Megacities, Metapatterns

Cate Stern
New York University

Citation information: Stern, Cate. 2017. Megacities, Metapatterns. The NYU Student Journal of Metapatterns, volume 1, issue 2. Available at:


Urban spaces are becoming more and more various as global population continues to rise, especially with population booms in Asian and African countries. Defining the “urban” is increasingly difficult. Cultures, traditions, businesses, lifestyles, and natural environment interact in many different complex ways, and the experience of the urban environment drastically changes from city to city, country to county. I will use the system of metapatterns (specifically, borders and pores, holons and clonons, and layers) as common, rooted tool to dissect elements of the urban experience, including technology and daily life of people living in urban areas.


The world hurtles towards urbanization, with 70% of its global population predicted to live in cities by 2050. Development is increasing at a rate unlike that of our ancestors, driving population increase and economic growth. We use words like population, density, cities, megacities, built environment, suburban and urban and rural to categorize, label, and define the phenomenon we are now observing in cities ranging from where the Pacific meets Asia to the Atlantic coast of Africa. We have numerical, quantitative definitions of what a “city” is, of what an “urban” area looks like.

What we cannot define is the experience of the urban. In the developing world, cities are running wild, spilling over their traditional boundaries like cells colliding in a petri dish. What does this look and feel like? What is the experience of living in an urban space, and how can we define that experience and call it urban when it is irregular, evolving, various. The experience of New York cannot be compared to that of Cairo, San Francisco, Tokyo, or Mumbai, yet they are all considered urban. The world is becoming smaller: infrastructure and business connect parts of the world so that daily interactions take place from across the globe. Today’s fast pace has created a sense of placelessness, although the world is now known more than ever.

I will use Volk’s metapattern terminology1 as a unifying language to understand the volatile, diverse urban environment and in an attempt to understand the experience of living in an urban environment. Urban environments arose, just like any other phenomenon discussed so far, rooted in the deep natural language of metapatterns.

Superficially, many metapatterns can explain the physical qualities of cities: Volk’s explanation of the sphere-tube relationship relates directly to the built infrastructure of cities, including roads, public and private transportation, wired and wireless communication, hubs of commerce, shipping and trade routes. Borders explain divides of neighborhoods, gated communities versus urban dense living. Centers, layers, holons and clonons describe the built environment’s organization: its community centers and visible landmarks, the layers of infrastructure, verticality, and land use; holons and clonons describe streets, houses, repeated objects which gain individuality and uniqueness as the urban resident familiarizes themselves and creates personal associations with the built landscape.

What I am interested in is the less tangible, less physical description of cities: How do people relate to one another in urban environments? How does life flow within an urban setting? And concerning the built environment, how does the physical landscape influence the personal feel within cities? In my mind, the metapatterns can create an organizational method to tackle these questions: I think of borders in terms of the individual. What creates a sense of individuality or independence from the greater population? Holons and clonons play a role here as well in determining perception of ourselves and others. Layers can describe, as Latour and Hermant2 write, the different philosophies, services, ideas that someone subscribes to and how those thought patterns and layers guide an individual.

Border and Pore Relationships

The borders of an individual are riddled with pores. To use Volk’s terminology and background,3 the pores of a border allow information to flow in and out, regulated by the border. What first comes to mind when applied to an individual is sharing and absorbing information and ideas, speaking. Any information gained by the senses would enter through this individual border, and in my conception of this, all emotional connections or interactions open up the individual’s border to their surroundings.

What contributes to these pores? Simply speaking, the autonomy of an individual contributes to the function or sort of pores in an individual’s border: Does this person need sustenance, shelter, resources? Do they form neighborhood, regional, work, or personal relationships? The connections fostered through these pores in one’s emotional border really can speak to the quality of the urban area. Connections to the neighborhood deli or shops, to municipal infrastructure, to loved ones. How are these pores facilitated? Does one interact with public transportation, does one interact with the local neighborhood governing body or in local politics?

