Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Book Review so you don't have to...


I like that the cover graphic sort of reminds of a DNA double helix, no?

I've got another post for today in the works, but before that I want to plug a book I'm currently sifting through which is not suitable for a lay audience.  It is The New Science of Cities by Michael Batty, a professor at the University College of London, the epicenter for emerging theory on cities and city form, a counterbalance to Copenhagen's pragmatic living laboratory towards livability.  This book is graduate level and above.  So unless you want to wade into its 500 pages, just see my next few paragraphs.

There seems to be a rush to quantify cities into something, ahem, quantifiable, which is a good thing as long as you understand that they very may well be unquantifiable in sum or at least admit this science is still in its infancy or adolescence at best.  Batty understands and admits this immediately.  However, UCL and Batty are at the forefront of beginning to formulate a new way of looking at cities and a new way of understanding them, which is rooted in complexity theory.  This is simply setting the foundation, righting the ship which has been for too long facing in the wrong direction, towards anti-city.

I have written and often present this concept as intro to how we need to also be thinking about cities and get over our obsession with the visual.  Godmother of Complexity theory Donella Meadows even explicitly writes that in systems we focus the most on that which matters the least, which is the visual, the sensual, those things we can touch and see.  And it's understandable since those are things are both the most apparent and that which we have the most immediate contact.

With cities, those things are buildings, architecture, businesses, ie land uses, parks, etc.  By doing so, we are in effect trying to build a forest ecology through raking leaves.  So I've used Meadows' hierarchical framework that all complex systems are built upon: ELEMENTS, CONNECTIONS, and PURPOSE.  And there is an inverse relationship between causality and attention.  For cities these same categories can become: BUILDINGS AND USES, TRANSPORTATION INFRASTRUCTURE, and POLICY.  Or as I like to quip: the invisible hand, the invisible arm, and the invisible brain.

The policy is the most effectual but the hardest to change.  Buildings and uses are the easiest to change, but the least impactful on the larger system.  Policy drives infrastructural shape which drives land use and behavior patterns.  They are merely an outgrowth that is nudged this way or that by 1) policy and then 2) the infrastructure following that policy.

So what is policy or purpose of cities?  Any simpler living system's purpose is first to stay alive and perpetuate life.  Similarly, Maslow's hierarchy of needs is does the best job of outlining the purpose and priority structure of cities.  Thus, you'll see that the most "livable cities" are those that may not have the best art or airports or most robust economies, but they're the cities with the broadest base of Maslow's pyramid.  They meet the basic needs of the greatest percentage of their inhabitants.

The key as Meadows shows for living systems and urbanists is knowing the correct place and manner of intervention.  My interpretation for a defined purpose of cities throughout history is an "improved quality of life through choice and opportunity for social and economic exchange."  I've had to add the "choice" part in to what was a more simple and elegant statement because it is vital.  As I've mentioned the science of cities is a race.  And physicists at the Santa Fe institute have begun to change the language of cities to that of a reactor.  And in a reactor, there is fusion.  Two things coming together and creating an entirely new energy or vitality.  Social and economic exchange.  Laughter, ideas, trade, genes.  These are the things we're transacting.

Such is the language of Batty's book.  Except from his clinical lens, his framework is similar to Meadows' but a bit different.  His three hierarchies are as follows:  FLOWS, NETWORKS, and FORM.  When you begin to unpack the concepts and translate the language between sciences, you start to see the inherent similarities to all of the complexity sciences, which interestingly have a similar godmother in one Jane Jacobs.

FLOWS refers to demand flows or desire lines.  Batty writes that these are a constant.  They are permanent and proportional to a population.  Specifically, these are our needs and wants, which is social and economic exchange.  Buying things.  Hanging out with friends.  Make money to buy things by going to work.  Etc.

Except those things can't all be in one place.  Therefore there is a tension in place that creates a "bipartite" (his word) bond between two things.  There is demand to access these things as efficiently as possible, but not be literally in the same place as all those things.  For one, those things can't all fit in one place.  And two, sometimes you want to get away from those things, such as the bustle of the trade (modern or historic), or more directly, your job.

Interestingly, if we begin picking components of various urbanists throughout time with our modern ability via the internet to take polls and exchange information we start to see increasing relationships between these ideas.  Australian professor Peter Newman's hour-wide city theory suggests that all cities throughout history are about one-hour wide.  You can traverse from one edge though the center to the other in one hour, from the edge to the center in 30 minutes.  What gives size and shape to the city is contemporary transportation technology.

If you look at average commute times across the US, you see that every city falls within a range of about 25 to 35 minutes.  Looking at polls, you see that the "ideal" commute time is about 22 minutes.  Not quite the 30+, but also not too close to work because many want time to decompress (fro) or prepare (to).

That brings us to Batty's next order of hierarchy, NETWORKS.  He writes, correctly in my estimation, that those demand flows between our various origins and destinations are first, abstract.  They exist invisibly.  They are only given shape as they align to networks.  All of a sudden there is a geography in place.  Invisible links now have physical alignments via infrastructure.  The question is how well does a specific city's infrastructural networks respond to these desire lines, and deeper, to our need for expedient and efficient social and economic exchange?

See two examples:

The road above is clearly not responsive to efficient links between desire lines.  It doesn't enable.  And in fact, it spreads us out to the point (based on car movement) that more efficient forms of movement are nearly prohibited.

The above is 'top-down' designed Rome to the left and 'adapted' Rome to the right, some 2000 years later.  Desire lines optimized the city, maximized route choice and land use premiums by maximizing ratio of interface to land area.

It is the NETWORKS we design and build which give our cities, our inherent need for socio-economic exchange, geography, place.  Whence those networks and in turn places are established, demand driven, then we can practice placemaking.  The building, shaping, and programming of of places to make the FORM of cities that we operate within, love, and remember.  Or don't.

To optimize the greatest invention (and reciprocally the tool and enhancer of civilization), our cities, and their ability to meet our needs without expensing those of the future, (in other words, our ability as an complex organism to perpetuate life), we have to understand cities for what they are, a tool for improving quality of life.  In turn, we have to set our policies as such and align them in such a way, at every level, to maximize the ability for one and all to enhance the lives of one and all.

For now, we'll just build some bigger roads then.  That policy is king currently.