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Biourbanism: Rethinking the Science of Space

Biourbanist Marco Casagrande helped reshape Treasure Hill, near Taipei, into a sustainable urban community. (David Chu / Flickr)

The International Society of Biourbanism (ISB) is an international network of scholars and design professionals dedicated to transforming architecture and planning practice through the application of scientific theory. The ISB's annual summer school will take place on July 13-20 in Artena, Italy. This year's theme is "Neuroergonomics and Sociogenesis." I talked to ISB president Antonio Caperna and general secretary and research director Stefano Serafini about their work and its relevance to environmental justice. See below for a list of resources on biourbanism.

ABM: What is biourbanism?

AC: Biourbanism considers the city as an organism, but in a different way, because we apply some of the latest developments in the life sciences to architecture. We are working to create a new human-oriented architecture that [uses] science but at the same time takes into account the artistic aspect—what is in our brain, in our mind, in our soul.

SS: At the beginning of the last century, [Patrick] Geddes was talking about the city as an organism. The concept of organism he was using was totally different from what we can use now. At the time of Geddes, the organism was like a machine. Today we know that there is no linearity when we talk about a living organism. It’s about complexity. So this means that when you address a problem inside a complex system like a city, you don’t have linear outputs. You can, for example, take care of traffic by enlarging streets. But then you find that traffic will worsen, because the large road will attract more traffic. That’s a good example of non-linearity.

The other element that brings us to the biological model is what we call biopolitics, in the sense that we refer to the city as a function of human beings. And by human beings, we mean our bodies. How does my body, my blood pressure, the catecholamine in my brain react to a kind of organizational space? We don’t worry about aesthetics, or [stylistic] schools. What we are interested in is not about beauty or ugliness, but about how it works with our bodies.

Le Corbusier was a very intelligent person and was referring to the human body as well—but from the point of view of an ideology, because he didn't have the scientific tools to understand what the human body is. Now we have more [information], so we can start thinking in this direction.

The ISB Summer School is held in Artena, Italy, approximately 20 miles from Rome. (gengish skan / Flickr)

ABM: Tell me about the International Society of Biourbanism and the ISB summer school.

SS: Both the school and the International Society of Biourbanism are meant to change our environment. It’s time to think about the effect of our environment on human beings, and [seize] our responsibility as designers. The [contemporary] city has been built as a machine, for production. We built a society that in fact is not social, a society of individuals without connection, and the spaces where they live don’t allow them to make any real connections. If you [compare this with] the ancient towns, you will notice a difference. It’s typical in a small Italian town for the elders who went to the modern towns to want to come back. Because they can, for example, sit down and start talking to other people. If they need somebody, they can ask for help.

Of course, we can’t go back to the past, we can’t build again what has been built by another society, another economy. But we can learn something. We want to build a contemporary architecture, a contemporary urbanism that uses contemporary materials, but that pays attention to these aspects as very relevant.

The International Society of Biourbanism is a network of scholars coming from different fields, not only architects and urban planners. I myself, I’m not an architect—I studied philosophy and psychology. Antonio is an architect, and we have mathematicians, biologists. The interesting thing is to put these people to work together.

I remember, for example, a conference where an expert in mathematical logic explained the logic of space, comparing how you design space to how you make logic formulae. Another one was a statistician who works with biology, explaining the structure of the cell, and how the biology works to make space for its functions. Another time we had an oncologist who was talking about how he used complexity theory in his work, and how [it relates to] his surgeries, and his care for cancer.

AC: The latest scientific developments show that all living organisms, and buildings, and cities, share the same general rules that govern complex hierarchical systems. This is the main idea that we are developing, this new epistemological means to think in a different way about urbanism and architecture. Now we have a scientific corpus that [we can pass down] to younger researchers, younger architects. This is the idea behind the summer school. We want to spread the kind of knowledge that combines all these different fields that, until now, were separate. Younger architects are very excited about this approach. It opens up fantastic new scenarios in the way we can build a real, sustainable environment.

We are part of a whole system. In our approach, we talk about wholeness. Wholeness is something that is very hard to explain when you talk in terms of a deterministic idea of the world. Because wholeness is a mathematical and physical approach, but at the same time you can read it in an artistic way, or in terms of philosophy. And this is very interesting because it is a completely different way [of talking about our] relationship with the environment. You are part of the environment as a planner.

SS: Wholeness in the sense used by Christopher Alexander. Christopher Alexander is one of the [inspirations behind] our school. And Adrian Bejan, who discovered the constructal law. The constructal law is about every kind of organization coming from a flow. In nature, and in most technical instruments, you've got the problem of flows. Flows self-organize themselves according to a given rule that is the constructal rule. Another person very important to our school is Antonio Lima-de-Faria, who is the father of contemporary cytogenetics. He discovered self-organizational rules in biology. These are new discoveries that have been emerging in the last years, they go in one direction. We're just [applying] that to design.

ABM: What led you to neuroergonomics and sociogenesis as the theme of this year’s summer school?