To elaborate more, see Figure 1, where the individual experience lays nested within borders and pores, as they are essentially the gateway in which an individual experiences the world. Here, I’ve shown intangible connections as yellow and tangible connections as blue. The variety of interactions naturally could not be created in this diagram, but generally the experiences vary between physical and emotional needs, interactions with infrastructure (through physical needs, like water and sustenance), and technology. The list goes on, as borders and pores as I have defined them would define the individual and their interactions with their environment.

Figure 1. A mind map showing the different experiences of the individual within an urban setting. Nested within Borders/Pores is Individual Experience, which naturally must be filtered and operates through the various emotional and physical pores of one’s border. Other interactions of the Individual are through Layers and Holon/Clonons. Different concepts and objects interact with one-another beyond what was listed in this paper, and so various lines show the branching of metapattern concepts and their outside interconnections, so you may see how Borders/Pores, Clonons/Holons, and Layers interact with each other beyond the Individual Experience. Source: the author.

My understanding of the emotional borders of individuals in an urban space relies on the pores and interactions of the individual to their surroundings. Essentially, an urbanite would be more connected, have more pores from which to relate and interact with different reliances. Where someone from a rural area, roughly, may interact with fewer people per day, less municipal infrastructure per day, and more of the sorts of things with which urbanites do not interact. An example: economies of higher density, like developed areas, have more mechanisms to ensure fair trades and transactions than economies of less density. There are more enforcements that allow anonymous interactions to take place, and to ensure the fairness of those interactions. The emotional border in this situation is one where the interaction between actors is anonymous and not opened to each other in the same way as a less developed economy’s interaction, where the actors may know each other and have acute moral obligations to each other based on common past or history.

The interactions and functions of these pores serves to selectively connect or disconnect the individual and their environment. The person-person relationship and the relationship between the individual and the space and the experience is described this way, but is influenced heavily by clonon-holon relationships. This metapattern describes how individuals treat each other, through us-them relationships and finding community through identifying like-minded individuals and sorting them as holons among the crowds of clonons.

Holon and Clonon Relationships

Looking through the lens of holons/clonons, many parts of the city can be described through this dynamic pattern. In the urban, people easily become clonons. Masses which move jerkily through their morning routines on public transit, through jobs, and along streets become clonons to one another. From an outsider’s perspective, people become numbers, populations indistinguishable from each other. From the individual, holons emerge through repeated exposure, friendships and relationships, by gaining knowledge in order for the holon acquaintance to emerge from clonons. We see members of our community as holons, and thus identify our neighbors and community members. We identify an “us” (holon group) and a “them” (clonon group), the subtleties and implications of which are beyond my subject matter and further explained by my colleague, Yvonne Bowman (Editor’s note: see Bowman’s paper: “The metapatterns of ‘we,’” in this issue).

Whatever the consequence of holon-clonon categorizations, people use and need them on a daily basis to navigate their urban routines. As shown in Figure 1, relationships connect with the holon/clonon metapattern, as well as physical structures, explained below.

Holons and clonons continue to emerge in the urban infrastructure as people become familiar with their environments: despite the crooked and chaotic history of Parisian landmarks and streets, the ancient unplanned alleys and backways become familiar as residents detangle the maze. Writers Bruno Latour and Emilie Hermant4 speak of the greater Parisian landscape, while linking the individual to the built environment. They envision the dynamics between individual perception of Paris and the organizational heuristic an individual must use to understand their place in the tangle: “Hence, there is never much sense in distinguishing the individual and the context, the limited point of view and the unlimited panorama, the perspective and that which is seen to have no perspective.”5 To me, this creates a holon and clonon relationship where holons or clonons emerge at different scales of varying mediums: people to people relationships are distinguished by holon-clonon understanding, while the landscape is understood in holon-clonon ways.

