Friday, December 7, 2012

A Scientific Model For Urban Design

Urban Living

One of the chief aims of all urban designers is to make cities both functional and liveable, both attractive for business and for residents. Yet, an insightful article by Sarah Fecht in Scientific American questions whether urban planners ought to use more scientific models for planning as a necessity to shed its image as a "pseudoscience."

In 1961 urbanist Jane Jacobs didn't pull any punches when she called city planning a pseudoscience. "Years of learning and a plethora of subtle and complicated dogma have arisen on a foundation of nonsense," she wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Fifty years later the field is still plagued by unscientific thought, according to urban theorist Stephen Marshall of University College London. In a recent paper in Urban Design International, Marshall restated Jacobs's observation that urban design theory is pseudoscientific and called for a more scientific framework for the field.
Although urban design theory is unscientific, Marshall wrote, it is not because the ideas are based on nonsense—many of the classic urban thinkers used observations and small pilot studies to describe how cities work. Jane Jacobs, for example, proposed that a city needs four ingredients to be exuberant: mixed uses, short blocks, buildings that vary in age and condition, and a dense concentration of people. "At the core of this book is a four-part hypothesis that is demanding to be tested," Marshall says. "But when I went to look to see if it had been tested, there was virtually nothing." The problem with urban design, he adds, is that its theories are untested, yet accepted as fact. Marshall proposes to overhaul the way that urban design incorporates science into its fabric, calling for more and better urban science, and for the theories to be challenged with alternative hypotheses and rigorously tested.
Some researchers are already studying cities in scientifically valid ways, but much of this work is being done by physicists and mathematicians who have little use for urban design theory.
Science by definition and function required scrupulous  devotion to equations and models as well as testing and predictability. It's true that science can be used to help urban planners in their decision-making process, such as how much trash collection is necessary, how much water is needed per individual and the ideal size of the police, fire and municipal forces to keep a city functioning. As important as that information is, urban planners are also artists and visionaries—much like the best architects or physicians.

It's a matter of professional human judgement, Fecht writes: "How can these two viewpoints—of science and design—be reconciled? Mehaffy suggests that urban design theory and urban design practice could have a relationship like that of life science research and medicine. A doctor doesn't spend all of his time in a research lab, but he relies on scientific knowledge to guide his decisions on a case-by-case basis. The art comes in the form of tailoring diagnoses and prescriptions for each individual patient."

You can read the rest of the article at [Scientific American]


  1. "Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them" Matthew 7:20. What are the most successful cities? New York? Paris? Hong Kong? Zurich? Whatever they are, what do they share? Dense populations, nearby bodies of water, at least some wide streets, big parks, etc.
    However, Hurricane Sandy has told us that nearby bodies of water may not be an advantage after all.

    1. You named some very good cities; I am not sure if the model can be duplicated today.


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