Wall in North Vancouver BC
North Vancouver, BC, Canada. Image courtesy of Author.

15. The gradual death of a settlement begins when the settlement no longer serves and satisfies some of the basic needs of the its inhabitants or of the Society, in general. As people move they carry their values with them.

In Laws 1, 2, and 11 the intricate relationship between the inhabitants of a settlement and the creation of their built environment in response to their needs was described. These include core physical needs as well as those tied to the social, political, economic and cultural spheres of their lives. By logical extension, a failure to meet some or all of these needs may lead to the process of decline. This is obvious in resource-based towns where, once the resource in question is depleted, the inhabitants move to a different location.

Needs can be more subtle, however. Henri Pirenne’s powerful examination of the complex processes and factors that led to the decline and transformation of urban life in the Middle Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire, is a strong case in point. In Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade, he highlights a decline in trade—specifically across the Mediterranean—as a significant factor in the gradual death of a number of significant Roman settlements.

In tandem with the decline of a settlement, Doxiadis importantly states that people take their values with them as they relocate. Since settlements are a physical manifestation of the values of its inhabitants (Law 1), this means, by extension, that those who move also bring along building practices that embody those values. This tendency is evident in many studies of migration patterns of vernacular architecture across vast distances. Several excellent books by Paul Oliver serve as strong resources around this subject.

As one of the more recent mass migrations, research tracking the movement of vernacular and folk architecture across North America is particularly telling: showing how building types were brought from overseas and adapted as they swept across the New World, in response to a variety of forces including geography, technologies available and local materials (Laws 2627 and Laws 30, 31, 32). This process is captured by Virginia and Lee McAlester in their comprehensive A Field Guide to American Houses describing how “European colonists…imported their own building techniques, but adapted these to local materials used by the Natives—wood in the heavily forested eastern half of the country and stone or clay in the more arid West” (McAlester, 2004, p. 63).

Henry Glassie describes the process more poetically: “When the builder’s attention is narrowed by training, whether in the dusty shop of a master carpenter or the sleek classroom of a university, past experience is not obliterated. It endures in the strange caves of the brain and in old habits of the muscles as they seek smooth routes through the air. Education adds a layer. In precept and admonition, in pedagogical technique if not in content, the teacher brings cultural values into the process of transmission. Students obey or rebel. Inwardly, new ideas mix and coexist with old ones, and the mind, fed by the senses, continues to bounce about, unfettered by consistency. Resolution will come in performance, in dedicated, situated instants of concentration, while planning meets accidents and learning continues” (Glassie, 1999, p. 228).


FURTHER READING (full citations found in reference list):

  • Constantino DoxiadisEkistics: An Introduction to the Science of Human Settlements
  • Henri PirenneMedieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade
  • Paul OliverDwellings: The Vernacular House World Wide
  • Paul OliverEncyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World
  • Paul Oliver, Marcel Vellinga, Alexander BridgeEncyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World
  • Virginia and Lee McAlester A Field Guide to American Houses
  • Henry GlassieMaterial Culture


16. The death process of all or part of a settlement will not occur until its initial value has been amortized from the economic and cultural points of view.

Barring exceptional circumstances, investment in a settlement, or piece of it, will not be eliminated until the time taken for it to be paid off. That is, according to Doxiadis, it will not be allowed to decline until it has been amortized in full. Given the current rate of construction and global change, examples of decline occurring before amortization are more frequent than in the past but, relatively speaking, the examples remain rare.

So, for example, if a shopping mall is built is for a particular neighbourhood and requires a 50-year amortization period, it will not typically fall into ruin prior to that time. This being the case, built environments are particularly vulnerable to decline after the period of amortization has expired. It is here that maintenance and (re)creation become critical for its future existence (Law 5). In the absence of the latter, a settlement will tend towards death.

North American shopping malls are an interesting example. With the first wave of malls built in the 1950s and fully amortized just prior to the turn of the century, the past two decades have seen the death and/or transformation of many of the original structures. As recently as 2016, retail analyst Jan Kniffen predicted that “about 400 of the country’s 1,100 enclosed malls will fail in the upcoming years” (Close, 2016, para 3). Of those that remain, he stated that about 250 will thrive and the rest will continue to struggle. According to him, this has happened in response to the growth of online shopping and different consumer preferences. With 2,000 regional malls in existence just a decade before Kniffen’s prediction, the steady decline has been ongoing. The births of mall variants, such as “Lifestyle Centres,” have resulted.

