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Les squires

I have been following this conversation with great interest, but have had life challenges that have kept me from participating too much.  This note is to share a few resources and to launch an inquiry into why a pattern language approach is important and to challenge us to not just study the pattern language that Rob is creating, but to also engage with it in a critical way, to begin to write our own patterns that may or may not be incorporated into his project, and to think about how it can apply to transition in the US.


So resources:

1) Peggy Holman of Seattle has a new book out which is a pattern language based approach to working in communities and organizations

         Engaging Emergence: Turning Upheaval into Opportunity


2) Doug Schuler also of Seattle an academic and long time activist around communications issues

         Liberating Voices: a Pattern Language for a Communications Revolution

 see for sample chapters,

  More importantly see:, it shows the community based approach to creating a pattern language in civil society.  The book has a bunch of evaluatory explorations as well:  how do we know if the PL actually is useful or not etc.


3) Tree Bresson and others in Eugene and up and down the pacific coast (including me a bit) have been developing a pattern language for meaningful group conversations:  the exciting thing about this work is that sees the PL as not just patterns, but patterns and the relationships between them, patterns are upstream or down stream from each other ets.   patterns have been developed asan online and in person prjectover the last year and a half.   While the patterns are held in a wiki form, they have been developed individually or in dialog.  There have been numerous community meetings and email list to augment theonline process.



Both the second and third projects, have software tools to facilitate the sharing and refining of patterns. I haven't yet, but would like to recommend that ROb look into these tools, since they might accelerate the process.

I will leave my substantive comments to a later date. 


Tags: Pattern, language, resources

Views: 30

Replies to This Discussion

Bill, I fully agree with you. Other pattern language projects are a major resource to learn from. In the discussion about the transition patterns, just started by Rob Hopkins in

I also pointed to Doug Schuler's PL project. I am aware of your example 3) although I do not regard it as important. I was not aware of you example 1) and thank you for this reference. There may be about 2 dozens other PL projects, some of which may be relevant to the transition movement.

One should also not underestimate the importance of the methods used with patterns, what I call "pattern theory". This can only partly be found within these pattern language projects, because they build on the "early Alexander" writings, mainly "A Pattern Language" and "The Timeless Way of Building". But, ... there are a number of Alexander books that are also interesting in that context, like "The Oregon Experiment" and "The Production of Houses" (very misleading book titles indeed), and especially the four volumes of "The Nature of Order" which constitute the "late Alexander".

I echo your thinking in the last paragraph. I think what you call pattern theory is often missing in the attempts to do pattern languages. One of the things that have I appreciated about Alexander is that is is asthey help aking a question that is cross domain in its scope " what gives this building energy ( life); what gives this community vibrancy"

The patterns point towards the answers, ask us to see for ourselves. It is about design but so much more.
Many of the pattern languages efforts focus on the details and not the more subtle content.
Agreed. The "living quality", the "vibrancy" is the central goal. Alexander revolved around this for a long time, calling it a "quality without a name" and giving it almost a mystical touch. In TNoO he increasingly just talks about "living systems". One should note, that this is an English language problem that doesn't exist with us in German. We have a word "Lebendigkeit" (might be translated "livingness"), that is in actual use with all kinds of systems, like a "living book" or a "living movie".

Alexander names explicetely 15 structure properties of living systems in volume 1 of TNoO, and he shows them in systems of architecture and nature. But one can find them (I think as "categories of form") in all systems. I can't expand on this, but properties like BOUNDARY (as separating, connecting and as living space), SIMPLICITY, LOCAL SYMMETRY, STRONG CENTER, or INDIVIDUALITY hint the direction. This is new territory.

In vol. 2 Alexander focuses on the process of creating living systems. Here he is less enumbering, but one can identify about 10 process principles that are of fundamental importance. Some of this principles have become popular in the software pattern movement. Like "think stepwise", "consider the simplest thing", "healing systems", "the importance of sequence", "structure preserving transformation" or "openness for participation" ...

With respect to existing pattern language project one should look at the consistency of pattern descriptions, on the completeness of the fractal composition of patterns resolving to other pattern, on the insistence that patterns shouldn't be just ideas but concrete options for actions, on the "design context" defining for (whom/in what design situation) the pattern is...

