Thoughts on the Science of Cities

Cities are complex, which I think most people will agree with. How to uncover the mysterious veil of cities seems quite challenging but also attracting.

These days, I have been reading Michael Batty’s The New Science of Cities [1]. He argues that the cities are complex systems, which are shaped more from bottom-up interconnected individual behaviors rather than top-down designs. To understand cities, we need to shift our traditional focus on location and places to understand flows and networks that connect them. He builds his new theories of cities and summarizes his previous works under the framework of complex networks.

In general, I think the perspective is consistent with the shift of mainstream idea of urban planning, from The Athens Charter (1933) to The Charter of Machu Picchu (1977), which began to stress on dynamic human interactions and social-cultural links rather than static urban space [2].

In the MOOC course – A Brief Introduction to “The New Science of Cities”, the lecturer LONG Ying, a researcher at the School of Architecture of Tsinghua University and also the initiator of the Beijing City Lab, holds a further point of view, which I found is interesting and thought-provoking. He thinks that there are two kinds of meaning for the “new” science of cities: the first one emphasizes on the new science about cities as well as associated new data, methods, and technologies; while the second indicates the new research object, i.e. the new cities which are different from old-day cities since they have been profoundly changed and reshaped by emerging technologies as well as our life styles [3].

Digging deeper, I noticed the theory about the scale of cities [4], which is also cited in Batty’s book. Geoffrey West, a theoretical physicist at Santa Fe Institute, together with his colleges, has discovered that there is a universal scaling rule for both biology, cities, and companies [5]. This discovery seems to be really intriguing. I would really like to get into the details of the related materials later.

On the other hand, the universality of the scaling rule of power laws reminds me of the scale-free networks [6]. I then began to think about the connections between them, which seems to be quite reasonable to me since both Batty and West argue that cities are complex systems and can be characterized by networks. So the cities can present certain properties of networks, such as the scale-free property. Maybe the myths of the connections can be found in the theories of network science. I will study it later.

  1. Batty, M. (2013). The new science of cities. MIT press. ↩︎

  2. Zhang S. (2015). The basic features and theoretical foundation of foreign urban planning. China Development Observation, (5), 75-79. (in Chinease) (Report on XinhuaNet) ↩︎

  3. Long, Y. (2019). (New) Urban Science: Studying “New” Cities with New Data, Methods, and Technologies. Landscape Architecture Frontiers, 7(2), 8-21. ↩︎

  4. Bettencourt, L. M., Lobo, J., Helbing, D., Kühnert, C., & West, G. B. (2007). Growth, innovation, scaling, and the pace of life in cities. Proceedings of the national academy of sciences, 104(17), 7301-7306. ↩︎

  5. West, G. B. (2017). Scale: the universal laws of growth, innovation, sustainability, and the pace of life in organisms, cities, economies, and companies. Penguin. ↩︎

  6. Barabási, A. L. (2016). Network science. Cambridge university press. (Power Laws and Scale-Free Networks) ↩︎