#54 – Patterns, Cars and People

Patterns are infinitely fascinating. A paradiddle is a pattern and one of the basic rudiments of rhythm resulting in four strokes performed in the order R-L-R-R or L-R-L-L. Like rhythm and notation in music, patterns provide framework for our existence. If you subscribe to the theory of quantum mechanics, we are all a collection of elementary particles arranged in patterns to create everything from the human brain to a piece of fruit.

The particles are arranged differently, so if you look at a blob of matter and ask what’s the difference between your brain and a watermelon, is it that your brain is intelligent and that the watermelon is not because it is made of different elementary particles? No, they are both made of the same elementary particles, three of them: up quarks, down quarks, and electrons. The only difference is how they are arranged, in fact, if you go on a watermelon-only diet for a while you will basically be a watermelon rearranged.

Max Tegmark –  Life 3.0 – Being Human In The Age of Artificial Intelligence

Words are patterns of letters, sentences are patterns of words, paragraphs are patterns within chapters and chapters are patterns within books. I am reading a fantastic book called A Pattern Language, which, along with their two other books, Christopher Alexander and his colleagues at the Center for Environmental Structure, describe a foundational language for designing towns and communities. The language is broken down into 253 patterns that can be used together in various combinations to design anything. Each pattern is explained through an observation, research and a potential solution. I’ve found that these patterns can open doors to tremendous insight that extends far beyond the development of land and buildings. The book has been a welcome catalyst to new ideas and thoughts that cross many disciplines.

Here are a few examples of the patterns in the book:


(From A Pattern Language: page 22)

OBSERVATION – Continuous sprawling urbanization destroys life, and makes cities unbearable. But the sheer size of cities is also valuable and potent.

SOLUTION – Keep interlocking fingers of farmland and urban land even at the center of the metropolis. The urban fingers should never be more than 1 mile wide, while the farmland fingers should never be less than 1 mile wide.


Pattern #71 – STILL WATER

(From A Pattern Language: page 358)

OBSERVATION – To be in touch with water, we must above all be able to swim; and to swim daily, the pools and ponds and holes for swimming must be so widely scattered through the city, that each person can reach one within minutes.

SOLUTION – In every neighborhood, provide some still water – a pond, a pool – for swimming. Keep the pool open to the public at all times, but make the entrance to the pool only from the shallow side of the pool, and make the pool deepen gradually, starting from one or two inches deep.


While at first glance these seem to be an instruction set to build towns and communities, I’ve found them to be thought-provoking solution sets for questions beyond the realm of architecture and development. As I read through them, I am inspired and begin to connect unlikely dots that lead to further questions and discovery.

My recent obsession surrounds Pattern #11.


(From A Pattern Language: page 64-65)

OBSERVATION – Cars give people wonderful freedom and increase their opportunities. But they also destroy the environment, to an extent so drastic that they kill all social life.

SOLUTION – Break the urban area down into local transport areas, each one between 1 and 2 miles across, surrounded by a ring road. Within the local transport area, build minor local roads and paths for internal movement on foot, by bike, on horseback, and in local vehicles; build major roads which make it easy for cars and trucks to get to and from the ring roads, but place them to make internal trips slow and inconvenient.


Cars destroying all social life? That seems a bit dramatic, right? In the observable, physical world, objects that are separated by a physical distance are limited in their ability to connect. Entangled particles in superposition are the exception to the rule, but let’s save that for a more detailed discussion of quantum mechanics. Does our use of cars reduce our ability to connect with one another?

The research from Pattern #11 explores this concept at length.

Let’s state this problem in its most pungent form. A man occupies about 5 square feet of space when he is standing still, and perhaps 10 square feet when he is walking. A car occupies about 350 square feet when it is standing still, and at 30 miles per hour, when cars are 3 car lengths apart, it occupies about 1,000 square feet. As we know, most of the time cars have a single occupant. This means that when people use cars, each person occupies almost 100 times as much space as he does when he is a pedestrian. If each person driving occupies an area 100 times as large as he does when his is on his feet, this means that people are 10 times as far apart. In other words, the use of cars has the overall effect of spreading people out and keeping them apart.

By driving cars we are actually ten times more separated from our fellow human beings than if we walked among one another. Is our general lack of connection deepened by being physically encased in metal bubbles barreling down the road? We can see each other and we are aware of our occupation of the same general physical space, but there isn’t a connection between the drivers that pack our interstates during every rush hour. The heart of our existence used to connect us to our communities and each other through the nature of their development and the concept that everyone walked everywhere.

