Against a Notion of Urban Science

Coruscant at night. Rendering by Yannick Dussealt for LucasFilm LTD’s Star Wars Episode III Revenge of the Sith

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.


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.

Eric Peterson sometimes writes things and sometimes designs things. He is a former project associate of Urban Omnibus and lives in Brooklyn.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Elizabeth January 20, 2011

Excellent article!

Reminds me a little of the many “new Urbanist” developments I’ve seen, here in Austin and elsewhere, where earnest architects create high-rises with chain stores at street level, then declare that their monsters offer all the benefits of old-growth cities. Developer or scientist, the attitude seems to be that complexity itself is a problem: if we can only reduce a phenomenon to its component parts (or numbers), then we can understand, reproduce and exploit it…

John January 21, 2011

Funny that one of Geoffrey West’s own articles (Seed Magazine, February 2, 2009: starts, “In 2008 a historic landmark was crossed, with more than half the world’s population now living in urban centers.”

While I’m not bothered by West’s approach to understanding the city — it’s one means of looking at cities, but not one that supplants or elevates itself above others — his findings don’t seem to tell us anything we don’t already know. His crunching of data gives precise numbers to certain phenomena, almost justifying subjective experience. Yet I have a hard time seeing where “urban science” could go from here, especially as it’s founder has moved on to something else. (West is like an example of the accelerated innovation he discusses, applying physics to different areas — biology, the city, corporations — in rapid succession.)

Enrique Ramirez January 21, 2011

The idea of branding something as an “urban science” has its own history as well. For example, works like Walter Christaller’s Die zentralen Orte in süddeutschland (Central Places in Southern Germany)(1933) and Johann von Thünen’s The Isolated State(1826) are known as foundational works for regional planning. These are works that not only aspired to be scientific, but that also provided historians with guides for understanding the complexities of cities. The most notable example is William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis(1991), which makes great use of Christaller and von Thünen for its analysis of Chicago during the 19th century.

Eric Peterson January 22, 2011

John: You speak to a main point of mine: after reading the Times piece several over I don’t know of anything new advanced within it — any problem “solved.” Except that a scientist realized that larger cities function in different ways than smaller ones, especially with regard to generating meaningful relationships. This is an interesting finding but I disagree with West that next step after that is to try and “quantify human relations” as Jacobs would have could she have “done math.”

Howard Freeman February 3, 2011

Thanks for a good post.

West’s attitude of cities being ‘problems’ is the same bias Jane Jacobs points out in Ebenezer Howard’s ‘Garden City’ notion and book. When you see mainly problems, you will derive top-down and external solutions that often don’t fit.

However, all of us who live in cities know that they comprise people–and many different kinds of people. In my professional space (religious nonprofits), I know that in Boston there is a great deal of collaboration among inner-city churches to address social problems. This doesn’t happen in my native NYC so much. And in Philadelphia, the Quaker tradition has different cultural and social implications than in Baptist Dallas, Catholic-secular Paris, Anglican London, or Catholic-Pentecostal Sao Paolo. This is not to mention the non-religious peoples in each city, or each city’s differing emphasis–money-making for NYLONGKONG, movies for LA, food and art for Paris, etc.

For West to claim that all cities are the same is to admit his blindness to those cities’ peoples and their passions.

Michael Delfs February 19, 2011


Jane Jacobs provides a thorough and enlightening response to this issue in the final chapter of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” In ‘The Kind of Problem a City Is” she describes the difference between conceptualizing and understanding problems of:

1. Simplicity (like basic mechanics or garden city planning)
2. Disorganized complexity (like thermodynamics or West’s approach to statistical examination of cities), and
3. Organized complexity (like the life sciences)

As she identifies, cities bear the characteristics of organized complexity. People are not billiard balls. Nor are they atoms in a balloon. Cities are much more like complex, biological organisms. Jacobs’ prescription therefore is to stop treating cities like problems in Physics or Economics and start treating them like problems in the Life Sciences. Over the last century, biology, medicine, genomics, etc. have made tremendous progress in understanding the complex collection and relationships of the systems, processes and physical parts that make up, for instance, the human body, although much remains to be understood.

Somewhat remarkably, West missed this connection completely, despite working previously with theories of biological organisms,. Or perhaps it is because of his previous work, which attempted a similar reduction of organized complexity in animals to statistical analysis techniques. There also he came up with a handful of equations that describe interesting and perhaps useful macro-characteristics of living organisms, but hardly the underlying laws that dictate how life works. I think you can say the same thing about his conclusions on cities. They are interesting, potentially useful in how we understand cities in a macro sense, but hardly the fundamental laws that describe the functioning of real urban systems and processes.

What is remarkable is that neither West’s attempts to treat the city as a problem of disorganized complexity, nor the approaches of planners and urbanists towards understanding and dealing with the city, have moved very far beyond where we were when Jacobs’ seminal book was published – half a century ago this year. You are right to criticize scientists like West for misrepresenting and trivializing the complex forces at work in cities. However, by trivializing the “reductive powers of the ‘hard sciences,’” you miss the opportunity to engage with cities on a richer and more open-minded basis that might lead to significant progress. While the social sciences have done important work in studying cities, we have hardly made the sort of progress that the life sciences have over the last fifty years in developing a practical and useful understanding of the complex systems that make up urban life.

I do not wish to tar all urbanists with the same brush, but there is still truth to what Jacobs wrote about urban theorists and planners.

“To be sure, while planners were assuming that cities were properly problems of simplicity, planning theorists and planners could not avoid seeing that real cities were not so in fact. But they took care of this in the traditional way that the incurious (or the disrespectful) have always regarded problems of organized complexity: as if these puzzles were, in Dr. Weaver’s words, ‘in some dark and foreboding way, irrational.’”

You wrote that “cities cannot be objectively observed any more than human consciousness can.” However, in the last decade, our understanding of human consciousness has leapt forward due to the addition of tools like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and network theories deriving from computer science. Perhaps it is time for the study of cities to make a similar leap by applying more “hard” scientific tools and approaches and combining them with what the social sciences have already taught us.