In the most recent of its annual “Year in Ideas” issues, the New York Times Magazine devoted a lengthy feature article to the topic of how cities function and how we understand them. Entitled “A Physicist Solves the City” the article purports that the physicist Geoffrey West has, in the few short years he has been studying urbanism, solved the “problem” that is the city. On the Times website the article was listed as the most read magazine article for some weeks, and it appears to be well-disseminated among popular media outlets and especially on science and technology websites. 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.
Perhaps never before has the search for a totalizing “urban science” been more inappropriate.Throughout the article, author Jonah Lehrer continually refers to “the city” (though never a specific one) and how it is a “problem.” This characterization seems symptomatic of a larger trend occurring when popular media sets its gaze on our cities and our collective “urban future.” I’m talking about articles that lead off with the statistic, “In 2008, for the first time ever, more people live in cities than not” and then go on to presume that “thus, the earth’s collective urban future has now arrived.” Articles of this sort tend to invoke the terms “cities” and “urban” in pre-packaged, discrete and generic terms on which we are all supposed to agree. Such reductive definitions belie a much more complex reality of “urban” places that are neither discrete, uniform, nor comparable by the same metrics. 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.
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.
After stripping the city of its context and all of the attendant complexities in which social scientists deal, West is finally able to realize an “urban science” that has until now been elusive. In his scenario, there has been no serious study of the city, necessitating his invention of the field of urban science akin to how Kepler advanced physics in the 17th century with his theory of planetary motion. As C. Emory Burton puts it in his letter to the Times, “West could hardly invent it [urban science], because social science — particularly the field of urban sociology — has been working on this for many decades.” And urban sociology is by no means alone: urban anthropology, economics, geography and number of other disciplines in the social sciences have investigated cities, not to mention the interdisciplinary field of urban studies. The failure of one discipline to account totally for the study of the city is not a failure of methodology, but rather the recognition of the dynamism of cities and the different ways in which they can be read according to our different experiences of, and interests in, them.
This leads to the broader problem facing those interested in cities who recognize that “urban science” cannot totally explain the city and, more generally, those who believe that social relations cannot be observed through a microscope. Surely statistical analysis and demography are important aspects in understanding urban areas, and aspects about which the reductive powers of the “hard sciences” have much to teach. But to listen to West struggle with the problem of whether his prototypical amorphous city is itself an organism or not is painful. Cities are amalgamations of forces natural as well as man-made and cannot be viewed objectively from a disembodied viewpoint; cities cannot be objectively observed any more than human consciousness can. They are not organisms external to us but rather dynamic and ephemeral assemblages of which we are a part.
If some of us cringe when hearing West recount that, “One of my favorite compliments is when people come up to me and say, ‘You have done what Jane Jacobs would have done, if only she could do mathematics,’” it is because, while making foundational contributions to the field of urban economics, we are most indebted to Jacobs for the recognition that much of the study of the city is about understanding perspective, and the realization that our experience of the city is inextricable from our subjectivities. Her criticism of modernist planning retains relevance today for how it elevated the power of individual observation of the city over that of objectivist viewpoints of the city. An imminent task before those of us interested in studying cities is to read the broader forces at work on the city through the lens of our individual experiences of the world.
In interpreting our “urban future,” the territory has never been more ambiguous and uncharted than it is now, as cities find themselves at the collision points of global shifts in capital, governance, demographics, climate change as well as political and cultural identity, and each in different ways. Perhaps never before has the search for a totalizing “urban science” been more inappropriate. Perhaps never before has asserting the importance of human experience and embodiment in studying the city been more important. The stakes are no less crucial than making our cities more sustainable, but also debating what kind of cities we want to live in, and making those visions into reality.
Eric Peterson sometimes writes things and sometimes designs things. He is a former project associate of Urban Omnibus and lives in Brooklyn.
Image: Coruscant at night. Rendering by Yannick Dussealt for LucasFilm LTD’s Star Wars Episode III Revenge of the Sith
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.