A Physicist solves the City—or Does he? A Response to West’s “New Urban Science”

As long as social scientists have been attempting to understand complex human systems, they’ve looked to the laws of natural science for explanation. Physicist Geoffrey West is no exception. He is attempting to unravel the complexities of dense human settlement patterns, i.e. cities, allometrically; in other words, he is exploring the relationship between the size and pattern of a city’s infrastructure (surface roads, density) and the energy it consumes and generates (gas purchases, human interaction). His theory of urban metabolism (as highlighted in this controversial 12.19.2010 New York Times Magazine article) argues that, like elephants, cities grow in accordance with economies of scale; unlike elephants, however, cities get faster and more productive as they grow, with urban output increasing at “superlinear scales,” meaning the bigger the city, the more intense its growth--in all aspects from creative production to energy consumption to levels of crime.

Photo Illustration by Hubert Blanz

Despite West’s desire to develop a “new urban science,” looking to the natural sciences for answers to social questions is nothing new, even for the field of urban studies. For decades, urban researchers have been using a modified version of Isaac Newton's Law of Gravitation to predict movement of people, information, and commodities between cities and even continents based on the size and distance between locations (i.e. people move to bigger cities and between cities that are closer). And while theories like West’s urban allometrics and the gravity model both likely predict large patterns of urban change, they remain rough approximations that do little to explain how cities actually work. Perhaps more importantly, they do very little to reveal how we might make them work better or, as West acknowledges, what happens when cities run out of whatever resources are fueling the superlinear systemic growth he identifies.

Although crude predictors, what harm could come from painting pictures of cities as social phenomena, as West attempts to do, with the broad brushstrokes of natural science's methods? To take the question a step further: just because it’s possible, is it worthwhile? If describing cities is the goal of urban studies then perhaps; however, if development  of sustainable, livable places is the driving force behind urban studies today, then urban theorists might want to reconsider not only the types of theories they’re developing but how these theories help bring about more humane and sustainable cities.

It’s curious that West cites Jane Jacobs as inspiration for his attempts to explain cities by quantifying human interaction through the application of universal laws. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs directly indicts the mindset of urban researchers like West: “Cities are an immense laboratory of trial and error, failure and success, in city building and city design. This is the laboratory in which city planning should have been learning and forming and testing its theories.... It may be that we have become so feckless as a people that we no longer care how things work, but only what kind of quick, easy outer impression they give. If so, there is little hope for our cities or probably for much else in our society.”

Just because we can study cities this way, should we? It's a tough call, but the drawbacks to a perspective like West’s are significant. Unlike an elephant’s bones, sewer pipes are human constructions; focusing on the built environment as a determining factor underestimates not only the economic, political and social realities of the sewer pipe building, but minimizes particular human influences over these and other factors--factors like people with power who decide where and when and how sewer pipes will or won’t be built.

Does this suggest a convergence of physical and social scientific paradigms is called for? And is a unified natural and social science, if possible, even desirable? Social science theory is not so objectively measurable, so theoretically cumulative as the natural sciences, but is instead contextual and, ultimately, local. Thus, we have to ask ourselves if the study of cities should even aspiring to being “scientific” or if humanity might be better served by engaging in what Foucault termed “local critique,” in which development of totalizing theories is less relevant than understanding how urban life actually works, that “it is not theory but life that matters, not knowledge but reality” (“Two Lectures,” 1976).

While it’s obvious that theories like West’s (for despite his aspirations to create “urban science” in lieu of urban theory, urban theory is precisely what he developed) with all the hallmarks of the dominant analytical-rational tradition that remain the pinnacle of Western scientific endeavor: logical simplicity, impressive results, universalizing explanations, and development of prediction based context-independent theories. In his book, Making Social Science Matter (2001), Danish planning scholar Bent Flyvbjerg cautions against the tendency to believe that the most scientific explanation is the best means of approximating truth about the nature of things, undermining the assumption that epistemic science and predictive theory are indeed the “pinnacle of scientific endeavor.”

More important, he suggests, is social theory, in this case theories about cities, that aren’t satisfied with explaining how cities appear to be functioning, but rather thinking about cities which enables us to better understand where we are relative to where we’ve been; which helps us clarify where we want to go in the future despite the challenges of living in pluralist societies encompassing diverse sets of activities, interests, and values; and ideas which, foremost, help us come together to engage in a rational, deliberative dialogue about collective human efforts in these realms.

Submitted by: Sarah Iannarone
PhD Student, Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning
Portland State University, Portland, Oregon, USA

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