A rare instance of what happens when a project falls into decline prior to amortization is the 45-story tower in Caracas—Torre David—that was abandoned due to the death of its developer in 1993 and the ’94 collapse of the Venezuelan economy. Here, ‘slum families’ occupied the building, and it became the container of several ‘informal vertical communities,’ with hundreds of people. This process is thoroughly described in Torre David: Informal Vertical Communities.


FURTHER READING (full citations found in reference list):

  • Constantino DoxiadisEkistics: An Introduction to the Science of Human Settlements
  • Kerry Close“A Third of American Malls Will Close Soon”http://time.com/money/4327632/shopping-malls-closing/
  • Rem KoolhaasGSD Project on the City – Guide to Shopping
  • Alfredo Brillembourg (Editor), Hubert Klumpner (Editor), Urban-Think Tank (Editor), ETH ZurichTorre David: Informal Vertical Communities


17. In the death process of a settlement, its elements do not die simultaneously. The same holds true for the values that it represents. As a consequence, the settlement as a whole has much greater chances of surviving and developing through renewal, even if some of its elements are dying.

Law 5 introduced the idea that different physical elements of a human settlement last for different lengths of time. This was captured through the work of those such as Stewart Brand. Twenty-six years prior to Brand’s How Buildings Learn, however, Doxiadis highlighted this same idea, naming five specific elements—Nature, Man, Society, Shells, and Networks. Through these elements, individually or in combination, he believed a settlement had the opportunity to regenerate or continue living, if in decline. Regardless of the specific categories, it is critical to note that the elements are scalar in nature (Law 0) and that the life-cycle of different elements plays a potential role in potentially elongating the life of a human settlement.

Henri Pirenne’s research tracking the transformation of medieval cities across the fall of the Roman Empire demonstrates, for example, how certain aspects of the physical fabric—buildings, infrastructure, etc.—endured over time. Similarly, Anthony Morris’ exhaustive study of urban form before the industrial revolution describes many similar instances, with the urban fabric of ancient Rome being an iconic example of how the urban structure and buildings served as the basis of the “decline, fall, and eventual resurgence of the city…” (Morris, 1979, p. 51)

Adding to this idea, however, Doxiadis also highlights softer aspects of settlement life—economic, social, political, technical and cultural/aesthetic—as having similar differences in lifespan. The continued use of architectural elements from ancient civilizations (such as the Ancient Greek Orders) can be seen as a connection to past socio-cultural values that these earlier elements embodied. Similarly, much evidence clearly speaks to how the economic practices of the Roman Empire outlived its official life (Pirenne).

These examples speak to the various aspects of a settlement—hard and soft—that carry with them different potential survival times. This remains important to understanding the overall life-cycle of human settlements.


FURTHER READING (full citations found in reference list):

  • Constantino DoxiadisEkistics: An Introduction to the Science of Human Settlements
  • Stewart BrandHow Building Learn: What Happens After They’re Built
  • Henri PirenneMedieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade
  • Anthony E.J. MorrisHistory of Urban Form: Before the Industrial Revolution


18. During the process of death, inertia caused by existing forces, especially buildings, plays a very important role in slowing down—or even reversing—the process.

Elaborating on Law 17, this law highlights the importance of built structures—what Doxiadis calls “Shells”—in slowing down the process of death of a human settlement. Simply put, the nature of the buildings in a settlement determines the strength of inertia of a built environment.

This being the case, structures that have the capacity to survive long periods of time extend the possibility of finding new life in the future, even if they have been abandoned. This process is blatantly evident across the many old settlements around the world that went into decline and have since found new life.

However, more contemporary counterparts are also plentiful, such as the former gold-mining town of Walhalla, Australia—east of Melbourne. This settlement fell into disuse after the closing of its mining operation in 1914 and has since had a small renaissance as a holiday destination and tourist hub. Given the nature of human settlements, this same process can occur at a variety of scales (Law 0) and many city dwellers have witnessed this at the neighbourhood level. Berlin and Detroit stand out as strong contemporary examples.

Perhaps nobody summarized the possibilities of this law more eloquently than Jane Jacobs: “Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them….for really new ideas of any kind–no matter how ultimately profitable or otherwise successful some of them might prove to be–there is no leeway for such chancy trial, error and experimentation in the high-overhead economy of new construction. Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings” (Jacobs, 1989, p. 187).

One should be mindful, however, that there is constant tension between social pressures and the built world. Anne Vernez Moudon states: “A perfect “fit,” however, between material space and social space is necessarily of short duration; material space, once built, is difficult to modify quickly, while activities and specific social needs change rapidly” (Moudon, 1989, p. 178).

