Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

Towards a Worldbuilding Pattern Language

by Worldchanging Austin local blogger, Heath Rezabek
Article Photo

As we know from reading the containers of dishwashing detergents, something can be called ‘Green’ and not help to heal a tattered landscape or bring more life to an ecosystem. This is as true in our built ecosystems and architectures as anywhere else in product design, and this should not surprise us; ever since Le Corbusier’s ‘Machines for Living’ popularized the notion, the places we live, sleep, eat, love, celebrate and mourn have been products, commodities, marketed like any other.

But not until fairly recently have we been forced to be so discerning when judging the intent of greenwashing language and labels on building plans. With increasing concern over Global Climate Change, there has been a drive to frame new projects, of any kind, in environmental terms. Genuine concern over the direction of the climate has led to their adoption. Yet a building made of energy-efficient components can still work against the larger effort to create a living ecology of urban design, by breaking down the gradients of density needed to cultivate it. Until we can understand and articulate to others why uncharacteristic projects are not sustainable in a genuine sense, we will be at a loss when confronting these situations in our communities.

A Pattern Language is a unique work in the realm of built design, because its singular goal is to empower individuals and small communities to tackle monumental works through a commonly understood toolkit for building places at all scales.

What is a Pattern Language?

“The elements of this language are entities called Patterns. Each Pattern describes a problem which occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to that problem, in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice.? - A Pattern Language, C.A., p.x

A Pattern Language describes the intense interrelation between acts of building which happen, each in response to those around it. Each Pattern names a spatial context, a problem, and a solution which resolves the conflicts at work there. In many cases, the name of the pattern itself conveys a directive version of its solution (ie, "Main Gateway" or "Roof Garden").

The built world did not pop into being at random; a door is a door (and is also a rudimentary pattern) because of the human events which shaped its form (in this example, the act of entering and exiting a space was then developed into a solution to the problem of keeping elements out and warmth in). “This does not mean that space creates events, or that it causes them,? writes Alexander. “It simply means that a pattern of events cannot be separated from the space where it occurs.? (The Timeless Way of Building, p72-73).

In many ways, Alexander is suggesting that form and function or style and substance cannot be so easily disentangled as we would believe. If we understand this, then we can understand why the character of a given neighborhood is so difficult to restore once it is destroyed: to destroy a neighborhood’s forms (houses, etc) is very much to destroy its functions (communities, etc). Before the decimation of old-growth neighborhoods in the latter half of the 20th century, the interwoven patterns of behavior which governed a cafe below an apartment, or a small park by a school, or a home with a garden of one’s own, were everywhere. They had taken years to build up, each in response to the ones around it.

A single highway, built to carry the cars which brought on much of our present climate crisis, also cut swaths through intricate urban environments. We understand this much. But as we race against unsustainability to restore the urban environments we clearcut, we are forgetting that the new places we build will impact their environments and neighborhoods just as massively as our highways did.

A Pattern Language names the pattern which applies to the 7th street tower situation: “Four Story Limit?. Yet it actually speaks to a question of proportion, and indeed can be reapplied at the larger level of the region, and at the smaller level of individual home design. Patterns of Home (Jacobson, Silverstein and Winslow) names it simply “Parts in Proportion?. Sarah Susanka, in her own home-scaled Pattern Language book Home By Design, simply infuses her entire Pattern Language with proportion and relative scale.

Patterns either strengthen or weaken those around them. To the extent that a pattern strengthens and contributes to the life of those around it, the pattern is sustainable. To the extent that a pattern weakens and detracts from the life of those around it, the pattern is unsustainable. Truly sustainable Patterns can be marked by the extent to which they contribute to the vitality of their surroundings.

Any place is inherently bound up with its surroundings; when it fails to help strengthen them, “The centre cannot hold.? (Yeats) As we begin to see that interdependence is just as much a factor in our urban as in our natural ecosystems, the concept of sustainability takes on a new urgency and import. For it is our neighborhoods and communities which will have to withstand and absorb the strain of future crises.

Just in time for large-scale action on Global Climate Change, words like ‘Green’ and ‘Sustainable’ have become political. But this leaves us needing to redefine the ways in which they are used for the creation or destruction of living neighborhoods, as much as living ecosystems. At the least, there is hope for defining sustainable in terms of a system’s synergy (which builds over time) or its self-defeating lack of it (which breaks a system down over time). Working on a Worldchanging Pattern Language will allow us to build a flexible but precise tool.

The task of redefining sustainable neighborhoods matters, because genuinely living neighborhoods will be called on to serve double and triple duty as the viability of outlying and sprawling areas become unable to support a culture shifting painfully away from an automotive basis. Until and unless we can hone our way of describing these problems and solutions, the crisis of inner-ring suburbs will intensify as disproportionate central urban projects continue to push outwards on those who cannot afford to live compactly.

