Recently, I went to Kara Schlichting’s lecture, “From Dumps to Glory: City Planning, Coastal Reclamation, and the Rebirth of Flushing Meadow for the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair.” The next morning, I read Russ Buettner’s article in the New York Times, “They Kept a Lower East Side Lot Vacant for Decades.” That afternoon, I went to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and, in particular, watched their 20-30 minute movie on the evolution of the Lower East Side from 1840 on.
So, in 24 hours, I experienced the complexity of how cities evolve – three times. It seems like a chaotic mess of conflicting interests, struggles for power, and strong personalities. In the midst of all this, there are thousands or millions of people and families trying to make ends meet, get their children educated, and occasionally have some fun. A few people make a lot of money and everybody tries to do a bit better tomorrow.
It strikes me that cities do not get engineered. Road networks, sewer systems, and subways are engineered. Infrastructure and buildings are engineered. However, the cultural fabric of cities is not engineered. It emerges from the hustle and bustle of people seeking to make money, get a job, earn a promotion, educate their kids, play a game of cards, and enjoy a ball game. We cannot predict where all that will lead, what serendipity will prompt.
How can we research this? I think we need to focus on insights rather than predictions. It is reasonable to assume that the actors are rational, although they will not necessarily conform to classical economics. I think we can assume that they will take advantage of and adapt to the environment. However, all the rationality and adaptability of enormous numbers of independent actors will lead to an abundance of possible paths and outcomes. Our understanding will be limited to how particular paths and outcomes might emerge.
The best approach to gaining this understanding will, in my opinion, result from studies of virtual urban worlds. Simulated immersive representations of Hoboken, NJ and Red Hook, NY, for example, will enable exploring how “humans in the loop” as well as synthetic avatars respond to emergency warnings, actual weather, power outages, terrorist events, and perhaps even economic opportunities due to redevelopment. We will learn about how people “game” the system and, in the process, learn what innovations to encourage and what behaviors to inhibit.
We cannot approach cities in the same ways we address airplanes, factories, and power plants. Cities are laced with too many complex behavioral and social phenomena. Yet we can systematically explore the ways in which cities might respond to opportunities, incentives, and inhibitions, and identify the conditions more likely to lead to one response rather than another. Then we can think about how we might engender the conditions leading to more appealing responses. Our methodology should focus on how to get a city to design itself in ways that improve the quality of life for everyone.