It is also important to note that although this law may seem to support the desire for immortality through monumental architecture, the history of settlements is filled with many more examples of even the strongest materials having no power against the inevitable and continuous blows of time and change.

Furthermore, factors outside the physical—social, political, economic, cultural, etc. (Law 5)—are also powerful agents of inertia and can contribute to, or counteract, the transformation of settlements (Law 17). This can be for good or ill. NIMBYism, characterized by residents opposing new development, is a popular example of the socio-cultural factors that support settlement inertia.


FURTHER READING (full citations found in reference list):

  • Constantino DoxiadisEkistics: An Introduction to the Science of Human Settlements
  • Henri PirenneMedieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade
  • John Aldersea and Barbara HoodWalhalla, Valley of Gold: a Story of Its People, Places and Its Gold Mines
  • Ricky Burdett (Editor) and Deyan Sudjic (Editor) – The Endless City: The Urban Age Project by the London School of Economics and Deutsche Bank’s Alfred Herrhausen Society
  • Jane JacobsThe Death and Life of Great American Cities
  • Serge SalatCities and Forms: On Sustainable Urbanism
  • Anne Vernez MoudonBuilt for Change: Neighbourhood Architecture in San Francisco
  • Paul Shepherd Buildings: Between Living Time and Rocky Space


19. The death process of a settlement is complete when every reason for its life has ceased to exist and/or when the needs it fulfilled within its larger system can be provided elsewhere to a better degree and/or with easier access.

Given that settlements are products of different forces and pressures coming together to satisfy human needs—physical or otherwise (Law 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)—the process of death is complete when all the functions it provides within the larger system of settlements (Law 0) have been exhausted. Built structures can potentially slow down the death process and provide a framework for revival (Law 18), but even this has a potential time limit. Well-known examples from around the globe are many, from Machu Picchu in Peru and Çatalhöyük, Turkey to Skara Brae, Scotland and Memphis in Egypt. Although certain building elements remain, in the absence of inhabitants the settlement has effectively died.

Reasons for their demise are many, but barring the rare instances where the needs these settlements satisfy go obsolete in and of themselves, the death process often occurs when the functions are provided more effectively by another (nearby) settlement. At a small scale, this process can be seen in the decline of the America “High Street” by regional shopping malls between the 1950s and 1970s. This is well described in the works of Miles Orvell, James Howard Kunstler, and John Stilgoe, who demonstrated how easier access (via automobiles) and a wide array of centralized services caused the shift from street to mall. As illustrated in Law 16, a similar process is now affecting the death, demolition, or transformation of these same shopping malls.


FURTHER READING (full citations found in reference list):

  • Constantino DoxiadisEkistics: An Introduction to the Science of Human Settlements
  • Rem KoolhaasGSD Project on the City II- Guide to Shopping
  • Miles OrvellThe Death and Life of Main Street: Small Towns in American Memory, Space, and Community
  • James Howard KunstlerThe Geography of Nowhere
  • John StilgoeOutside Lies Magic


20. The creation, development and death of settlements follow certain laws unless humans decide otherwise.

The implications behind this law are more complex than they seem. Doxiadis simply explains the principle with one sentence: “The question whether he is able or wants to is one depending to a great extent on the laws themselves.”

This seemingly straightforward phrase puts forth the idea that humans have a choice in determining the directions of their settlements. This is certainly true, but only to a certain extent. People, for example, can ‘choose’ to let a development die prior to full amortization, but in the face of a constantly uncertain future, predictions of the future conditions upon which decisions are based can be flawed.

This being the case, a lot of research has been done since Doxiadis’ time around cognition and decision-making. The work of Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics laureate Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow is particularly relevant. Within the book, Kahneman summarizes extensive research around different modes of thought, cognitive biases and errors in human judgment that become particularly acute when faced with complex scenarios, such as planning human settlements.

Unfortunately, describing his findings are beyond the scope of this short entry, but it finds parallels in Jared Diamond’s Collapse that focuses on how “societies end up destroying themselves through disastrous decisions…” (Diamond, 2005, p. xi). Diamond’s work points explicitly to the failures of individual and group decision-making when it comes to the ‘collective good’.

It’s quite clear then that Doxiadis’ use of the word ‘decide’ within this law should be taken with a grain of salt. The processes by which decisions are made are as much a part of human settlements as anything else.


FURTHER READING (full citations found in reference list):

  • Constantino DoxiadisEkistics: An Introduction to the Science of Human Settlements
  • Daniel KahnemanThinking, Fast and Slow
  • Jared DiamondCollapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
  • Joseph TainterThe Collapse of Complex Societies


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