Dr. Stephen Read, Section of Spatial Planning and Strategy, Department of Urbanism, Delft University of Technology,


Jane Jacobs is known for her suggestive use of the then new idea of ‘organised complexity’. She proposed that cities were best understood as ‘problems of organised complexity’ which meant “dealing simultaneously with a sizeable number of factors which are interrelated into an organic whole” (Jacobs 1961; 432). We most often think of complex systems as being defined by nonlinearity, fractal orders and feedback loops. Her own rather sketchy accounts of the concept emphasise processes and inductive reasoning, working from particulars to the general and from the small to the big (Jacobs 1961: 440). She spoke of a “web way of thinking” involving dynamic interrelationships and sudden changes, and “self-diversification” as a “regenerative force” (Jacobs 1961: 290). But she also focussed consistently on the concrete and situational ‘ballet’ (Seamon 2015: 143) of the street and the neighbourhood.

Contemporary understandings of complexity are increasingly emphasising the concrete situations whereby everyday places and things matter and everyday choices are made: where ‘forms of life’ evolve through the selection by participants of particular and situated orders from ranges of ‘adjacent possibilities’ (Kauffman 2000: 22). Complexity theorists in biology and ecology have, for example, suggested that ecosystem and species level orders are driven by the distributed choices living creatures make for their own prospering and survival and against the alternatives at individual and group levels (Stengers 2000: 92; Markoš et al. 2009: 240). Echoing this perspective, urban societies and economies may be conceived as emerging and evolving through subjective as well as political choices made at individual and community levels that thereby construct larger social and urban orders from different objective possibilities.

Jacobs emphasised people, their own everyday actions and choices, and her critique of planning has on occasion been interpreted as methodologically individualist and subjectivist, but the notion of ‘organised complexity’ can itself be understood as ‘methodologically communitarian’, emphasising forms and agencies located and distributed through ‘communities’ of complex interaction and interrelation.

On the occasion of Jane Jacobs’ centenary we invite papers expanding on and extending the concept of ‘organised complexity’ in urban planning, policy and design, at theoretical, practice and pedagogical levels.



Jacobs, J., 1961. The death and life of great American cities, New York: Random House.
Kauffman, S.A. (2000) Investigations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Markoš, A., Grygar, F., Hajnal, L., Kleisner, K., Kratochvíl, Z., Neubauer, Z. (2009) Life as its own designer: Darwin’s origin and Western thought. Dordrecht: Springer.
Seamon, D. (2015) A Geography of the Lifeworld: Movement, Rest and Encounter. Milton Keynes: Routledge Revivals.
Stengers, I. (2000) “God’s heart and the stuff of life”, Pli 9, 86–118