Use of Layers in an Urban Environment

The relationship between an individual and the varying familiarity and knowledge of an individual for people and places influences how they behave in their environment. To use metapattern terminology, layers here are useful. Continuing with the work of Bruno Latour and Emilie Hermant.6 I have used their conception of Paris to flesh out how layers act within an urban environment: firstly and most obviously, layers build up the verticality of an urban environment, both above ground and in subterranean infrastructure. Physical layers are the foundation of urban areas, from floors stacked on floors, to buildings stacked on subways and water mains. Less obvious are the layers of perception, the ideas, infrastructure, and various elements that urban dwellers “subscribe” to, as Latour and Hermant say, which allow them to function in the urban social environment.

“We subscribe to clichés, to collective statements about what the social is made up of, like we subscribe to media whose circulation transfers, transforms and performs images and representations… in order to survive, Parisians subscribe to many channels. They have gas, electricity, possibly the cable, certainly the telephone, and necessarily running water and sewerage. All these mediums pass through all the interactions… By generalizing the subscription metaphor, we could say that Parisians subscribe to psychology, physiology, economics, sociology and other mediums whose countless connections may often remain hidden but are nevertheless identifiable and assignable.”7

In this way, I find that the authors’ idea of subscription really functions in the same way as identifying the layers of which a person uses to navigate and operate within their urban landscape. Each person has a philosophy in which they approach life, which I think can be defined as the subscription to many layers. In Figure 1, these subscriptions connect to many aspects of an individual’s urban environment, and so indirectly connect to everything in relation to holons/clonons, infrastructure, and ideologies.


This approach to the metapattern most exemplifies what I believe to be the best application of metapatterns to urban spaces: metapatterns can be applied to a variety of tangible and intangible concepts, physical attributes, and human behaviors and perception. Essentially, these three categories represent the makeup of the urban environment as we know it. The issue of understanding the urban lies in questions of how to categorize, organize, dissect, and understand it. Such a fluctuating and evolving concept naturally is troubling to the human mind and to human organization. Using metapatterns is a way to conquer this urban chaos, which continually poses challenges and misunderstandings in each unique perspective, location, and timeframe.

One of the main issues and questions of metapatterns, however, is the simply the use of them: Constantly the question I encounter in my life and in my understanding of the environment around me is, How much can I label? How much can I pin down and quantify? One of the drawbacks of this highly flexible tool is the fact that it is still a tool to label phenomenon and dismiss ambiguity. Human nature is designed to create patterns; from a survival standpoint it is our acute pattern making ability, which has allowed us to evolve so complexly. However, this is a great drawback in the practical world. Creating labels and hard definitions leads us to be uneasy of ambiguity, scared of the unknown, distressed at the threat of disorganization. Using metapatterns to strip down what I have learned of emerging urban environments has also revealed that my use of metapatterns to dissect an almost ephemeral environment has led me to better understand that ambiguity in many situations is a given, and often a necessity.

Although the use of metapatterns has revealed an underlying rhythm, a deeper understanding and a larger tool to understand the world around me and hopefully expose others to understand emerging urban spaces, I will say it is a relief to understand most completely that my use of these tools has also given me the understanding that they are, at some point, pointless. At some point, researchers, sociologists, city planners, historians and the like must be content with current ambiguity. Predicting future trends, political actions, or individual experiences in relation to an urban environment may be less important than understanding that the constant fluctuating processes, which put them together cannot be foreseen.

That being said, metapatterns are a useful, deeply rooted tool in which to view the world. The limits of their applications have not yet been tested, and which can provide a deeper understanding of concepts and ideas.

I have used metapatterns to explore avenues, which currently didn’t exist in my mind. Understanding the basic concepts and definitions of metapatterns inevitably leads to deeper understandings of concepts you may already be familiar with. It provides a common language with which to discuss issues and relate apples-to-oranges topics. A greater message here is that metapatterns are undoubtedly a useful tool, but also minorly flawed in the same way all human tools are. A greater message is to keep in mind that uncertainty and ambiguity are not an enemy to these tools, nor do they invalidate them. Metapatterns reveal only that the unexplainables can be explained, not that they must be.

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