The City as Organism: Have Urban Planners Become Latter Day Darwinians?

The city has oft been compared to a biological organism.  Like the simplest single cell organism, the emergence and growth of urbanity is a story of evolution, not creation, and just like our friendly amoeba, it can multiply, split, or become infected with bad DNA.  Despite best efforts to understand urban agglomerations, however, their origins, working features and adaptive strategies remain elusive and mysterious.

Never wont to let a good idea die, or, rather, to let any idea that can be mined and pitched for research dollars and parlayed into published articles, the urban research Academy has kept the comparative amoeba on life support (albeit a tiny, miniature system), and has expanded its vast analogical skills to include sexy biological spinoffs including fractal theory.  But where does this get us, exactly?

I recently read an interesting blurb on Seoul-based architect Lee Jang Sub’s “Complexcity” concept, which focuses on finding a “concealed aesthetic” in roadways “growing and evolving randomly through time.”   Sub provides as backing evidence satellite imagery that reveals a delicate lattice of roads, byways, and highways (though in this stylized vision perhaps we should refer instead to boulevards and parkways, quite possibly plated with gold) that reveal themselves unexpectedly and, in at least one case mentioned, is reminiscent of a gentle flower.  I presume that examples evocative of a lump of coal, or worse, some more valueless and amorphous lump-like mass, were omitted for convenience’s sake.

But the basic premise, that of a random evolution of roadways, is to me erroneous.  I instead would argue there are few things around us less planned than our road systems. Whether they wend this way or that, get codified on the map, get expanded and maintained or pockmarked with potholes, it is more a creationist tale with an extended care plan (budget willing) from the maker herself.   This is not to say, of course, that the plan is fully predetermined or in any measure optimal.  It’s just to say that this is a practical business, typically informed by quantitative studies of various sorts and designed in successive iterations over time and for particular (if often short-sighted) purposes rather than some purer form of urban Darwinism.

It’s easy to see, however, why these analogies (see the “organic city model”) are made.  Biology, environment, and ecology are quite comforting, if unsatisfactory, replacements for the hard realities of seemingly random physicality, inefficient and inequitable political structures, and unplanned, unaddressed backwoods and slums.  But science, sociology, planning, and other fields are not intended to pacify us, or to make prosaic that which is not.  They are there to explain, compare, but most importantly to improve the way we live in and interact with our world.

I suppose there is an adaptability argument that could be made, by which the outmoded road to nowhere is akin to vestigial features such as a tailbone or spleen—it is a feature that just got phased out by better, more efficient technology.  But natural selection, Darwinian bread and butter, implies improvement over time (even if in fits and starts) and it seems all too clear that transit often moves in the opposite direction, at times damning the fittest rather than killing outright the weak.

Bill McDonough, a preeminent sustainability expert, offered the following verse in describing city ecology and development:

“Cities are organisms. They have metabolisms. They are linked to their regions through complex networks, both natural and cultivated, that circulate biological nutrition-food, wood, fiber, water-and technical nutrition-the hardware and software of the 21st century.”

A 21st century Walt Whitman could have hardly put it better.

Thankfully, McDonough is careful to reference the human agency factor, adding nurture to the nature:

“A city is a congestion of animals whose biological history is enclosed within boundaries, and yet every conscious and rational act on the part of these creatures helps to shape the city’s eventual character. By its form as by the manner of its birth, the city has elements at once of biological procreation, organic evolution, and esthetic creation. It is both a natural object and a thing to be cultivated; individual and group; something lived and something dreamed.”

I think on the whole I agree with that (and I have intentionally overstated my case above for emphatic effect). To be sure some level of comparison between the built metropolis and organic form is apt.  But beyond serving as nifty literary devices, I think there is little here beyond an interesting case study in the animation or anthropomorphizing of urbanity.  Cartoon cats talk, we give cars and boats people names, and we are prone to looking for if not something human, at least something living, in the inanimate.

I’m still left hungry for the applicatory mechanism—how this is harnessed meaningfully so that evolution is accelerated and more certain in its trudging forward, even if still occurring troublingly slowly.  Until someone can demonstrate how these tempting observational ideas might be usefully applied to the actual betterment of places, spaces, and transportation networks, which obviously requires their integration into the morass of human interactional processes and their offshoots (economies, politics, etc.), concepts such as the organic city may be best left to poets and philosophers.

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