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Thread: NY Times Sunday Magazine Article: A Physicist Solves the City

  1. #1
    Cyburbian Plus
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    NY Times Sunday Magazine Article: A Physicist Solves the City

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/19/ma...ef=todayspaper

    He didn’t want to be constrained by the old methods of social science, and he had little patience for the unconstrained speculations of architects. (West considers urban theory to be a field without principles, comparing it to physics before Kepler pioneered the laws of planetary motion in the 17th century.) Instead, West wanted to begin with a blank page, to study cities as if they had never been studied before. He was tired of urban theory — he wanted to invent urban science.

    It’s when West switches the conversation from infrastructure to people that he brings up the work of Jane Jacobs,

    While listening to West talk about cities, it’s easy to forget that his confident pronouncements are mere correlations, and that his statistics can only hint at possible explanations. Not surprisingly, many urban theorists disagree with West’s conclusions.
    Interesting read.
    Oddball
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  2. #2
    Cyburbian
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    Fascinating. West's description for how crime and resource consumption both increase with urbanization is the perfect rational for the use of smart growth. To promote the good and contain the bad. Resource consumption cannot increase forever, nor can crime or pollution.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian Linda_D's avatar
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    I think the growth of the Internet and all its related technologies radically changes the assumptions that West and Bettancourt as well as urban theorists have based their work on, so both the "laws" and the theories are probably already outdated -- we just don't realize it yet.

    In the 20th century, futurists generally got their predictions wrong because what they deemed important at their point in time (say 1920 or 1954) was no longer important when the world actually got to that "future". In other words, these kind of predictions in the 20th century were like trying to hit a very skinny target that's speeding along at 100 mph. I don't expect the targets to get fatter or slow down any in the 21st century.

  4. #4
    Cyburbian
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    Geographical proximity or propinquity is important. How often, really, do people, by way of the Internet, form relationships and associations based on trust that, then, lead to collaboration without these parties, at some point, being in the same physical space with each other?

  5. #5
    Cyburbian
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    Studying cities using principles from physics would work great if humans didnít add so much chaos into the system. Iím sure studying social sciences is like studying quantum dynamics or the stock market Ė in that the very act of understanding it changes it.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian TexanOkie's avatar
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    Anyone catch the Joel Kotkin comments towards the end of the article? That guy...

  7. #7
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by TexanOkie View post
    Anyone catch the Joel Kotkin comments towards the end of the article? That guy...
    Kotkin has a partisan axe to grind... he's a political pundit, not a planner, much less a credible theorist.. although, I have to say that personally, I find his offset to the equally partisan NUists to be most entertaining.

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    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    West was in Seed mag maybe a year-ish ago and he was slightly off in his piece there as well. I appreciate his approach and think he can inform the discussion of how we are utterly incapable of governing ourselves sustainably. And scale is of utmost importance to ecology and the biosphere. But IMHO his words and work doesn't translate to anything on the ground at scale.

  9. #9
    Unfrozen Caveman Planner mendelman's avatar
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    I don't really see what West's theory really give us beyond some basic sub/super linear formulas with many caveats.

    "A significant increase in density/population causes an increase in crime." - Check and duh.

    "Urban infrastructure is essentially the same from place to place and fairly predictable." - Check and duh.

    When I moved to my current job in another state, I emphasized that although the intracacies of planning and zoning in separate places vary, the overall theory and structure of practice is quite similar, especially since I stayed in the Midwest with similar history and culture. And I didn't need a formula to know this - 8 years of practice in several localities was sufficient.

    But those that need the comfort of numbers and stats West's efforts are desired, but often real planning/city building practice defies this. Yes, for a certain population you need certain volume of water supply/sewer disposal, but when is density to dense?

    But his idea(s) about pace of change and effects on sustainability are useful.
    I'm sorry. Is my bias showing?

    Let's not be didactic in this profession, because that is a path to disillusion and irrelevancy.

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  10. #10
    Quote Originally posted by Cismontane View post
    Kotkin has a partisan axe to grind... he's a political pundit, not a planner, much less a credible theorist.. although, I have to say that personally, I find his offset to the equally partisan NUists to be most entertaining.
    Kotkin always brings up silicon valley as an example of low density creativity as if it was as low density as suburban Atlanta. The reality is that there is constant interaction of people there and the densities are actually on the high side.

  11. #11
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by Gotta Speakup View post
    Kotkin always brings up silicon valley
    ..or that the only new SFDs being built in much of the valley now cost well over a couple million dollars, that even extremely affluent people are living in the newer multi-unit developments there,... and that households making less than $55,000 a year there risk homelessness, in many cases. Rhetorical fantasyland is a great place to live in for those who can get one of those pundit gigs. Maybe we should all make shite up, go on Fox News, and write bestsellers. We'd certainly make more money.
    Last edited by Cismontane; 20 Dec 2010 at 3:45 PM.

  12. #12
    Look on the bright side: no one will accuse us of contributing to the income inequality problem!

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