If we do not have the coherence of language needed to protect our central urban neighborhoods from unsustainable design, then we certainly will not have the words to convert (for example) greyfield suburban mall areas into town centers. (See also Worldchanging p241) And if we cannot, we run the risk of looking back from desperately unsustainable and crumbling subdivisions, to 2007, when such ideas as mall inversions were seen simply as a forefront of progressive New Urban development and not a lifesaving adaptive measure.

As recent events demonstrate, the time for us to understand these things universally enough to communicate them with impact... is yesterday.

Bookmark and Share


This is one of my very favorite books, and I have read it several times. I refer to it often when making Permaculture design decisions.

But it is a bit much to dive into. I recommend people read "A Timeless Way Of Building" first. It has a unique book design -- you can get the gist of it in one sitting of an hour or two by reading only the italicized paragraphs.

Once you understand "A Timeless Way," "A Pattern Language" will make much more sense.

Posted by: Jan Steinman on 17 Feb 07

Jan, I agree; my respect for 'The Timeless Way of Building' has grown and grown over the years. For any author with big ideas to care more about getting the main point across than the illusion that everyone who needs that point will also read the whole thing, is admirable in itself. :) It also foreshadows evolutions in C.A.'s approach which come to full fruition only in 'The Nature of Order,' written many years later.

I'll be referencing Timeless Way a lot as this series continues. Thanks for the comment!

Posted by: Heath M Rezabek on 17 Feb 07

Heath, thanks for a great post. Something fundamental about Patterns is that, like DNA, they're instructions, not descriptions. We can try describing a sustainable world until we're blue in the face, but the real test is whether we can develop the instructions and processes - the DNA if you will - that will create a sustainable world.

I hope you're aware of the Patterns of a Conservation Economy, work done by the EcoTrust of Portland, Oregon. The underlying idea is explained in this article, by Stuart Cowan. It's an admirable effort, though it falls far short of what's needed. We now have the tools to undertake a worldwide, collaborative, wiki-like Pattern Language of Sustainability, extending and enhancing the work of Alexander, the EcoTrust and others.

Posted by: David Foley on 18 Feb 07

Hello Heath,
I think creating a Green Pattern Language is a wonderful idea. I worked as an apprentice with Christopher Alexander for four years in Berkeley in the 1980's when he was working on his Nature of Order series. He has profoundly influenced my thinking. I have often wondered if there might be a way to marry Alexander's pattern work with the movement toward sustainability. I believe that creating a Green Pattern Language would be a wonderful way to pause and reflect on what truly works, instead of hurtling off in any "green" direction.
Good article!

Posted by: Fiona Theodoredis on 18 Feb 07

Don't forget Bill McDonough's ecological design principles:
waste equals food
use only available solar income
respect diversity
love all the children

I'd say maximize solar access is a sustainable pattern in the language we need to learn how to speak.

Posted by: gmoke on 18 Feb 07

Great! At MCAD we love these books -- Timeless Way is used for our on-line systems course (offered this summer) and APL is used for _Sustainability Or Else_ Students are starting to make small pattern languages. Norbert H. made one about pathways in parks that is very useful for city councils making contractor decisions. He is now working on a project at where the team is mapping biomimicry information as patterns. APL is a great study group book -- get together twice a month, start at the beginning, and see how the five patterns you are looking at apply in your work or community.

Posted by: Curt Mcnamara on 19 Feb 07

Forgot to include my e-mail :

Posted by: Curt McNamara on 19 Feb 07

David, thanks for the link to EcoTrust's Patterns. I'll try to weave this in to one of the upcoming parts of this series. Your point about a Pattern Language being a generative approach is on target with where I'm headed; in the next part, I tackle the first three traits I've seen as related to this: Scale, Sequence, and Scope. I should be posting that to the Worldchanging Austin page in a few days. (By the way, perhaps we'll see some of you at SXSW!)

I have been talking with Jon Lebkowsky a bit about the idea of actually doing this within a Wiki, though a bit more preparation is needed. One of the reasons WikiPedia is so successful, I think, is that the idea of an 'encyclopedia article' lends structure to an often-scattered medium (wikis). A Pattern Language also carries a semi-formal template for an entry, so I think there's hope for a very focused but still organic resource. Describing that template and taking a stab at a Pattern drawn from the Worldchanging guide will be the subject of Part 3 (this being Part 1). Stay tuned.

Fiona, the amazing thing about A Pattern Language is that is approach has spread across a variety of fields, and will continue to do so whether used in the context of WorldChanging, or the Greens, or EcoTrust, or indeed software programmers. I also know that, now that Alexander's completed the Nature of Order series, to him A Pattern Language seems far too complex... but it serves as a starting point, a toolkit for peeling away the layers to get at the more fundamental thesis of NoE. It's on my to-do list to get to that work as well, because I think it has a powerful and maybe sobering premise. But, all seeds spring best in due season... :) It may be only now that A Pattern Language is germinating widely enough...

