Thursday, September 25, 2014

Informing The Future Through The Science of Cities

Jane Jacobs
Hello Everyone:

Cities can be great laboratories for studying a wide variety of subjects but what about studying the behavior of cities?  One of my favorite professors at the University of Southern California first introduced to me to the idea that cities are organic entities.  They are also in a state of flux.  In a recent post for City Lab titled "5 Key Themes Emerging for the 'New Science of Cities,'" Michael Mehaffy reports on the work of researchers at University College London and the Santa Fe Institute that zeroed in on some key motifs of urban systems, in the process, subverting much of the current thinking.  The results have begun to find their way into recent and future symposia such as the lead-in events for the United Nations 2016 Habitat III conference on sustainable development.  This new information is giving leaders in the fields of planning and development the ammunition in the global fight against sprawl.

Jane Jacobs at a Greenwich Village bar
In one respect, Jane Jacobs was right.  Robert Moses just rolled over in his grave.  The late Ms. Jacobs was well-known for her far-seeing insights into the emerging sciences of "organized complexity" and what they proposed in terms of a more effective strategies to urban planning-found in her seminal work Death and Life of  Great American Cities (1961).  Writing in very large bold faced type, Mr. Mehaffy states, "Today, in an age of rapid urbanization and growing urban challenges new findings on innovative urban planning confirm and extend Jane Jacobs' original insights."

Vintage aerial of New York City
Jane Jacobs was also well-known for denouncing the rear-view "pseudo-science" of fifties-sixties-era planning and architecture, which she pronounced "almost neurotic in its determination to imitate empiric failure and ignore empiric success."  Ms. Jacobs pleaded with civic officials to understand "the 'kind of problem a city is-' not a conventional problem of top-down mechanical or visual order, but a complex problem of interacting factors that are 'interrelated into an organic whole.'"  She pleaded with planners and architects to show more respected for the natural order of cities and make use of the best insights of emerging sciences together with the most practical methods.

Union Square
San Francisco
In this day and age of rapid urbanization and greater challenges to our cities, her advice could not come at more better time.  In some ways, the new findings by the researchers in London and Santa Fe, New Mexico confirm her original perceptions of cities.  The follow are the five most important by University College and the Santa Fe Institute:

Cities generate economic growth through networks of proximity, casual encounters and "economic spillover."  Another professor of mine at USC used the word agglomeration to describe this phenomena.  Simply put, economic growth in cities such as New York or San Francisco are now understood as the result of "dynamic interaction between web-like networks of individuals who exchange knowledge and information about creative ideas and opportunities."  These exchanges takes semi-public and public places such as: plazas, commercial and retail spaces that have specifically set up shop in these particular districts to cater to the clientele.

Grand Park
Los Angeles, California
Through a similar dynamic, cities generate a remarkably large "green dividend."  Michael Mehaffy reports, "It has long been known that cities have dramatically lower energy and resource consumption as well as greenhouse gas emissions per capita, relative to other kinds of settlements."  How is this possible?  Part of the reason for this energy productivity is more efficient transportation-i.e. buses and trains.  Mr. Mehaffy adds, "It now appears that a similar network dynamic provides a synergistic effect for resource use and emissions-what have been called 'resource spillovers.'"

Pike-Pine Street
Seattle, Washington
 Cities perform best economically and    environmentally when they feature pervasive human-scale connectivity.  Like a business network, cities greatly benefit when there are numerous functional interconnections.  Thus, when segments of an urban population are excluded or isolated, a city will under perform both economically and environmentally.  In the same manner, when the urban fabric is broken up, rendered car-dependent, or otherwise fragmented, the encounters and spillovers that naturally occur through agglomeration will underperform, as well as require an untenable shot of resources to compensate.  Quoting Jane Jacobs, "lowly appearing encounters on sidewalks and in other public spaces are 'small change' by which the wealth of a city grows."

Boston Chinatown Park
Cities perform best when they adapt to human psychological dynamics and patterns of activity.  Urban dwellers need to make sense of their living spaces, find meaning and order.  However, it is not a simple as that.  Mr. Mehaffy writes, "Research in environmental, psychology, public health and other fields suggests that some common attributes promote the capacity to meet these human needs-among them green vegetation, layering, and coherent grouping."  Another way to create structure and meaning in the urban environment is wayfinding and identity.  Being able to point to a landmark that is connected to a community or city is something that Kevin Lynch, a contemporary of Jane Jacobs, discussed in his book The Image of the City as a means of imposing logic, structure, and identity to a city.  Jane Jacobs put it more succinctly, "a city is not primarily a work of art."  Bad thinking for a city and art.

Multnomah Village
Portland, Oregon
Cities perform best when they offer some control of spatial structure to residents.  As human beings, we all need some degree of public and private space.  More important, we humans need to control the amount of public and private space we require during the day and over our lifespans.  The short-term solution is opening a window, closing a door, go outside, or informally colonize a space or hide in our rooms.  Over the long-term, we can make alterations to our public and private spaces-open businesses or remodel our homes-that slowly add to the "complex dynamic growth of cities.

These are some examples which illustrate just how complex cites are, "adaptive systems with their characteristics dynamic and if they are going to perform well from a human point of view- they need to be dealt with as such."  Therefore, we need to re-examine our present planning systems, "building and managing cities-i.e. laws, codes, standards, models, and disincentives" that combine to form the "'operating system' for urban growth."  To improve our cities, we need to take a more historic and scientific approach-an evidence-based approach regarding making good cities from a human perspective.

Millennium Park
Chicago, Illinois
Once again, in bold faced type, Michael Mehaffy declares, "Cities are complex adaptive systems with their own characteristic dynamics, and they need to be dealt with as such."  If we understand this statement correctly, cities are like people, with their own distinct personality traits and need to be dealt with on an individual level.  However, as Mr. Mehaffy writes, "But this is far from conventional urban practice, which too often features an art-dominated approach to architecture that values novel imagery over human city-making..."  I've always maintained that architecture is a form of art and like the nineteenth century English architect William Morris, I also believe that an object (or building can be both beautiful and functional.  However, if we are to understand Mr. Mehaffy's statement, he seems to be saying that when aesthetics are valued over practicality and functionality, they become little more than a marketing tool.  These marketing tools promote isolating features such as super blocks, walled-off campuses, and auto-dependent cities.  Alarmingly, these isolating practices are common in rapidly urbanizing parts of the world.

Penn Quarter
Washington D.C.
Michael Mehaffy reports, "Over the next five decades, if present trends do not reverse dramatically, humanity is set to create more sheer volume of urban settlement than it has in the entire previous history of human settlement."  This is alarming news for our ecology, the viability of future economies, and future of our quality of life.  We absolutely need the tools to guide us in understanding the likely outcomes and help us make changes in order to avert political, economic, and professional disaster in the near and distant future.

We human are facing a momentous challenge: finding a new way to generate creative economies and qualities of lives that are ecologically sustainable, otherwise we will usher in era of unparalleled misery.  In the face of this challenge, according to Mr. Mehaffy, "cities will be enormous contributors to the problem.  Or, if we understand the lessons from the emerging science of cities about cities' dynamic capacity to promote creative growth while reducing resource destruction and perhaps even offering the promise of regeneration-they can be enormous contributors to the solutions."

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