Modeling and Measuring Cities

The Urban Systems Symposium took place in New York City on May 11th and 12th, 2011.

Over 50% of the world’s population now lives in cities and this proportion is set to increase.Furthermore, over 30% of the world’s GDP comes from the top 100 cities and this proportion is also set to increase. Thus, urbanization is fast becoming one of the brute facts of life for mankind as we struggle to ensure a sustainable and comfortable future on an increasingly over-crowded and over-stressed planet. Yet the study and management of cities is beset by an inability to approach these problems holistically, across the “systems of systems” of which cities are composed, and by a lack of recognition and use of the enormous power of information to enable solutions to address these problems.

What are the traditional and contemporary issues that designers and planners face as they work through processes of developing master plans for the redevelopment of large sections of existing cities, as well as for the creation of new cities from scratch?

3 Slide shows from the simposium:

No Quick Fix – Cultural Districts

Contrary to many local authorities, urban designers and developers there is no quick fix in creating a cultural district or in revamping a potential cultural district in a city, but succesful ones are the result of many often small and incremental pieces by many players over often log periods of time, as can be attested in the more successful areas of Cape Town’s Long Street or more commercially V&A Waterfront development, Cape Quarter and often such active  larger scale interventions are less succesful than theri original small scale precursors or might fail outright. 

Long Street, Cape Town

This article from Urban Land by Nancy Egan :

Cultural and entertainment districts are not a quick fix, but the slow weaving together of smart, sometimes big, often small, urban solutions.

“American cities are always looking for quick fixes to revive their moribund downtowns,” Witold Rybczynski, professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in a May 15 New York Times op-ed article, a review of the High Line, New York City’s popular elevated park. “Sadly, the dismal record of failed urban design strategies is long: downtown shopping malls, pedestrianized streets, underground passages, skyways, monorails, festival marketplaces, downtown stadiums—and that most elusive fix of all: iconic cultural buildings. It appears likely that we will soon be adding elevated parks to the list.”

“Districts are where it is happening, especially as tourism becomes as important as goods and services to urban economies,” says Michael S. Rubin, head of Baltimore-based MRA International and one of the leading thinkers in the urban entertainment field. “Offering visitors choices about where to go and what to see allows people to create their own personal itineraries. This sense of possibility helps to bridge the gap between generations and cultures, even when the choices are embedded in well-planned and programmed entertainment districts.”

Part of the big crowd which nearly every afternoon and early evening packs the Cape Town Waterfront, a center for dining, shopping and entertainment.

“The best districts build on a classic formula—small blocks, pedestrian scale, active uses at the corners, business that spills out on the sidewalks, and outdoor gathering spaces,” says Nate Cherry, vice president/director of planning and urban design in the Los Angeles office of RTKL. “At L.A. Live, we didn’t have the benefit of an existing urban context. Instead we had the Staples Center arena and the convention center, so it was important that the design provide the scale, the pathways, and plazas to encourage people coming for a game or a concert to stay and explore the restaurants and shops or to make plans to come back.”

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How will our cities grow?

The statistical measurement of cities data lauded by proponents do the smart city such as smartplanet in this interview by Melanie D.G. Kaplan is yet to be accepted by designers and architects although the commercial and government sectors have been quick to leap on the bandwagon , seeking objective proof that their planing policies and implementations are “going to work”, my concern is the causal relationships porposed by these statistics is seldom able to hold up under the scrutiny of post implementation analysisi – mcuh of this “what works” inone place has no relationship to what owrksk intanother, as has been discovered by scinece in its ever expandintg goal and failure to map diversity and complexity in natural or large scale man-made systems.

Urban scaling shows that as cities expand, the trajectories of measures such as wages, crime and carbon dioxide emissions are somewhat surprising.

Hyejin Youn is a postdoctoral fellow working with theSanta Fe Institute’s Cities and Urbanization team, which includes Luis Bettencourt and Geoffrey West. Her expertise is in human behavior and statistical analysis on population distribution. She said the best way to create sustainable growth in our cities is to understand the mathematics behind their growth. Excerpts of our recent conversation are below.

Why is it important to study urban areas?

More than half of all people now live in urban areas, which
increased up to 80 percent in about 40 years, as reported by the United Nations. The rapid urbanization implies that understanding urban dynamics is a key to our sustainability.

Studying cities reveals the advantages and disadvantages of urban
life. We know cities usually have more educated, wealthy people but also have more crime. However we only recently started looking quantitatively at by how much the cities are educated and dangerous.

In the past we haven’t been able to compare cities’ performances over time because data were not available across cities. Rather, data were gathered over time for a particular city or groups of cities and this data was inconsistent with the data gathered for other cities. Cross-sectional data for many cities allows us to compare many cities, systematically and consistently, to get a better idea of trends and patterns. This allows us to create a generic baseline for cities for, say, carbon dioxide emissions. From that we can then see the significant or unique features of a particular city, what urban scaling reveals. We can also think in a more macroscopic way than those conventional studies have allowed.

The relationship from these cross-sectional data analyses we now know as urban scaling — a power-law that describes how quantities increase with city size. My colleagues Luis Bettencourt and Geoffrey West of Santa Fe Institute are pioneers of these beautiful urban scaling forms. The power-law is the simplest yet most powerful, as the name indicates, mathematical form. This power-law fascinates lots of researchers because it reveals mathematical relationships at many scales of cities.