So in total there are maybe about 60-70 concepts that form a rich framework of "pattern theory" that can be applied systematically. It's not even subtle. This is very concrete and practical knowledge, that just hasn't arrived in the public consciousness because it is burried in 5500 pages of Alexander writings and 15 years of pattern language projects in 30 different places, documented in maybe 50-100 books and other documents. I have tried to get an overview and understanding of all this.

One should also note that Permaculture is a movement that has/applies all these ideas in the most developed way, but most of the time being half-aware of it, in an intuitive way, by being so connected to living systems. A number of problems in the PC movement might be solved but a more explicite application of Alexander.
I agree that we should pool here what we know about and/or have created and spur each other on.

(In a nearby discussion, I wrote: "I suspect/suppose some of us have conceived or will conceive of important patterns (of sustainable/resilient community) that Rob will consider outside the scope of his project, defined as developing the second edition of The Transition Handbook.")
Thanks for the reference, Bill. You can find out more about Engaging Emergence: Turning Upheaval into Opportunity at
Hello group, thanks for inviting me.

Rob has chosen to create a "PL" for Transition. What he has done is use the basic form, but to do something different than Alexander's PL does. The original describes a series of patterns that link human behavior with geometry in the environment. Rob's PL lays out a strategy that is networked, each pattern being an action. This is okay, but I find still fairly lacking.

I see two possible projects that could relate PL with Transition.

The first possible project is a "permaculture pattern language," that is a work that brings together behaviors and geometries that create sustainable outcomes both in the urban and in the natural environments. As was mentioned earlier, permaculture practices have still very little to say about the built environment, which can be a highly evolved self-balancing eco/socialsystem in itself. There needs to be lengthy and in-depth cross-polenization between permaculture understanding of place and the latest knowledge of cities and how they actually self-sustain - the work of people like Bill Hillier, Nikos Salingaros, etc. To summarize my own conclusions on the subject,

1. The built envirnment can be seen as a living thing that self-reproduces and adapts.
2. It comes into being through a living process that cannot be planned, but evolves, just like natural forms do.
3. Human beings have a deep psychological relationship to the built environment which, when it functions well, allows human beings and the environment to mutually "sustain" one another, which drives this evolutionary process.

I would like to propose that a symposium or workshop take place in the near future that brings together permaculturists, pattern-language theorists, people working in urban complexity, ecopsychologists, and deep ecologists to discuss these strands further:
what do we know about how sustainable places work?
how can we create sustainable places?
what is our relationship to the natural and the built environment?
All these voices are needed to come to a better understanding of how living places can come into being.

The second project would be the creation of a "generative code" (Alexander's term) that describes how transition movements and places come into being. The current transition PL is "networked" but some of the actual patterns are totally mechanistic - the example I always think of is "back-casting". Alexander's point, and one that is well understood in complexity and life-science, is that an organic form cannot be planned out, starting at the end. We need a more life-like process. Here, transition has not learned sufficiently from the new sciences of life.

Daniel Schwab
Daniel, I share your concerns but I also feel that Rob's first version is much better than first attempts of pattern languages in other fields. It seems to me that although he is not very Alexander-literate/explicite Rob has a deep intuitive understanding about the inner logic of Alexanders pattern ideas. The reworking process that he started shows the he himself is aware of the deficiencies and he uses a participatory approach to work this out.

(Note, that Alexander didn't: he published his patterns alone, in a copyrighted book, and all attempts to build on these patterns, e. g. by a German University to translate, discuss and extend them, were blocked by the publisher or him. So Alexander himself made A PATTERN LANGUAGE a dead thing, showing that his own understanding of his own theories is only partial; so although A PATTERN LANGUAGE is a great showcase for the approach, it didn't change the practise of design in the intended fields) What's my message from this: Alexander is maybe the most important thinker of the starting millenium, but he is not a pope/prophet to blindly follow.

I want to show Rob's intuitive understanding with teh "Cheerful Disclaimer", where he states that the Transition concepts/patterns can not be seen as the final answers, maybe they won't work as expected, and so on ..... Alexander says something very similar in effect, but in a much stricter way: design will only then lead to living systems if the decisions, the selection and adaptation of patterns, the sequencing and adaptation of the process, are done in the local situation by those people affected, striving for this "quality of living systems". I think that Alexander's wording is more correct, but Rob's is charming and humane.