Today, the car is a crucial cog in the wheel of daily activities shuttling us to and from work, school functions, lacrosse games, doctor’s appointments and other obligations. Without it, the amount that we could accomplish during the day would be significantly reduced. What is this efficiency really costing us? Are we also missing our connection to the Earth? While the windows of most automobiles are less than a quarter of an inch thick, this glass barrier might as well be a twelve inch thick steel door. Rolling along at seventy miles per hour, you can’t feel the breeze, hear the insects and birds or smell the dampness of the ground after a summer shower. The experience always seems to be reduced to the necessity of getting out of the place you were occupying and getting to the place you are going in the fastest way possible.

Our need to connect to the Earth is real, and while not always tangible, something is missing when we are disconnected. We may not know it at the time, but we lose a piece of something important when we are not grounded. Looping back into Max Tegmark’s ideas, we are all made of the same subatomic material that is arranged in specific patterns. Is it natural that this material constantly seeks connection with it’s counterparts? Beyond that, we live in tremendously large and complex fields of interaction, creation and destruction. Gravitational fields and magnetic fields surround us in their invisible yet powerful states driving the operations of the world around us. Astrophysicist and artist, Carlo Rovelli has been one of my unofficial professors in the journey to explain the world through science, and he finds that the world is founded by the presence of small interactions.

Once again, the world seems to be less about objects than about interactive relationships … All things are continually interacting with one another, and in doing so each bears the traces of that which it has interacted: and in this sense all things continuously exchange information about one another.

Carlo Rovelli – Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

As I sit at the picnic table in my backyard, I feel my bare feet connected to the dirt and pine straw, I hear the calls of ten different birds projecting their unique dialects into the air, the sound of squirrels jumping between trees with their feet lightly scratching the tree bark, and I feel the warmth of the rising sun on my arms and face. I am connected to something greater than myself. I wouldn’t be if I didn’t slow down, but instead raced from moment to moment with the mechanical efficiency of a car careening from driveway to destination parking lot. Many of us are on that express train driven by productivity and efficiency. Again, at what cost? Don’t we unknowingly try to remove true connection through innovation? We need efficiency in certain aspects of our lives, but not at a cost of reduced connection and interaction. Even walking with other people without engaging in conversation is connection. A pure smile without pursed lips as you pass someone in a building lobby, or a sincere inquiry about the state of someone’s day can take it all a step further. The energy is contagious and curiously transferable, if we’d only embrace it.

The efficiency of our world, some of which is necessary, can block our humanity and distract our focus from connecting with our planet, people, ideas and experiences. Many aspects of our world reward the rate of speed traveled between two points, encourage ten pounds of meetings in a five pound day, entail furiously-typed short-hand on small glass screens, and provide engagement and dopamine hits measured in views and likes. Our balance is inherently negative due to the drive for efficiency. Connecting is balance. We are of the same material, so the connection is natural. Why do we resist?

A friend recently told me a story about a neighbor of his that recently died. He was a relatively young man in his mid-fifties that passed away in his sleep. My friend and this man would always exchange pleasantries in the hallway of his building, but they never really spent any time together. When he found out about his death, my friend felt that he missed an opportunity to go a little deeper. While we can’t possibly make time for an hour long meeting with everyone we come into contact, couldn’t we give a little more during each of those brief interactions that we have with others throughout the day? As we seek understanding and explanation in the world around us by maintaining child-like curiosity of all things, these interactions are the sustenance behind our activity. We are not a box of Legos with a detailed instruction manual. We really are just patient detectives waiting to connect the dots to find meaning in our experiences. Beautiful things come from the smallest interactions, and each one can be the clue to the next waypoint on your journey. Maybe we are like a 3D printer that methodically pours layers of material while slowly presenting the potential of the final product? Maybe the object is never really complete, and its about the interaction of the material at each layer?

Life is interaction, whether it is particles colliding at subatomic levels, or a flower moving its position to be closer to the sun. We are isolated without connection, and our drive for efficiency brings more isolation. Be the pattern that feeds connection, and do it without any expectation of anything in return. Do your part to balance the account of interaction. The reward is already there because we help ourselves in the process.


Max Tegmark – Life 3.0

More on Max Tegmark – MIT

A Pattern Language

What is a paradiddle?


7 thoughts on “#54 – Patterns, Cars and People

  1. Great stuff.
    Made me think of:
    Just as a flower is made only of non-flower elements, Buddhism is made only of non-Buddhist elements, including Christian ones, and Christianity is made of non-Christian elements, including Buddhist ones.
    Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ

    1. Thanks Joe. Great thought. Kind of like all order has a bit of chaos and within all chaos hides a little order. Thanks for checking it out!

  2. I am pleased to look at ‘being the pattern that feeds connection’ as personally gratifying from a 2-dimensional perspective. I wonder just how much larger those simple connections we share propagate in a 3-dimensional manner.

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