How are you using urban scaling in your work?

According to urban scaling, cities whose population doubles in size will have 15 percent more than twice socio-economic quantities such as wages, GDP, number of patents produced and number of educational and research institutions. The significance of this work comes from this systematic increase. The growth of cities also have negative aspects like more crime and more epidemic disease.

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Life Sciences Development by OvP Landscape Architects for the University of the Western Cape wins ILASA Award

On 21 May 2011 Corobrik and the Institute for Landscape Architecture in South Africa (ILASA) celebrated 34 projects entered into the Awards of Excellence

View across entrance plaza + LC roof decks

For the excellent example it sets of contemporary landscape architecture working in close synergy with the architecture and engineering of the site, the Life Sciences Development at the University of the Western Cape received an Award of Excellence. Continue reading

African Carbon Emissions – Info-graphic

I found this interesting Info-graphic  on veggie.buntch and followed up the site  AFROGRAPHIQUE where a host of other interesting graphics are available, I couldn’t resist adding the one on cell phone market share as well – Nokia might be having a hard time elsewhere in Smart phones but they are still tops in Africa
: Scary to see that South africa is ahead of Brazil and has the highest emissions on the continent – I suppose it goes with being Africa’s economic leader?

Tracking Ideas Over Time (via Praxis in Landscape Architecture)

Googles dream of digitizing all knowledge might be in doubt now but the ability to scan for obscure keywords and see links amongst millions of books and papers is still awe inspiring – here is another way to possible get a glimpse of what it might mean

Tracking Ideas Over Time The roots of landscape planning and design extend into many disciplines. Just communicating what this knowledge domain entails is complicated, and new terminology seems to arise almost yearly. It is interesting to compare the rise and fall of these terms over time, and Google Ngram Viewer makes it easy, thanks to Google's 5 million+ scanned books. Here are two comparisons I explored (click on images to enlarge): [caption id="attachment_425" align … Read More

via Praxis in Landscape Architecture

Design for Resilience – The Case of Flood Mitigation (via Praxis in Landscape Architecture)

More and more we hear about resilience in the face of the unknown rather than “big scale planning”

Design for Resilience - The Case of Flood Mitigation What do you do when historical data is no longer useful for predicting the future? Climate change is making the already-difficult proposition of predicting environmental phenomena even harder. Consider societal efforts to manage the flood system. The concept of a 100-year flood is based on the idea that history is useful indicator of future states and "most likely" scenarios. A 2010 paper by Gersonius et al.* tackles the question of how we might … Read More

via Praxis in Landscape Architecture

Updated Guide: Climate Change and Landscape Architecture (via The Dirt)

Again it is necessary to take cognizance of all interventions and strategies that might assist in dealing with Climate Change, but how these ideas apply in African situations is yet to be seen

Updated Guide: Climate Change and Landscape Architecture A recent report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal.” According to the IPCC, average global temperatures are increasing at an alarming rate. In just the past 50 years, northern hemisphere temperatures were higher than during any other 50-year period in the last 500 years, perhaps even the past 1,300 years. The IPCC projects that the Earth’s surface temp … Read More

via The Dirt

Design Competition: Rethink Water Use in the Face of Climate Change (via The Dirt)

There is potentially nothing more important than how we deal with water in urban design and here in Africa there is a paramount need to implement as much new thinking as possible about it – Wether we can actually apply Western first world thinking and ideas here is another question which has yet to be answered.

Design Competition: Rethink Water Use in the Face of Climate Change Drylands Design, a new ideas competition sponsored by the California Architectural Foundation in partnership with the Arid Lands Institute at Woodbury University and AIACC Academy for Emerging Professionals and created in honor of architect William Turnbull, is seeking submissions for "retrofitting the American West." The goal of the program is to "re-think" water use in the West in the face of climate change and create a set of "long-term strate … Read More

via The Dirt

Switching on: Africa’s vast new tech opportunity

A somewhat dated article on Africa’s technological rebirth which has been the subject of numerous posts in this blog and in other observant media and net channels for some while now, is still interesting in that the innovation and action found in African Cities which can be seen beyond the surface “noise”  that usually lmakes European and American observers cry out “hopeless” and look no deeper. The late 20th Century project by Rem Koolhaas’  Harvard Project on the City resulting in 2005 DVD of LAGOS which I only recently saw is a fitting contrast even though Rem points out in it how over the 4 years of their project they could see deeper into the City and saw how it was changing ,  By Pete Guest  on

In 2011, visitors to Africa looking for war, famine and pestilence have to dig a lot deeper than in the past. At Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, hardened missionaries have been replaced by gap-year students clustered around iPads, and on the streets the bad old days have given way to another holy trinity: Premier League football, Toyota Hiace minibuses and cellphones.

Isis Nyong'o, Nairobi

Africa’s national economies have grown consistently over the last decade. Even in the depths of the financial crisis, GDP growth exceeded three percent: more than in any other region of the world. Improvements in security, Chinese investments and soaring commodity prices have all played a part in transforming the continent’s prospects. Continue reading