Lots of Small Earthquakes: How a Place Becomes Antifragile

The fourth entry in our Strong Towns Podcast Greatest Hits series is part 2 of a 2-parter from 2015 (Click here for Part 1). In this series, our founder and president Chuck Marohn breaks down, quote by quote, a talk by Nassim Nicholas Taleb called “Small is Beautiful, but Also Less Fragile.”

We’ve called Taleb the Patron Saint of Strong Towns thinking, because his insights about risk, uncertainty, and fragility have profound implications for how we build our places. Traditional cities, Taleb observes, are the product of organic, evolutionary processes. This does not mean they are disorderly: on the contrary, ancient and medieval cities often possess a rich order that modern-day humans instinctively find beautiful. But it’s not a scripted order, but rather, an order more like that of a fractal: patterns that repeat themselves at different scales, as people both imitate what has worked before and improve upon what they have already built.

A common mistake among contemporary urban-design thinkers is to treat good design as solely a matter of attention to detail. We can replicate the superficial form of a beloved place with intense attention to minute details: Chuck cites Disneyland as perhaps the classic example. And yet Disneyland—or even a real-world city like Carmel, Indiana designed with a similar mindset—is a world apart from a traditional village that has endured and evolved for hundreds of years.

We should be humbled by the recognition that some of the best, most valued places we know today are many generations old, and that it will take many more generations before we know what of all we’ve built in the current era will stand the test of time. In the face of this observation, what should planners and economic developers and all other sorts of city-builders do? Act small, says Marohn. Act tactically. Make little bets, and iterate on them depending on what worked well. Don’t pretend you’re God.

We Need Lots of Small Earthquakes

This episode also discusses the way cities respond to disruption. The fatal flaw of modern technocratic planning is to seek to eliminate uncomfortable feedback—to create systems (physical and economic) that are too predictable. It’s as if we devised a technology that could eliminate magnitude-6 earthquakes, Marohn suggests. But an earthquake is a necessary release of built-up pressure between the earth’s tectonic plates. Without that pressure release mechanism, would we only be hastening the arrival of the next catastrophic, magnitude 9 quake?

What we really need is constant, small shocks to the systems we live within—the economy, the culture, the built environment. We need a steady stream of magnitude 2 and 3 earthquakes. We could even live in a world in which those occurred daily. It’s the severe ones that wreak havoc.

For these and many more insights on how Taleb’s notion of antifragility can help us build stronger towns, have a listen.