Your symposion/workshop suggestion is great. I think it is a necessary thing to do; I only hope it will be in a place that I can reach.

I do not share you critique that the Transition patterns are mere actions (and one should stick nearer to Alexander and his geometric pattern understanding ??). On studying various pattern application fields I often found myself doubting that the descriptions were real patterns, for various reasons. Consider the software development pattern movement that has many very ephemeral or immaterial patterns. Or patterns in music? I think that patterns need not be in space and geometrical, but they must be in a "kind of space" and they must have a kind of persistence/sustainability. Think of "constitution" or "organisation" as being of that quality. Going from an informal transition initative in a town to a formal organisation is an action and forming a structure as well. A "great event" will exist in "media products" and in "memories influencing future".

I think one can see that there a deep and important questions. Questions that should be talked about. But in the meantime I would suggest, based on my expertise in the pattern field, to trust Rob Hopkins that leading the Transition movement into the pattern field is correct, and to support him on this goal.

Hi Folks,

Have appreciated the exchange on APL but I have add my voice to Daniel's view.

To preface my comments please accept my sincere intentions here in relation to the TC community. I have been on the periphery of TC for some time but fail to identify with its narratives or its epistemology, but I enjoy the people and share in many of the same topics and interests. The embrace of A Pattern Language by TC was an interesting development. There seems to be an open door to discussion at some depth which is the primary reason for my being here. I was very pleasantly surprised to find other voices out there who share in the work and interest in generative design.

To Helmut's post, I am not sure I understand how one can disconnect the underlying meaning of Alexander's idea's from an action that claims to be based on or inspired from it. Obviously, beneath APL is an understanding of reality that is fundamental to the workings of generative design. This understanding is not Alexander's theoretical pontifications, per se, as they map directly to findings in cognitive and life sciences. His work focuses on buildings but the implications extend far beyond. I tend to think that the desire to side step or ignore the more difficult aspects and meaning of this understanding in the quest for organizational efficiency is very short sighted, and in the end, will confuse people and we will ultimately fail to learn from the experience what it means to work in a fundamentally different way in the world.

One concern that I have raised in my dialogue with Rob and the TC community is that TC's approach to APL is not consonant with the underlying knowledge which informs it. I do not see this as a trivial issue relating to patterns and such, but a much deeper, epistemological one. Climate Change and Peak Oil is the stage for the TC narrative but there is little or no recognition that climate change is the product of the bourgeois world view and its social order - that separation between the material world and the psyche that that began with Descartes and has been with us for 400 years. It must be recognized that the prevailing understanding of climate change and peak oil are still firmly rooted in the bourgeois world view, in the sense that these phenomena are 'out there' in material reality which is something separate and disconnected from the psyche (the self) and whose relationship with the material world is predicated on the instrumental use of reason, or what we know as 'rationality'.

To hold this world-view means that CC and PO are also seen an indictment and a possible death sentence – an externally derived force imposing itself against rational order. But the real fear, here, is climate change as an agent of chaos that portends not just the ending of this order, but the end of our modern 'selves' with the added measure of complete chaos in the form of a nightmare of ecological devastation, a landscape within which the rational agent of bourgeois ideology would be totally lost. Now it may be perceived, technically, that the bourgeoisie are the owners of the means of production, but society has moved far beyond the classical Marxist definition.  It is not the form, but the content of the bourgeois world view that is the currency of modern life and directs our deepest behaviors, desires and perceptions vis a vis the market.

At the core of this world view is a conceptualization of life under control, that humans and resources can be mastered to perform in its grand narrative....The primary actor in this drama is the rational agent and it is this view of the human animal that is now shown to be scientifically untenable. Again, climate change and peak oil are just two of thousands of items of evidence that reveal that this agent really has no idea what it is doing when it come to the long term consequences of its actions – the words of Susan Solomon, paraphrased. These days, in more than 35 years of adult life, the sense of chaos – economic, political and environmental – pervade the air. The agitation and anxiety is intense, therefore the preoccupation with attempting to reassert control over the future through the rhetoric of the 'historic opportunity'. Invoking grand actions that are believed will ease the transition to yet another world, ordered very much along the lines, in spirit, of the one we have inherited, safe from the chaos. I tend to see that the fear of this ensuing chaos being clothed under the banner of a pleasant, but false optimism of the 'constructive' or 'positive' change discourse, all of which may be rooted in the notion that we can successfully resist what thinker Charles Eisenstein refers too as Reunion.

