Different types of urban science

CC image from futureatlas.com

CC image from futureatlas.com

Jeff Wood’s handy mailing list on behalf of Re-connecting America pointed me towards this article from Urban Omnibus, disputing the broad conclusions from Geoffrey West’s work towards discovering a universal theory of cities.  Eric Peterson, the author, does not like the implications of West’s quantitative work and the implications of physical laws that might apply to cities:

Despite proposing to have radically reinvented the field in which architects and urbanists work, the article appears to have garnered little attention among commentators and blogs from within architecture and urbanism. Perhaps the article’s lack of substance explains professionals’ reluctance to engage with the implications of West’s work. Nonetheless, it is crucial for those of us interested in the serious study of urbanism to look closely at the article, if only because many of the assumptions it advances strike me as undermining an understanding of cities as complex and important things.

The charge that West’s work is somehow lacking in substance struck me as harsh and misguided.  The notion that there can be only one true understanding of how cities work misses the obvious difference between  West’s work and the more conventional urban studies that Peterson seems to prefer.  The difference appears to be a simple one, based on a misunderstanding of the kinds of universal rules West seeks to understand, as well as the fundamental difference between qualitative and quantitative observation.

Remembering that West is a physicist, Peterson’s charge that a universal theory of urbanism misses out on all of the complexity of a city represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what such a universal theory really means.  Just look at West’s field – physics – and you can easily see exceedingly complex movements that can all be understood by the basic laws of Newtonian mechanics.  A full understanding of motion, as we know it, is an exceedingly complex undertaking, yet Newton essentially boiled that complexity down to three basic laws of motion, which can easily be translated into simple maxims.  Bodies at rest tend to stay at rest; bodies in motion tend to stay in motion; for each and every action there is an equal and opposite reaction; etc.

These laws have limits to their validity, of course, but that does not discount the fact that complex systems can be understood via the basis of simple laws. This reduction isn’t something to be feared.

Peterson also seems to gloss over the mutually beneficial relationship between both qualitative and quantitative analysis.  He frames urbanism in a qualitative way and then implies that the quantification of urbanism not only has little to offer, but is indeed dangerous to our understanding of urban places:

Further, such an approach should be read as dangerous to all of us who see cities as phenomena formed at the collision of dynamic economic, historical, social, political and ecological forces.

This fear seems so misguided that I don’t even know where to begin.

Instead of recognizing cities as the products of these complex forces, the object of West’s study is purposefully contextless and unspecified. Describing how he applies his scientific principles to a specific city he’s studying, he says, “I don’t know anything about this city or even where it is or its history, but I can tell you all about it. And the reason I can do that is because every city is really the same.” West goes on to qualify this assertion by saying that, essentially, the differences between cities that we so often discuss are merely superficial, material ones, related to how a city functions rather than to each city’s unique history.

Even in areas of knowledge where we have a strong quantitative understanding of how things work, this knowledge has never derailed our searches for qualitative understanding as well – for context, for history, for social interactions.

Some of this confusion between the respective role for quantification and qualification stems from language.  Peterson notes early in his piece his disdain for West’s characterization of cities as “problems” to be solved.  Here, the word problem would have completely a different meaning to a mathematician and a physicist as compared to a ethnographer or an architect.  To the mathematician, a problem is not necessarily a social ill but a riddle to be solved, a question to be answered.

In the end, both approaches are crucial to our understanding of the places we live in.

4 comments to Different types of urban science

  • I shared Peterson’s reaction at claims of a “universal theory,” but the analogy to Newton is maybe not quite right. When physicists say “universal theory” now they don’t mean Newton, they mean the theory that really explains all physics at all possible scales. Newton is perfectly good at explaining everyday physics at the scale of our existence, so it’s a useful theory but not a universal one.

    My sense is that West should not be calling his work “universal” because it does not claim to describe all scales. West is obviously engaging in hyperbole, rhetorically asserting more than he actually claims. Or at least I hope he’s doing that.

  • Alex Block

    Yes, and perhaps I’m guilty of that as well – nevertheless, working towards a set of universal laws (or, at least, rules of thumb) would be a useful endeavor.

    In that sense, I think West’s work might be a bit more Newtonian in nature. It seems to work well within certain broad parameters, just as Newtonian motion works well under Earthly parameters – yet falls short as you approach the speed of light, etc. I don’t know what the General Relativity theorem for urbanism might be.

    Nevertheless, I find West’s work fascinating precisely because it does not deal with the qualitative at all, and yet it is still quite descriptive. At the same time, I don’t think the broad conclusions he’s reached are all that out of the ordinary – density correlates with productivity, etc. As a skeletal framework for our understanding of urbanism and urban economics, I think it’s quite fascinating.

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