘official,’ and neither are the ones used by real estate companies like StreetEasy. Even the city itself purposefully does not have an official city map of neighborhood borders.
‘It’s not our place to define them,’ said Casey Berkovitz, a spokesman for the city’s Planning Department. ‘We leave that up to New Yorkers themselves.’

Place and space evolve into complex systems from multiple factors, creating the fascinating tapestry of cultural dynamics that New York is famous for. This would not have happened in an overly planned city, or one overtly controlled by developers, as the NYT article makes clear.

Share your thoughts

Read the NYT article and scroll around the map at different levels of ‘agreement’ between citizens on how their neighbourhood ‘resolves’. Does this approach to naming make sense for city planning or finding identity and community?

How has your neighbourhood created your own identity? Can you pinpoint how a larger system came to define your own neighbourhood? What desire lines have you noticed in the spaces you frequent?


Buchanan, L. (2023). An Extremely Detailed Guide to an Extremely Detailed Map of New York City Neighborhoods. The New York Times.

Hancock, G. (2020). Desire Lines & Improving Our Public Spaces. Liveable City.

Sennett, R., & Sendra, P. (2022). Designing disorder: Experiments and disruptions in the city. Verso Books.

© Deakin University
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