We fail to recognize, that within the context of new life science, climate change and peak oil are things happening to us, in the deepest of biological and evolutionary senses. We are nature, not something separate from it or merely a part to managed properly. We are as integral to the planet's workings as every other element of matter. Such a view then begs the question of who to trust - the bourgeoisie world view or Nature - to manage the transition? A question that I am sure is heretical in TC at the moment, but it is my sincere view. From an old world-view position, nature is not to be trusted in the sense that it is or can be made to be predictable, agreeable and ultimately controllable and where humans must remain separate, managed, seeing and taking our actions as the product of our own discrete autonomy and volition.

The primary point here, if anyone is still awake, is to suggest that the matter isn't really trivial. I question the value of cutting and pasting the form, but ditching the content of Alexander's work and missing the opportunity to discover something very significant to our collective concerns. Because I reject the kinds of actions predicated solely on the rational agent model is not to say that we should all sit on our asses and wait for the sun to set, relieved that there is no obligation to respond to the enveloping reality. On the contrary, it is all about action and responding but it is not the kind of actions that are the leitmotif of the prevailing world view. This is far more than an 'intellectual' understanding of the implications, as we now enter the realm of culture's deep capture and the very roots of social behavior. It is here I hope to pique some interest in the community to explore more of Alexander's thought and work, as well as the larger, very well developed discourse on the subject.

On a final note, social reality begins with the enclosure of space, whether it is a temporal space of a campsite of paleolithic hunter/gathers or the cathedral at Salisbury. Even our primate ancestors mark territory as a means of creating the container of their social life. For humans, our structures are powerful metaphors for they are the physical embodiment of lived social relations and the underlying narratives that construct social reality. So in that sense, building is exquisitely important to social life and action and as our narratives change, so will our buildings and so will our social reality, ultimately. This has been implicit in all of Alexander's work and is why his approach to the built environment is so important to the emergence of a different world. As Mumford noted a long time ago, cities are the physical manifestation of social emergents or as Dawkins noted, extended phenotypes, suggesting that they arise from forces that lie much deeper and something that we are not necessarily aware of. As our structures unfold, they shape and effect every aspect of our being in ways we hardly know.

It would be nice to see Transition communities start to think about enclosing space, creating the container of a different social life.

Ditto on the conference/workshop and would be happy to lend a hand creating one. I think its a great idea worthy of consideration.
Jeff, thank you for this rich and inspiring overview, and no, I didn't fall asleep.

I'm probably not nearer to the Transition movement than you are and I do not even know Rob Hopkins, so I have no reason to act as a defender. On the other hand, if you think that something that I say is wrong or anti-Alexander, please do not attribute this to the Transition movement.

Having said that, I really would like to know, where your heavy-wight judgment comes from that someone is "ditching the content of Alexander" by "cutting and pasting the form" and possibly under the negative motivation of "organizational efficiency".

I think that Mollison/Permaculture and Alexander/"Patternmovement" have very much in common, even their initial writings in the late 70s. It is a pity, that there was never a deep recognition of each other. Alexander never referred to Mollison, although he must have perceived his success. Mollision cites Alexander in some places, but chose to use a different "pattern" concept. But in fact they are both on "living systems", in the same field, sharing many principles under different names.

When Rob Hopkins, as a permaculturist, now introduces PL as a tool for the Transition movement, this is a big step forward for both sides, for TM/Permaculture and Alexander as well. This is the main impact that I see, two unduly divided parts on the first step of growing together. And as a pro-Alexandrian person like this very much.

I agree with you on much of your analysis and I like what you write about the human sphere not being outside of nature ... but the whole development situation is complex and you have touched dozens of questions that need long discussions. I hope that a deep dialogue can develop and (according to the dialogue patterns of William Isaacs) judgments can be deferred.


I apologize for the long delay in responding work and travel is consuming my headspace at the moment but wish too, to develop a deep dialogue about this topic. Will response shortly.

On another note, here is an interesting article on one of the topic touched upon in this discussion -


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