Sunday, December 19, 2010

Urban Science – Maybe we can Start Getting it Right

There was a line at the beginning of the movie Pi:

“1. Mathematics is the language of nature. 2. Everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers. 3. If you graph these numbers, patterns emerge. Therefore: There are patterns everywhere in nature.”

The New York Times carried an article about the work of Theoretical Physicist Geoffrey West – who pointed out the mathematical patterns at work in cities. West turned those patterns into a set of equations – a study that he calls Urban Science.

Urban Science is not Urban Theory. Urban Theory is an agglomeration of social theories that relate to cities. Urban Science uses mathematics to find the underlying forces that shape cities. It could become a hugely important field of study. These are the forces that we work with (or against) when we’re trying to improve cities and neighborhoods. We may use the tools and lessons we’ve learned from Urban Theory , but if we don’t understand the underlying forces, we’re shooting in the dark.

If there’s any doubt that we’ve been shooting in the dark: one has only to look at utopias gone terribly wrong. Cabrini Green and the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago. Pruitt-Igoe in Saint Louis. These projects were based on cutting edge social theories of their time. But they were built without an understanding of the forces behind the problems they were meant to fix. As a result they became urban nightmares. One can’t help but wonder – will the New Urbanism suffer the same fate? It, too, was based in Urban Theory rather than Urban Science.

As an architect I may be the last one you’d expect to follow Geoffrey West. According to the New York Times, he has “little patience for the unconstrained speculations of architects.” But I’ve worked with neighborhoods. People know when there’s something wrong in their neighborhood – but they usually can’t put their fingers on why. Urban Science can give us answers. More importantly, once we’ve analyzed the underlying forces that shape cities – we can fix urban problems and know that we’re getting it right.

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