Emergence Theory and Downtown Tucson

September 17, 2012

Emergent Network Image

Emergence Network Image

We are having conversations about how best to plan the continued success of Downtown Tucson.  Mapping projects are being undertaken by arts groups (TPAC), neighborhoods, the City of Tucson, our local planning genius Corky Poster, and Downtown Tucson Partnership has been tracking development along the streetcar line.

Yesterday there was a radio piece on emergence theory.  Ant colonies were the example — each individual ant has virtually no brain and fairly low-level communication skills, yet together ants make fantastic colonies.  “Emergence” refers to “the ability of low-level components to self-organize into a higher level of sophistication and intelligence.”  Steven Johnson wrote a book in 2001, “Emergence,” that details this theory which has been expanded by others to include how cities form.  Jane Jacobs’ classic book from 1961, “The Life and Death of Great American Cities,” reviews how great cities grow and thrive based on what has come to be known as emergence theory.

OK, so this is not to say that our entrepreneurs in Downtown Tucson are “low-level components,” but it is fascinating to look at how we’ve grown organically.  The East End in particular is thriving due to individual actions that in the aggregate have created a “scene.” Downtown Tucson Partnership has recently completed its update on development Downtown and along the streetcar line, and from 2008-2013, our businesses self-report almost $210,000,000 of private investment.  A great deal of this is focused in the East End, the area around the Hotel Congress.

So maybe stop fretting about things, and just let nature take its course?

There’s a certain amount of value to that perspective — Jacobs tells readers to look at what works in their city and see what patterns are emerging.  In Tucson, we have a thriving entertainment district with music, film, theatre, restaurants and bars, and coffee shops.  Let’s make sure this sector continues to do well.  Our Downtown businesses are, for the most part, small, locally-owned businesses — they need continued support and attention to keep them vibrant.

But there are other values we treasure in Downtowns, including cultural and financial diversity.  The City of Tucson wisely created a landmark building in the middle of Downtown that provides housing for seniors.  We are about to see Downtown change immensely with the start of streetcar service from the UA Medical Center through Downtown to the West End Mercado District.  Downtown will be accessible to many more people because of this carefully planned project.

Let’s keep going with the planning opportunities but let’s also keep an eye on what have been our emergent successes as well.

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