- Heath

Posted by: Heath M Rezabek on 19 Feb 07

Heath (and Jon), that's great news about the potential wiki.

I worked with Chris Alexander for a short while in the 1980's, and I've thought a lot about this topic since then. I think it has even more potential than
described in your fine post. I'd hate to bore anyone, but I've placed a
PDF file on an FTP site. It's of a presentation I've given many times on
Pattern Languages and Sustainability - this particular version is for an
online course I teach for an architectural school in Boston. If anyone's
interested, they can find it here:

It's in a folder called "pub" and the file is called "BACPatterns.pdf". It
might be relevant to this topic.

I'm really interested in furthering the idea of a collaborative Pattern
Language of sustainability.

Posted by: David Foley on 19 Feb 07

I strongly endorse reading Timeless Way, but disagree that APL is difficult. It is complex yet is very accessible, and is perhaps the best book on human built systems that we have. There are several reasons for this: 1)Patterns are illustrated and shown to be the resolution of forces. 2)Patterns are linked up and down. 3)We all know houses.
To use it as a design tool adds interconnections back into the system whereas most housing design takes connections away (a key reason APL leads to sustainable designs).
We have found that it can be hard to build a good pattern language. 1)Pattern languages are not a single brain problem. 2)It takes significant time and energy. 3)Often the patterns seem too simple to us as we focus on the new. Recall that APL was built over years by a team of people who negotiated how strong they felt the patterns were. This is not a one month project! Yet you can build the outlines, make it accessible, and let others contribute. Sort of open source for sustainability. You are proposing an outstanding project -- please sign me up for the team!

Posted by: Curt McNamara on 19 Feb 07

Can we combine pattern language (+ perhaps Nature of order) with the following:

- Fundamental Processes in Ecology - An Earth Systems approach (look at book by the same name by David M. Wilkinson)

- System Dynamics Modeling (perhaps combined with Soft Systems Methodology) for modeling our systems.

- Self-regulating systems from cybernetic (e.g. Viable Systems Model by Beer) for understanding various levels of self-regulating systems.

- Emergy & Exergy calculations and Energy Systems Language (e.g. H.Odum) for understanding our energy transfers and system boundaries.

- Learning through simulation. We can't build everything at once and learn our mistakes by building as it's a fairly slow process, so we could benefit from simulation first. Yes, even simple ones. I've tried AnyLogic 6 myself and it offers multiple modeling levels even for non-programmers (to do SD level analysis) and supports standard Java simulation models. There are other programs too, like the free VensimPE available for this.

Something like this would be an effort worth considering, but how to approach it?

Who is already doing work like this?

How to get to tangible and inspiring results quickest?

How to build on that success and go forward?

Posted by: SamuM on 20 Feb 07

To SamuM: These are pretty different things! Anyone could participate in creating or using a pattern language (the farmer, the carpenter, the home-owner and the architect). Creating and using computer based models is a whole 'nother kettle of fish. It turns out we do this in MN, and are looking for a project right now. If you want to work with us drop me a line: (

It might be possible to use simple models to "test out" patterns. I wonder about diffusion of innovation and creating a cell-based model (as opposed to the aggregate models) which could lead to deeper understanding of how innovations "catch on".

Posted by: Curt McNamara on 20 Feb 07

To my eyes, most of the approaches you mention, SamuM, are tools falling into the realm of the sorts of things WorldChanging brings together. To be fair, a Pattern Language is a tool also, but it is also a metatool grounded in real-world action and creation. If (and it's only an 'if') we end up with a Pattern Language tying WorldChanging tools together, it'd probably be best to keep the semi-formal structure of the original Pattern Language, and weave our other tools into individual patterns.

Each of the approaches you mention is a way of looking at a part of the world, and of describing it. As with any other pattern, each would prosper based on how fully it ties in with other tools and approaches, and how readily its use can be described as a sequence of actions leading to unmistakable results in the physical world.

- Heath

Posted by: Heath M Rezabek on 20 Feb 07

SamuM: Thank you for the reference to AnyLogic 6, I have forwarded it to our working group here. We like their example of diffusion of innovation using agents.

As I am sure you know, soft systems and viable systems models are used for human activity systems -- the study of organizations. This is real and fundamental, and raises the question of whether a pattern language should be about stuff (as APL is about buildings, as Bucky Fuller was about artifacts) or if it should stress best practice in things like open source or customer driven innovation (von Hippel,

Thanks also for the reference on Ecology!
Curt (

Posted by: Curt McNamara on 21 Feb 07

For future reference, Part II is logged in the Austin Blog. Quite a bit too abstract for the main site, I imagine, it's here for posterity and anyone who wants to follow the thread from here on to Part III (final) after it.

- Heath

Posted by: Heath M Rezabek on 24 Feb 07



MESSAGE (optional):

Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg