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 The Pattern That Connects: Practicing Sustainability At Many Scales . David M. Foley Holland & Foley Building Design, LLC Northport, Maine. Dedicated To Christopher Alexander. Architect Builder Author Teacher. Alexander’s Thesis:.

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the pattern that connects practicing sustainability at many scales

The Pattern That Connects: Practicing Sustainability At Many Scales

David M. Foley

Holland & Foley Building Design, LLC

Northport, Maine

dedicated to christopher alexander
Dedicated ToChristopher Alexander
  • Architect
  • Builder
  • Author
  • Teacher
alexander s thesis
Alexander’s Thesis:
  • The world isn’t made of things, it’s generated from relationships.
  • Relationships that repeat are called “Patterns”. A “Pattern” is a set of relationships that solves a recurring problem.
  • Patterns are like seeds. A flower isn’t manufactured; it’s generated from a seed. Our built world isn’t manufactured; it’s generated by processes that reflect the Patterns in our minds.
  • Individual Patterns can be combined to form Pattern Languages. Consciously or not, we use Pattern Languages to create our world.
  • The quality and sustainability of our civilization depend on the quality and sustainability of our processes and Pattern Languages.
wow that s abstract why does it matter
“Wow • That’s Abstract! Why Does It Matter?”
  • If you’re interested in sustainability:
    • Pattern Languages give you a “vocabulary” to share with others;
    • Pattern Languages help you link your efforts with others;
    • Pattern Languages could form a “genetic code” of sustainability;
    • Pattern Languages can be discussed, criticized, improved. They’re “open source.” They improve with use and sharing.
perhaps most important
Perhaps Most Important:
  • We can discover Patterns for any scale, from household to bioregion.
  • Patterns at different scales can be linked and coordinated.
  • Using Pattern Languages, sustainability efforts at different scales, and in different disciplines, can aid & give rise to one another.
sustainability and the difficult question of scale
“How, after all, can anybody…heal a planet?…The large problems occur because all of us are living either partly wrong or almost entirely wrong…Our problems, as they are suffered in our lives, our households and our communities, have attracted very little intelligence…Our understandable wish to preserve the planet must somehow be reduced to the scale of our competence - that is, thewish to preserve all of its humble households and neighborhoods.”• Wendell Berry

“Can we move nations and people in the direction of sustainability? Such a move would be a modification of society comparable in scale to…the Agricultural Revolution…and the Industrial Revolution…Those revolutions were gradual, spontaneous and largely unconscious. This one will have to be a fully conscious operation…If we actually do it, the undertaking will be absolutely unique in humanity’s stay on Earth.”• William D. Ruckelshaus

Sustainability and The Difficult Question of Scale:
thought traps to avoid
“Thought Traps” To Avoid:
  • “It’s hopeless - the sheer size and scope of global problems means we’re doomed.”
  • “Our problems are the sum of individual choices - change your lifestyle and everything will be fine.”
  • “It’s all the fault of big government and corporations - rein them in!”
  • “Environmental problems come from misguided attempts to regulate markets - let the ‘magic of the marketplace’ work.”
  • “Environmental problems are caused by too many poor people breeding.”
  • “Environmental problems are caused by too many rich people consuming.”

Environmental problems have multiple causes across multiple scales. So do the solutions.

ecosystem as a metaphor for sustainability efforts thanks to judy berk
“Ecosystem” As A MetaphorFor Sustainability Efforts(Thanks To Judy Berk)
  • Not like a “Monoculture”: one species occupying all the space, doing one thing. Monocultures fail spectacularly.
  • Not like a “Zoo”: a few of each species, in artificial habitats, with no connections. Zoos preserve individuals, not populations.
  • Like an “Ecosystem”: many species, niches and scales; sharing energy, materials & information; co-evolving; increasing the system’s ability to support all members.
unintended consequences across scales
Large to Small:

Maine Turnpike Authority decides to widen turnpike to alleviate congestion;

Wider turnpike encourages more traffic;

Traffic congestion increases, spills onto secondary roads;

State & towns contemplate widening secondary roads.

Small to Large:

Each farmer wants to earn more;

Each farmer buys more inputs and grows more crops;

Price of inputs rises & price of crops falls;

Each farmer, to break even, buys more inputs and grows more crops.

Multi-billion dollar Federal crop support & offset programs.

“Unintended Consequences” Across Scales:
multiple benefits across scales
Energy Conservation:

Saves money;

Creates jobs;

Reduces pollution;

Increases security;

Frees capital;

Promotes equity.

3rd World Micro Credit:

Creates opportunity;

Reduces poverty;

Empowers women;

Reduces child mortality;

Lowers population growth.

Multiple Benefits Across Scales:

Effects across scales are called “cascades.” We need to create “beneficial cascades”. Pattern Languages can help us do this.

essential reading
Essential Reading
  • A Pattern Language,by Christopher Alexander & Colleagues
  • The Timeless Way of Building,by Christopher Alexander
  • For Further Study:
  • The Nature of Order,by Christopher Alexander
a pattern
A Pattern:
  • Describes a problem that recurs in the environment;
  • Describes the core of a solution, in a way that allows it to be created repeatedly without ever being exactly the same;
  • Describes the Patterns that come before it, and the Patterns that spring from it.
pattern city country fingers
Pattern: “City-Country Fingers”
  • Problem: sprawl & lack of green space - but cities need to be dense;
  • Solution: interlocking open space & urban land, in “fingers” about 1 mile wide each;
  • Linked to “Agricultural Valleys”, “Mosaic of Subcultures” & “Web of Public Transportation”.Source: “A Pattern Language”, pp 21-25.
pattern pools and streams
Pattern: “Pools and Streams”
  • Problem: We need access to water for health & spirit, but in cities, water is often out of reach.
  • Solution: preserve natural pools & streams in cities; make paths & bridges for people to walk along them;
  • Linked to “Neighborhood Boundary”, “Quiet Backs” & “Pedestrian Street”.Source: “A Pattern Language”, pp 322-327.
pattern entry transition
Pattern: “Entry Transition”
  • Problem: an abrupt entry doesn’t allow mental transition from “public” to “private”;
  • Solution: change of light, sound, surface as one leaves street and reaches door;
  • Linked to “Zen View”, “Garden Wall”, “Trellised Walk” & “Entrance Room”.Source: “A Pattern Language”, pp 548-552.
pattern wildlife corridor
Pattern: “Wildlife Corridor”


(Portland, Oregon)

“Patterns of A Conservation Economy”

  • Problem: Natural habitat as isolated “islands” too fragmented to protect biodiversity;
  • Solution: Undeveloped “corridors” connecting core reserves help reverse habitat fragmentation;
  • Could be linked to “City-Country Fingers”.
pattern watershed services
Pattern: “Watershed Services”


“A Conservation Economy • What Does A Sustainable Society Look Like?”

  • Problem: Watersheds often degraded by development, losing critical natural services;
  • Solution: Restore watersheds with full complement of native plants & animals;
  • Could be linked to “Pools & Streams”.
pattern dooryard garden
Pattern (?): “Dooryard Garden”
  • Problem: Food production is remote from cities; “lawns” are often wasteful and environmentally destructive;
  • Solution: Use small spaces in cities for gardens & orchards;
  • Could be linked to “Entry Transition”.
summary pattern languages scale
Our world isn’t made of things; it’s generated from Patterns.

Patterns are rules that describe a problem and give a tangible solution that can be locally adapted.

Patterns are linked, from large to small, to form Pattern Languages.

Pattern Languages can be shared, discussed and improved.

Pattern Languages are a common ground for people working in different disciplines and at different scales.

That’s why Pattern Languages are vital for sustainability efforts.

Summary: Pattern Languages & Scale
a pattern is an instruction
A Pattern Is An Instruction
  • Each Pattern follows these rules:
    • It has a name that describes its essence;
    • Its essence can be illustratedwith a photo or drawing;
    • It describes a problem, giving clear evidence from empirical observation or scientific reasoning;
    • It proposes a solution as wholesomerelationships that you can create in the world, adapted to your circumstances.

A Pattern doesn’t just describe a solution - it teaches you how to generate the solution, concretely, in the world.

generating versus describing
Generating Versus Describing

How do I create it?

What is it?

Genes don’t carry descriptions, they carry instructions.

generating versus describing1
Generating Versus Describing

Here’s the result...

Here’s what to do…

Describing the result isn’t the same as giving instructions.

generating versus describing2
Generating Versus Describing

Architecture describing end result.

Architecture showing how to generate a result.

A Pattern helps you understand what to do.

not a pattern green business
Current business practices often harm ecosystems & human communities.

Green businesses use resources efficiently & emphasize broader community benefit for a “Triple Bottom Line”.

A lovely sentiment, but not yet a Pattern.

Describes a worthwhile end, but doesn’t contain instructions.

A “Green Business Rating” might be a Pattern.

Not a Pattern: “Green Business”


a pattern activity nodes
A Pattern: “Activity Nodes”
  • Problem: Community facilities scattered individually through the city do nothing for each other or for the life of the city;
  • Solution: Create “nodes” of activity, about 300 yards apart - locate existing places of “action”; modify paths & roads to lead to “nodes”; create a small public square at each “node”. Source: A Pattern Language pp. 163-167.
not a pattern beauty and play
We need opportunities for deep relaxation, for beauty, and to simply play.

Celebrate beauty, wholeness and play as central features of life.

Who’d disagree?

We aren’t directly empowered to create something by this.

A description of a lovely outcome, but not generative instructions - not a Pattern.

Not a Pattern: “Beauty and Play”


a pattern accessible green
A Pattern: ”Accessible Green”
  • Problem: People need green open places to go, but if the greens are more than 3 minutes away, the distance overwhelms the need.
  • Solution: Build one open public green within 3 minutes’ walk - about 750 feet - of every house and workplace. Make the greens at least 150 feet across, and at least 60,000 square feet. Source: A Pattern Language, pp. 304-309
summary patterns are instructions
A Pattern describes a problem, the system of forces usually present in the problem, and a solution that resolves those forces.

A Pattern is an instruction showing you how the solution can be used repeatedly to solve the problem.

A Pattern is a solution presented as something tangible and desirable that can be created.

A Pattern doesn’t just describe a desirable outcome - it contains instructions for generating the outcome.

A Pattern is like a seed or gene.

Summary: Patterns Are Instructions
a pattern allows adaptation
A Pattern doesn’t describe a specific thing to be copied.

It describes the general field of relationships that solves a recurring problem in the world.

Specific relationships govern a Pattern, not specific parts.

A Pattern is specific about how things must work and relate to solve a problem.

But a Pattern can be adapted to local circumstances, made of local materials, modified where local culture and customs require.

A Pattern Allows Adaptation
pattern cascade of roofs
Pattern: “Cascade of Roofs”
  • Problem: Few buildings are structurally or socially sound unless roofs step down at ends;
  • Solution: Visualize building as system of roofs, highest over main spaces, with lower and buttressing roofs cascading down.Source: A Pattern Language, pp. 565-568.

The same Pattern expressed in different cultures, contexts and materials.

pattern traffic calming
Pattern: “Traffic Calming”
  • Problem: Excessive vehicle speed in dense neighborhoods is dangerous, but we rely on vehicles.
  • Solution: Use change of surface, narrowing of road, curves, or a combination to slow down vehicles.

Speed Table



Half Circle

a pattern is a process not a thing
A Pattern Is A Process, Not A Thing

The process generates the same relationships, but adapts them to a particular setting.

Pictures courtesy of Samuel Zschokke

same process adapted results
Same Process, Adapted Results

The same process generates endless variety.

summary a pattern allows adaptation
Summary: A Pattern Allows Adaptation
  • A Pattern helps you create a specific field of relationships. The relationships and the problem they solve are constant in a Pattern.
  • When you create one particular instance of a Pattern, you need to adapt it to local cultures, climates, customs, & materials.
  • An idea that can’t be adapted to different settings is unlikely to be a Pattern.
discovering patterns
“Discovering” Patterns
  • Observe & interact with the world around you;
  • Focus on a problem you observe;
  • Articulate why you think it’s a problem;
  • In a particular place, how would you repair the problem?
  • What relationships must you improve to repair the problem?
  • Would your repair extend and enhance wholeness and health in the environment? Does it create something you really want?
  • Could you teach someone how to make the repair somewhere else, and why it’s a good idea?
  • Can you explain the context in which your repair makes sense?
observe focus articulate
Observe, Focus, Articulate
  • The same water, essential to life, cycling billions of years;
  • Watersheds connecting households to regions to planet;
  • Water purified through biology and hydrology;
  • “Waste” in water is “food” for a biological process;
  • We must treat water the way Nature does.
observe focus articulate1
Observe, Focus, Articulate
  • Biological nutrients can be a resource, not “waste”;
  • Biological & hydrological processes can purify water, if we let them work;
  • Certain chemicals must be isolated from water cycles.

“The Problem Is The Solution”

pattern perhaps compost
Pattern (Perhaps): Compost
  • Stockpile organic matter & allow it to compost to humus;
  • Use compost to increase soil organic matter;
  • Substitute compost for chemical fertilizers when possible.
pattern perhaps living machine
Pattern (Perhaps): “Living Machine”
  • Construct “artificial wetlands” to allow plants & microbes to purify “wastewater”;
  • Where appropriate, use “wastewater” to grow useful plants by hydroponics.
pattern perhaps flowform
Pattern (Perhaps): “Flowform”
  • Construct “flowforms”: shapes that mimic natural turbulence, oxygenating effect of pools & streams;
  • Combine “flowforms” with “living machines” to combine hydrological & biological processes.
pattern perhaps riparian buffer
Pattern (Perhaps): “Riparian Buffer”
  • Maintain multi-species vegetated buffers along stream banks;
  • Build check dams, weirs, retention ponds, to mimic natural hydrologic processes.
pattern perhaps just in time chemicals
Pattern (Perhaps): “Just-In-Time Chemicals”
  • “Biomimicry”: Venomous snakes make tiny amounts of toxin just before striking;
  • Re-engineer manufacturing processes to make small amounts of feedstock chemical just before use.
one fundamental process of creation and repair
“One of the beauties of biology is that its facts can become our metaphors. These underlying codes may also serve as inspiring parables for how as human beings we might organize a more just, humane and authentically sustainable society.”- Kenny Ausubel

“This is a fundamental view of the world. It says that when you build a thing you cannot build that thing in isolation, but must also repair the world around it, and within it, so that the larger world at that one place becomes more coherent, and more whole; and the thing you make takes its place in the web of nature, as you make it.”- Christopher Alexander

One Fundamental Process of Creation and Repair

In Nature, the same process grows and heals organisms.

improving patterns by sharing
Improving Patterns By Sharing
  • If you can’t explain a Pattern, it still needs work;
  • Patterns aren’t much use unless they’re shared;
  • A Pattern, like a scientific hypothesis, is tested and improved through peer review;
  • Sharing your Patterns keeps you honest: your “Principles” may be personal dogma.
summary discovering patterns
Observe carefully;

Focus on a problem;

Articulate why it’s a problem;

Look for problem’s cause in failed relationships;

Look for healthy, functioning relationships as an alternative - envision what you really want;

Propose repairs to the relationships;

Describe the repairs as an instruction, so someone else can do it too;

Describe the context in which your Pattern makes sense;

Share the Pattern, and let it be improved by experience and feedback.

