Solving for Pattern

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legumes

Photo credit: Dey Alexander

Recently, I sat down to read Nicholas Mang’s case study of Curitiba, Brazil, which is now available on the Regenesis Group website. As I read I was reminded of a powerful 1981 Wendell Berry essay, called Solving for Pattern. 
In the essay, Berry describes three kinds of solutions to the “problems of our time.” The first, he writes, is the solution that causes “a ramifying series of new problems.” A modern example can be found in energy-efficient lightbulbs that attempt to solve the problem of carbon emissions, but leach mercury into landfills when disposed of.
The second type of solution is “that which immediately worsens the problem it is intended to solve.” Berry gives the example of attempting to fix compacted soil with a tractor whose weight further compacts the soil. Bringing in a bigger tractor only makes the situation worse.
The third type of solution, the type that Berry advocates, is what he calls “solving for pattern.”
When solving for pattern, we create not more problems but rather more solutions, solving multiple problems in one stroke. Berry writes: “A bad solution acts within the larger pattern the way a disease or addiction acts within the body. A good solution acts within the larger pattern the way a healthy organ acts within the body.”
It is clear from reading Dr. Mang’s case study (or any other good writing) on Curitiba that former mayor Jaime Lerner and his planning team came up with some very good solutions. Dr. Mang writes: 
Many of Curitiba’s programs are designed to help pay for themselves, to address multiple civic issues at the same time, and to systemically coordinate with and enable the working of other programs. 
In what I consider to be a perfect example of Berry’s vision, Dr. Mang cites as an example Curitiba’s “Green Exchange” program, quoting a profile of Jaime Lerner published in the Utne Reader in 2005. 
In the slums or favelas, where refuse vehicles can’t negotiate unpaved alleys, small trucks fan out in a massive “Green Exchange.” For bags of sorted trash, tens of thousands of the city’s poorest receive bags of rice, beans, eggs, bananas, and carrots that the city buys inexpensively from the area’s surplus production. The results are both better public health (less litter, rats, disease) and better nutrition.
When trash became a resource, the favelas became clean. But the true elegance of this solution comes from the smart utilization of a surplus. Even though they purchase the surplus food inexpensively, the city’s investment helps to support local food producers. To the extent that we consider an unused surplus a problem, this is a great example of using one problem to solve other problems–and a great example of “solving for pattern.”
In a world full of problems, examples of such elegant and systemic solutions should provoke us to look for some solution multipliers of our own. Berry’s essay about the “problems of our time” was written almost thirty years ago–but it is still highly relevant. How can we enable ourselves to find real solutions to the problems of our time, versus solutions that simply create more problems? 

Recently, I sat down to read Nicholas Mang‘s case study of Curitiba, Brazil, which is now available on the Regenesis Group website. As I read I was reminded of a powerful 1981 Wendell Berry essay, called Solving for Pattern. 

In the essay, Berry describes three kinds of solutions to the “problems of our time.” The first, he writes, is the solution that causes “a ramifying series of new problems.” A modern example can be found in energy-efficient lightbulbs that attempt to solve the problem of carbon emissions, but leach mercury into landfills when disposed of.

The second type of solution is “that which immediately worsens the problem it is intended to solve.” Berry gives the example of attempting to fix compacted soil with a tractor whose weight further compacts the soil. Bringing in a bigger tractor only makes the situation worse.

The third type of solution, the type that Berry advocates, is what he calls “solving for pattern.” (more…)

1 Comment

  1. Craig Doofus

    8 years ago

    Well done. Thanks.

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