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In his new book, Time Reborn, theoretical physicist Lee Smolin is digging deeper into understanding what makes the universe tick.  At one point in time, Sir Isaac Newton’s conception of the physical laws of the universe held sway, which then yielded to Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Quantum physics has added another dimension, but much to the consternation of physicists, there is disconnect between relativity and quantum theories that suggest the need to dig even deeper. So Smolin, among others, is digging, attempting to conceptualize a different organizational framework for the universe. Smolin argues that there is overwhelming evidence of directionality in the universe, from simple beginnings towards increasing complexity. According to Smolin, that complexity emerges out of open systems fueled by energy. His postulation is remarkably similar to, and perhaps influenced by, emergence theory, which stipulates that emergent systems, things that can be recognized as being unique, such as a hurricane, are the products of elements in close relation with each other following a basic set of rules.

There is no single force that creates a hurricane, rather an interrelated set of elements following the rules of thermodynamics conspire to create these recognizable systems.

There is no single force that creates a hurricane, rather an interrelated set of elements following the rules of thermodynamics conspire to create these recognizable systems.

Architect Christopher Alexander and economist Paul Krugman postulate that cities are recognizable complex entities that fit the definition of emergent systems. So, what are the basic rules cities are following?

Geoffrey West, a theoretical physicist who co-founded the Santa Fe Institute, has taken on a number of emergent systems, including cities. West postulates that cities form to foster human interactions, which are essential to economic output that fuels our quality of life. This concept is not new; it has been elegantly articulated by Jane Jacobs, among others.

Through his research, West has found some universal truths regarding the scalability of cities.

“You tell me the size of any city in the United States and I can tell you with 80 to 90 percent accuracy almost everything about it. The scaling laws tell you that despite all of the efforts of planners, geographers, economists, architects, and politicians, and all of the local history, geography, and culture, somehow cities end up having to obey these scaling laws. We need to be aware of those forces when we design and redesign cities” (Discover Magazine, October 2012).

Cities not only have common scalability patterns, but there are common geographical patterns if you relax your focus somewhat. It’s interesting to fly around the globe in Google Earth and compare the major roadway network patterns of the world’s largest cities. Not only are the networks similar, but the spacing of roads is similar.

The major street networks, at the same scale, in Houston, Texas and Beijing, China.  Can you tell which is which?

The major street networks, at the same scale, in Houston, Texas and Beijing, China.  Can you tell which is which? Although each city is influenced by geography and culture to make each unique, there are emergent rules at play that create similar patterns.

Clearly, the need to foster interaction is a fundamental rule that motivates the creation of cities. But there are others, most notably the ability to satisfy our biological needs, including the need to eat, sleep and at times connect with the natural world that nurtured our species into being. As a result, cities have an interesting push-pull tension that influences their evolution.

Planners can readily attest to market and political forces that often have a greater impact on the development of cities than plans, policies and regulations. Those forces are wrought by the collective demands of city dwellers attempting to follow the basic rules of emergent urban systems we call cities. City planners could benefit greatly by better defining and understanding those emergent rules so that plans, policies and regulations can more elegantly meet expectations and mitigate inherent tensions.

This is the first in a series of blogs that I will write over the coming months to explore how better understanding the science of cities as emergent systems might improve city planning. This exploration is open-ended so I invite all to weigh in on this and coming blogs. It should make for an interesting journey. With enough interest, we will certainly create our own emergent system.

–Chris Sinclair, Cities That Work Blog

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