Summary: “Discovering” Patterns
linking patterns to form pattern languages
Linking Patterns To Form Pattern Languages
  • Patterns aren’t isolated - they arise from larger Patterns and lead to smaller ones.
  • Each Pattern lies within a network. The Patterns and their linkages together form a Pattern Language.
  • Different Patterns apply to different scales.
  • Using Patterns in a sequence, from larger to smaller, keeps a problem manageable.
  • At a given scale, the number of Patterns should be small: about 7, give or take 2.
patterns are linked
Patterns Are Linked
  • Patterns in these villages:
    • “Degrees of Publicness”
    • “House Cluster”
    • “Main Gateways”
    • “Quiet Backs”
    • “Small Public Squares”
    • “Holy Ground”
    • “Public Outdoor Room”

These Patterns combine to form part of the Pattern Language of these villages.

patterns are linked1
Patterns Are Linked
  • Patterns in these streets:
    • “Network of Paths & Cars”
    • “Individually Owned Shops”
    • “Pedestrian Street”
    • “Building Fronts”
    • “Opening To The Street”

If you produce these Patterns, one by one, eventually you’ll create streets like these.

using patterns in sequence
Using Patterns In Sequence
  • To site a building - this sequence works:
    • “Site Repair” tells you to build on the worst land, not the best;
    • “South Facing Outdoors” tells you to place outdoor spaces in the sun;
    • “Positive Outdoor Space” tells you to make the outdoor spaces have a definite shape;
    • “Main Entrance” tells you to place the entry so it can be seen from the main approach;
    • “Entrance Transition” tells you to articulate the garden & path along the building approach;
    • “Car Connection” tells you to park the car near the Main Entry, at the beginning of the Entry Transition.
not using patterns in sequence
NOT Using Patterns In Sequence
  • These Patterns, to design a house, out of sequence, won’t work:
    • “Short Passages” tells you to keep corridors short, as much like rooms as possible;
    • “Alcoves” tells you to place small alcoves within larger rooms;
    • “Building Edge” tells you to treat the edge of the building as a thick “place” where people can be ;
    • “Children’s Realm” tells you to make a special place in the house for children;
    • “Farmhouse Kitchen” tells you to place the family and cooking areas in one big room, with a counter separating them;
    • “Intimacy Gradient” tells you to arrange the spaces according to degree of privacy.
from wholeness to details
From Wholeness To Details
  • Work from wholes to details;
  • At each step, preserve the wholeness that came before;
  • Add details at finer and finer scales.
the magical number seven plus or minus two
The Magical Number Seven, Plus Or Minus Two
  • We’re not good at complexity - the human mind can grasp about 5 to 9 ideas at once.
  • To be useful, Pattern Languages need to recognize this.
  • A Pattern Language presents most of its Patterns in “clusters” of between 5 and 9.
  • If you have more than 9 Patterns addressing one issue, then:
    • Your Patterns may not be well formed;
    • It may be time to work at a different scale.
  • Taking one Pattern at a time, you can still create detailed richness.
summary linking patterns to form pattern languages
Patterns and their linkages together form Pattern Languages.

Patterns have different scales. Smaller scale Patterns are born from larger scale ones.

Use Patterns in sequence to keep things manageable.

At a given scale, the ideal number of Patterns is between 5 and 9.

Summary: Linking Patterns To Form Pattern Languages
the geometry of pattern languages
The Geometry of Pattern Languages
  • Pattern Languages shape space with geometry that:
    • Is made of larger and smaller “centers”;
    • Creates profound, articulated boundaries;
    • Like Nature, is fractal.
what s a center
What’s A “Center”?
  • A “Center” is an organized zone of space perceived as “whole”. It’s a “Gestalt”.
  • “Centers” are recursive - they’re “made” out of smaller “Centers” and they help create larger “Centers”.
examples of centers
Examples of “Centers”


Butterfly & Flowers

Paris Door

Agate Crystal


Gothic Cathedral

examples of centers1
Examples of “Centers”

