miércoles, 5 de febrero de 2014

The not-so-new science of cities

The idea of a new science of cities sounds catchy, particularly after it became popular thanks to a Geoffrey West´s talk at TED. It was a superficial but very effective way to show urban complexity through equations, graphics and a set of laws allegedly behind how cities work and grow. If you are familiar with this blog, you know I resist this idea or, in a few more words, the implications of over-simplifying urban studies into a patterns, predictability, etc.

Of course, this can mean a great contribution, but there is the risk to understand these findings and research as a complete roadmap for urban studies. Michael Batty has been on this topic for decades and has a wide understanding of tools, frameworks and methods to approach cities as complex systems that comprise a science of networks, flows and connections to unveil.  His newest book, The new science of cities, is a compilation of techniques and decision-making models built on his previous research and the work developed at the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis. As a matter of fact, the title does not merit Batty´s point of view on the quest for this “new” “science” of cities, as the book is clear on this: those looking for an “integrated science that is nicely packaged and available to apply immediately will be disappointed. No such package exists, and it probably never will. Like physics, it might seem as though the field should aspire to an integrated theory… but as in physics too, this is a mirage.” So, first caution is overcome.

One of the main contributions of the book is that it serves as an excursus on the history of urban complexity studies and research, clearly showing that the claim for a new science (mostly determined by smart city and big data enthusiastic proponents with a short perspective of where we come from on urban studies) is not new. The book acknowledges these previous efforts and the incrementality of this field of knowledge. In fact, Batty recently shared on his blog just another piece of research written in 1967 on a science of cities: “Amazingly as far back as January 1967, we were quite literally talking about ‘a science of cities’, using the cliche. Jennifer Light’s book From Warfare to Welfare published in 2003 recounts the optimism of the 1960s in which many believed that one could import the products of the space program specifically and the military industrial complex more generally into tools that we might used for solving the urban crisis. In America this was the crisis of segregation and poverty in cities as well as traffic congestion, housing conditions and endemic decay (...) But we tend to forget that we have been here before in the 1960s and it is well worth looking at what was said then. The pamphlet referred to was produced by Volta Torrey for HUD (Housing and Urban Development) and published in January 1967. (...) Its contents make fascinating reading, and those of us who are scholars of urban and planning history will be intrigued by its perspective. The world is very different now but the sentiments are much the same”. From Ildefons Cerdá to Patrick Geddes, the foundations for a genuine science of cities has been attractive as a way to sum up the knowledge from different fields with a new set of scientific tools, laws (the Seven laws of scaling in chapter 1) and new ways for spatial representation (again, a great review of historic stages from the 19th century). By the way, this is something Anthony Townsend covers in his book (especially in the Cybernetics redux chapter), with a great review of previous attempts to build a positivist and mechanical framework for urban studies in the ´60s through computer models.

This book can probably serve as a guidebook for those interested in using the techniques of complexity theory using the chapters as independent resources. But, to someone like me, more comfortable dealing with critical analysis and strategic implications of digital technologies in urban life, the book is also a handhold to understand the balanced role these tools can offer to urban studies, particularly in the field of smart cities and quantitative urbanism. The core point on the emerging topic of this science of cities is to what extent we can expect a comprehensive understanding of cities based on mathematical models, but as Andrew Karvonen reviews, Batty´s science “is incremental, uncertain, and modest rather than comprehensive and predictive”. In this sense, how these complexity tools can inform urban design and decision making is framed in the book as a contribution to other disciplines, and it is the mix of all of them what can constitute the best knowledge on understanding cities, and assuming there will be still, always, black holes:
”The kind of rudimentary science that was largely physicalist a century ago was regarded as being central to a professional concern that was quite separate from the city itself. The notion that planning might actually make matters worse was simply not part of this intellectual agenda, until, however, experience with such interventions began to accumulate. By the 1970s, Rittel and Webber (1973) in their review of planning theory were suggesting that many urban problems were what they called “wicked”, (and here I recall Usman Haque) since intended improvements often intensified the problems they were designed to solve. (...) Insofar as our science is being used to inform planning, it is now part of a much wider dialog in which many different perspectives –many different sciences, if you like- are brought to bear on urban problem solving” (p. 302).
Good to hear that. It may seem obvious, but it is always good to keep in mind this when we are being overloaded with reductionist –but easy to celebrate- visions of urban research and policy making.

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