SS: It’s the conclusion of a cycle. Two years ago, the school was about neuroergonomics and urban design in very general terms. It was very theoretical. The second year we [focused on] showing how you can practically apply this theory. Professor Marco Casagrande from Finland directed the practical workshop, and he launched students in the small town of Artena. He gave a beautiful lecture just by looking at how some children were using the space. Architecture plans space in three parts. But the kids were jumping the fence and using the space as a tridimensional whole. They were showing what exactly the space was meant to be, according to their creativity. And that was a perfect guideline to reshape it.

The students made projects, and the subject was neuroergonomics and placemaking. We use a very special kind of placemaking. The idea is called biourban acupuncture. We just make an intervention at a small point; that pinpoint resonates to the whole body of the city. [It's a] metaphor to traditional Chinese medicine, which says that if you touch a current point, that point will resonate all over the body. This is the concept of complexity. The most difficult thing is to find the point. After that you can do any building.

AC: Our campus is in a beautiful medieval village close to Rome. In this part of the town you can’t use cars, just mules. From this environment we can learn a lot of ideas for the contemporary city, and the ways in which you can socialize, and the ways in which people are in real connection with the environment.

SS: That’s how we come to the third year about sociogenesis. The word sociogenesis is very important because it’s not about building society. It’s about generating society, finding ways of getting in touch with what is already there. We think that design is already there. Biourbanism teaches us that.

You should be very humble, and listen to reality. [Identify] the needs of the people, how the wind flows, and so many other things. You need your body, you need sensitivity, you need to get in touch with reality to make it a reality that's connected. This happens also on the social level, and we've seen that in a typical summer school where students got in touch with the local people. There was a kind of reinforcement of the uber-identity. Because what is a city? A city is not only the space, the shelters, but first of all it is the connection of living in it. And sociogenesis means that we try to make a design that facilitates what's already there.

We don’t have the solution in our pocket. What we’re going to do is to just put this theory to work. The summer school is one of the moments when we gather all this information and discuss it with people from all over the world.

AC: Another thing that we'd like to underline is the idea of biophilia, which was introduced by [Edward O.] Wilson and developed by [Stephen R.] Kellert. When you Google biophilia or biophilic design, you see green buildings and green infrastructure. This is partly correct. According to this approach, we believe that the human mind has evolved in order to adapt to complex patterns that we can find, of course, in the natural world, but also in the built world. You can find these patterns in typical historical towns.

From our point of view, the concept of biophilic design [includes green design]. But it also means using these patterns in the design of the city. We talk about social-physical patterns. A pattern is a way that you can solve a problem—this is a concept borrowed from software designers. The patterns mean that for your problem you receive continual feedback. [Through] feedback, you optimize the process.

Marco Casagrande's Paracity imagines a simple organic grid within which community members create and modify their own spaces. (Courtesy International Society of Biourbanism)

ABM: What is the role of the designer in biourbanism?

SS: [Today’s] city is just an instrument for work, and for [making] money. Who is building our spaces? It’s usually someone who wants to make money off the land. We think this negatively affected design. If you look at designers, urban planners and architects are now like slaves. They have to obey the logic of [speculation].

We think that the best thing you can do is to come back to the body, and also to the social body in the sense that people should be able to build their own cities, their own spaces. Biourbanism means exactly that, that you are organizing a kind of network in which the techniques, tools, patterns, and systems of construction are available to everybody.

What you look for is to [help people] become aware of the relevance of space. You cannot have biological life, you cannot have economic life, you cannot have social life if you don't build a space that allows that. You cannot have politics if you do not have a square. Today, we have a common space that is just the place for boxes of good, and information. We just pass through the city. We go to our little boxes, our offices, our houses, and we look at screens and we get in touch, for example, with Los Angeles. But not with our neighbor.

Maybe we need to do something else. Something very interesting is starting to happen now. People are using Facebook, for example, to get in touch with other people living in their own city. They start a new social connection with people who are living just a few meters away who they didn't know. We would like to make this process available for urban design. The idea is of an urban planner who is a facilitator, somebody who can help people understand what they really need, what they really want.

That is what happened until the beginning of modernity, in a way. A city like Artena was not built according to any blueprint, there were no architects, no designers. But if you come here and you start walking through these beautiful stone streets, you will be amazed.

ABM: What cities, planners, or architects are using biourbanism in practice?

SS: It's difficult to say, because our ideas are growing free among young scholars and designers since we started spreading them four years ago. I think one can call several things made by Christopher Alexander "biourbanism," e.g. his Eishin School or the Mexicali project.

Antonio and I, Cecilia Rossing, Guglielmo Minervino, Milena Clausi, and a few others are now working in four small towns in central Italy: Artena, Segni, Carpineto Romano, and Gorga. Marco Casagrande, along with Menno Cramer and Katherine Donaghy, is [working on] the Paracity project, which comes after his experience in Treasure Hill, near Taipei. Mariagiovanna Turturo and her friends in the group Siamotuttitufi are renovating the ancient towns of Gravina in Puglia. We never build a city from scratch; biourbanism means re-sewing life in existing places.

ABM: We have severe affordable housing crises in cities around the world. How does biourbanism address housing?

SS: Paracity is one answer. Re-using local small towns—often abandoned, despite their intrinsic biophilic qualities—is another one. Recycling space, bringing it back to the quality of "place," is not an expensive operation. [It’s] not about concrete, trucks, and big money. Beauty is a matter of relationships.

ABM: How does biourbanism inform how citizens should provision their lives?

SS: We are observing how human neurophysiology reacts to the built environment, and what natural laws suggest about it. We don’t mean to say how people should live. We want to design for humans, not design humans.

We are learning from nature how to design in a way that [allows people to] be in connection with their environment and each other, because this makes them happier and more creative. Urban planning and economics share the same failure. Both give prominence to signs rather than to reality. Both are abstract, top down. This is exactly the topic of the international workshop, "Sociospatial Transformations Under the State of Emergency" that we are organizing immediately after the summer school. Not by chance will it be held in Greece—the country where Western civilization was born, and where the so-called economic crisis is hitting the heart of Europe. There is no economic crisis; it is, rather, a cultural crisis.

To put it poetically, design (urban, economic, political) is all about opening our senses, becoming real, letting our mind understand how life flows without bias.

Biourbanists emphasize "wholeness" as defined by Christopher Alexander, which emphasizes the emotional connection between people and their environment. (Courtesy International Society of Biourbanism)

Biourbanism Resources


International Society of Biourbanism

Journal of Biourbanism

Progetto Artena [Italian]

Progetto LEO [Italian]

City of Life blog

P2P Urbanism Wiki

Nikos Salingaro's home page

Casagrande Laboratory

Bionic City Flipboard


Caperna, Antonio. "La città come Network adattivo ipercomplesso". In "L’urbanistica che cambia. Rischi e Valori. XV SIU Conference. Pescara (Italy) 10-12 May 2012." Planum 2, no. 25 (2012). [Italian]

Caperna, Antonio, Alessandro Giangrande, Piero Mirabelli, and Elena Mortola, eds., Partecipazione e ICT: per una città vivibile. Rome: Gangemi, 2012. [Italian]

Caperna, Antonio, and Eleni Tracada. "Biourbanism for a Healthy City: Biophilia and Sustainable Urban Theories and Practices". In Proceedings Vol. 4: Biotechnology/Textile Technology/Fashion Technology of the International Convention on Innovations in Engineering and Technology for Sustainable Development, 3-5 September 2012, at Bannari Amman Institute of Technology, Tamil Nadu, India, FT-01-FT-09.

Caperna, Antonio, and Eleni Tracada. "A New Paradigm for Deep Sustainability: Biourbanism". In Application of Efficient & Renewable Energy Technologies in Low Cost Buildings and Construction Conference Proceedings, International Conference & Exhibition, 16-18 September 2013, Ankara-Turkey, Gazi University & University of South Wales, 367-381

Caperna, Antonio, and Stefano Serafini. "Biourbanism as a new framework for smart cities studies." In Geographic Information System for Smart Cities, ed. M. Vinod Kumar. London: Copal Publishing Group, 2013.

Casagrande, Marco. Biourban Acupuncture: Treasure Hill of Taipei to Artena. Rome: ISB, 2012.

De Matteis, Milena, and Stefano Serafini, eds. Progettare la città a misura d’uomo. L’alternativa ecologica del Gruppo Salìngaros: una città più bella e più giusta. Rome, 2010. [Italian]

Serafini, Stefano. "Abbattere Corviale!" Il Giornale dell’Architettura IX, no. 86 (July-August 2010): 2. [Italian]

Serafini, Stefano. "Abbattere Corviale è di destra o di sinistra?" Studi Cattolici 592 (June 2010): 434-5. [Italian]

Serafini, Stefano. "Liberazione partecipata dello spazio dall’iperreale. L’Italia come esperimento biourbanistico." In "Abitare l’Italia. Territori, economie, diseguaglianze, XIV Conferenza SIU, 24-26 March 2011." Planum (August 2011). [Italian]

Serafini, Stefano. "P2P (peer to peer) Urbanism and Biourbanism." In МЕЖДУНАРОДНАЯ НАУЧНАЯ ШКОЛА: Перспективные направления физико-химической биологии и биотехнологии (тезисы докладов), 11-15. Tomsk: Tomsk State University, 2011.

Serafini, Stefano. "Polis, la volontà dello sfregio." Cometa 5 (December 2010): 174-181. [Italian]

Serafini, Stefano. "Rinascimento epistemologico per reti biofiliche e glocali." Anthropos & Iatria XIV, no. 3 (2010): 48-52. [Italian]

Serafini, Stefano. "Ritorno alla città." Rassegna di Biourbanistica 0 (February 2011): 11-13. [Italian]

Serafini, Stefano. "Some notes about biological self-organization and biourbanism. Self-build processes and self-organising communities." B.E.S.T. Leonardo partnership symposium, University of Derby, 19 June 2014 (forthcoming).

Serafini, Stefano. "Sostenibiltà strutturale. Sergio Los e Mario Cucinella: analisi bio-urbanistica." Bioarchitettura 67 (2011): 60-63. [Italian]

Serafini, Stefano. "Totalitarismo del brutto. No alle archistar." Bioarchitettura 59 (October 2010): 4-11. [Italian]

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