Tibetan Mandala

African Village

Indian Stupa

Isfahan Rug

Bramante’s Church Plan

Japanese Garden

centers in alexander s work
“Centers” In Alexander’s Work

Arcade at Eishin

Great Hall at Eishin

Julian St. Homeless Shelter

Terrazo Floor

Farmhouse Kitchen

Plan for Oregon Campus

patterns focus on boundaries
Patterns Focus On Boundaries
  • Patterns are fields of relationships - which happen across boundaries;
  • Patterns make boundaries into profound places - not just “lines”;
  • In Nature, boundaries are complex, rich places to exchange energy, nutrients, information;
  • Sustainability is often about protecting and enriching boundaries.
pattern city country fingers1
Pattern: “City Country Fingers”
  • “Sprawl” partly caused by people seeking edge between city & country;
  • This Pattern creates lots of “edge” in a compact area.
boundaries in nature
Boundaries in Nature

Intestinal Wall


River Delta


Sun’s Corona

Cell Membranes

boundaries lacking
Boundaries Lacking



Compare this…

to this,


to this,

or this.

pattern languages create fractal like geometry
Pattern Languages Create “Fractal-Like” Geometry
  • Like Fractals, Pattern Languages:
    • Are “made” of repeating “Centers”;
    • Create ever-richer detail at finer & finer scales;
    • Preserve existing wholeness as they develop;
    • Generate complexity by repeating simple processes.

(Source: Nikos Salingaros)

what s a fractal
What’s A Fractal?
  • Like a Pattern, it’s not a thing, it’s a relationship.
  • A fractal is the repetition of a process, governed by simple rules, at finer and finer scales.
fractals generate rich forms
Fractals Generate Rich Forms

“Queen Anne’s





Strong “Centers” and Profound Boundaries

fractals are everywhere
Fractals Are Everywhere

Leaf Surface

Bronchial Tubes

Bacteria Colony


Real Fern

Real Tree

fractals in human culture
Fractals In Human Culture

Plan of African


Chartres Rose Window

Indian Stupa

Khotan Rug

Venetian Floor


Eiffel Tower

fractals centers resonate in our psyches
Fractals & Centers Resonate In Our Psyches

Compare this…

To this.


To this.

summary pattern language geometry
Patterns create geometry that:

Is made of multiple “centers”, each “center” helping form other “centers”;

Forms profound boundaries that are places in and of themselves;

Is “fractal”, with repeating patterns in space across multiple scales;

Is akin to the geometry of Nature.

Summary: Pattern Language Geometry
pattern languages regenerative design
Pattern Languages teach that sustainability requires us to repair and enrich relationships across multiple scales.

They ask us to reintegrate our civilization with Nature.

“Regenerative design requires that we participate with nature in a mutually beneficial relationship…(and) an awareness of what gives health to a place… so that the systems (human and natural) have an opportunity to organize in self-healing relationships.”

-William Reed & David Eisenberg

Pattern Languages & “Regenerative Design”
a different sense of place
A Different Sense of Place
  • 3 central facts of civilization are water, soil and climate.
  • Where you live, understand & interact with:
    • Your watershed;
    • The soil beneath your feet;
    • The natural energy flows around you.
  • Know the Pattern Language of your region. If you don’t like the one you find, make another.
a new opportunity
A New Opportunity
  • The Internet allows us to share and transmit ideas worldwide.
  • Sustainable Pattern Languages, shared through the Internet, could amplify and multiply our efforts.
  • Could we create and share a “genetic code” of sustainability?

Map of the Internet

(Source: The Opte Project)

a new opportunity1
A New Opportunity
  • Metcalfe’s Law: The value of a communication system grows (approximately) as the square of the number of users.
  • Reed’s Law: The utility of networks, especially social networks, can scale exponentially with their size.
  • “Wiki”: Collaborative authoring using a simple editing language and a web browser; originated in “Object-Oriented Design” community of computer programmers, directly inspired by Chris Alexander & colleagues. For example, see
  • Could we build on the work of Alexander & the EcoTrust to create an open-source Pattern Language of Sustainability - a template for a different world?
an invitation
An Invitation
  • Let’s share what we know.
  • Let’s develop a common language.
  • Let’s get to work creating a sustainable civilization.
  • This could be fun!