Yet Another Urban Blog

Where Is the Science of Cities Heading?

The science of cities is in a somewhat similar state to what medical science was 500 year ago. The 20th century was filled with attempts to “engineer” the city and tread is with bloodletting. Modernist planning created crippled cities. If the modernist planner were to create a human being it would have been formed in its mature form, and growth pains have been avoided. On the other hand this human being would not have an identity and its capacity to learn and evolve was rather limited. A guest editorial in Environment Journal says it clearly: “It’s time for and Urbanization Science”. This editorial offers a number of reserach fields, which deal with the relationship between the real world and urban science and which will expand in the coming years:

We need a science of urbanization. This science would focus on the fundamental laws of the urbanization process: its origins, development, organization, emergent properties, and connections to other social and biophysical processes.

One of the tremendous efforts in the science of cities recently is Shlomo Angel’s book – Planet of Cities. Angel points out to the fact that during this century the world’s urbanization process will be completed (i.e. the transition from rural to urban will reach saturation) and that there are still many opprtunities for improvements and corrections. Angel’s findings realted to cities and urbanization are based on reserach spanning 3,646 cities of 100,000 or more inhabitants all across the globe. Angel offers a paradigm he calls “Making Room”, meaning preparing a place for urbanization in places were the urban popoluation is set to rise rapidly (mainly in the developing world), and gives examples for past successes  such as New York’s 1811 Commissioners’ Plan and Barcelona’s 1859 Eixample Plan.  A good summary of this fine book can be found here.

In the world of urbanization science we have serious holes in the pseudoscience known as city planning. An easy article helps to clarify this a bit: “Urban Legend: Can City Planning Shed Its Pseudoscientific Stigma?” It raises the question whether urban planning can be truly scientific instead of relying on emotions, unclear texts and plain BS like it is today. This short article is based on an excellent academic paper by Stephen Marshall that is called: “Science, pseudo-science and urban design”. Marshall demostrated that there is hardly any use of academic methods in urban planning and that in fact there is no scientific theory of urban planning. Marshall shows that we did not learn almost anything since Jane Jacobs wrote:

As in the pseudoscience of bloodletting, just so in the pseudoscience of city rebuilding and planning, years of learning and a plethora of subtle and complicated dogma have arisen on a foundation of nonsense.

The most important table in this paper shows that urbanistic theories by Jane Jacobs, Christopher Alexander and Kevin Lynch, all of whom are great urban thinkers, have not been scientifically tested. In the few cases these theories did go under scientific tests, they did not stand them. It appears that the four principles of Jane Jacobs (mix of uses, short blocks, buildings of different ages and density) have not proven to contribute to urban vitiality. Marshall suggests that urban planning should be established as a real science.

To conclude, the science of cities and the part of scientific urban planning need a lot more reserach and this reserach might as well happen while the world is still undergoing major urbanization processes.

Summary of links for further reading:

It’s Time for an Urbanization Science

Urban Legend: Can City Planning Shed Its Pseudoscientific Stigma?

Science, pseudo-science and urban design

Planet of Cities