Settlements are complex. The more we learn about them, the more elusive they seem. This is especially true now, at a time when rapid settlement construction has spawned new forms of built experiments, big and small. This, in turn, has led many to question the validity of even attempting to decipher ‘laws’, principles or rules governing human settlements.
Yet, during this time of crisis—when settlements around the world are struggling to adequately respond to social, economic, population and environmental pressures and when the rate of change has increased beyond the point of our ability to adjust accordingly—this trial and error approach will not suffice. The stakes are too high. Ironically, these sentiments are identical to those conveyed by Constantinos Doxiadis in Ekistics. At the time, he was confident that developing the scientific approach to settlements outlined in his book would help mobilize the professions that shape the built environment to engage in meaningful research.
Unfortunately, his optimism has not materialized as he had hoped. Although definitive strides have been made in research around human settlements since the time of Doxiadis, its impact on the world has remained very limited, even at a time when the quantity of construction is the highest it has ever been. Instead, narrow and shortsighted perspectives have been allowed to dictate all aspects of human settlements.
This, to my mind, is largely due to the lack of a proper education program that includes mobilizing public opinion. Knowing that the values of inhabitants loomed large in shaping settlements, Doxiadis was explicit in the need for public opinion to be informed by specialized research. Creating a silo of knowledge would do nothing. He quotes Sir Robert Watson-Watt:
When a scientist will not (or cannot) achieve this combination in writing directed to the ordinary reader, he should seek the cooperation of those whose career is based on the serious journalist’s trusteeship for the truth in plain language.
To me, this captures the essence of this book. In attempting to question and build on the important research compiled in Ekistics and translate it into everyday language, it embodies the spirit of Doxiadis’ work.
With his eye on developing a scientific methodology towards human settlements, Doxiadis was under no delusions that the laws he put forth were definitive. I feel the same way. Although they have solid historical research supporting them, they need to be continuously tested and observed—rejecting or adapting those that fail and building on those that don’t.
Doxiadis would be sympathetic to the scientific method as described by American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson whereby everything must be questioned as a matter of course and evidence needs to be followed, whatever direction it leads—even if it goes against common thought. Only in this way can we hope to create the healthy, livable human settlements we currently long for, and intervene with wisdom and sensitivity.