What’s it all about?
The city is a fascinating phenomenon. Combining architecture, transportation, sociology, economics and more. Urban behavior can be a great many things and this blog is my attempt to write about the subject from a new perspective. This blog is where I intend to refine the ideas I have been working on for the past 20 years. Some of said ideas have been published in various articles (Although many publications have been in Hebrew), others have been adapted into lectures. My goal here is to consolidate all of that into a single cohesive book. This blog serving as its initial draft.
And now to explain why I think it is both interesting and important. Indulge me for a moment, and let me share my personal and professional background.
Arguing through the course of urban planning at the Technion
While working on my degree in architecture at the Technion (Israel MIT) I had to take a course in urban planning. Our project was about the Haifa Krayot and had us split into teams of three go out and explore, learn and offer urban plans. Right then, during the first semester of the course, I felt that the studies completely missed the real essence of the city. Rather than presenting urban plans for the next 20 years, I’ve submitted two stories. In the first one, the world is entering a recession and the country is at war – Krayot becoming a poverty-stricken area. In the second story there is peace with the Arab countries, with Krayot transforming to a transit hub to Europe (by train) and new construction technologies by corals enable brand new forms of construction. My aim with these stories was to show how little control the urban planner actually has over what will develop and take hold in the city.
During the second semester things took a turn for the worse. Students submitted maps that even Napoleon would not have been able to realize. Urban embroidery was cut by monumental avenues that stood disconnected from anything else. No one was making an attempt to look at Krayot at eye level, the height of the landscape designer who knows that the placement of a bench and a tree on the street has far more influence than any grand fabricated plan. I decided not to submit a project at all. I obviously failed the course but managed to continue my studies despite this failure.
Finding the law of urbanism… and failing
Eventually, all these arguments grew into something else, I looked at the city and with an inner conviction. I felt it had a mathematical logic that I could almost see.
Perhaps I should mention that I have a fairly strong mathematical background. I have been involved in programming and mathematics at quite high levels, Even though I have never studied it in an orthodox fashion.
At that time in the Technion I’ve submitted a paper dealing with the morphology of trees. The work presented the results on a screen, using software i’ve developed to manage mathematical graphs. All the differences between olive and eucalyptus, prairie, and cypress were the coefficients of the formula… never mind the minute details. The point is that trees can be expressed mathematically, like blood vessels, and many other things that have natural, organic growth. Such as… a city!
By the end of that year I realized that the formula that I used as the foundation of my work was incorrect. Still, I’ve submitted that same work as two different projects in two different courses, a course in morphology and a course in computers. I wrote to the facilitators that I’m doing it ‘save myself from working too hard’ and openly admitted that there is a basic mistake in the mathematical principle behind it. I got straight A’s from both.
Finding the law of urbanism… and failing again
I continued to play around with the formulas even after I graduated. A year or so into my blooming architecture career, I finally found the missing piece. I’ve built a formula whose result was a city. Any city.
Well… not a city specifically. It was more like a construct, one that would give you the impression you were looking at the work of an actual architect and not a machine. The coefficients for the formula were density, regularity, center intensity, and a few others.
The formula was so “cute” I was able to patent it for an online gaming start-up. Money was raised, employees were hired, but by the end of the big stock market crash in 2000 we were left without any steam left and the company was shut down.
I took my formula and went to study for a master’s degree in urban economics under Professor Daniel Chemansky. The only other person in Israel I could find that was messing around with the idea of urban planning in a strictly mathematical sense. I’ve further studied the way the economy affects the city. And realized that my formula is wrong – yet again! Hence I’ve started to develop a new formula, but… life happened. I couldn’t complete that master’s degree. I got divorced, worked for a medical imaging company (adding two more patents to the pile), went back to architecture for three years, and… bla, bla, bla.
Though all these “bla bla bla’s” I know, or rather feel, that a city behaves like a swarm, a termite’s nest, a vascular system, or a tree. The city is actually a graph of traffic systems. Just as a tree is a path that splits and transforms from trunk to branch to smaller branch to twig till it stops at the final destination – a single leaf – such is the city. The mobility scheme throughout buildings for example is in its essence, a tree – the trunk being the elevator and staircase, the leaves are the various apartments. But unlike a tree, in which there are only branchings, the city also has intersections. Meaning there is more than one way to reach each destination. But it’s a marginal difference at best.
At that point in time It seemed that the knowledge, talent and time I had were just enough to feel that the formula was out there and I simply haven’t had the means to find it. I abandoned the matter until I came across the article “Uniform Theory of Urban Life” written by a team of physicists led by Prof. Geoffrey West. I felt that finally I found partners to my belief, people that understand, through mathematical models, the city as a natural phenomenon or living creature.
But that was not enough. Mathematical models are not just a fun game, it is also the ability to see and change the mechanisms that are manipulating the city. I felt that the article dealt more with the description of the phenomenon than with its causes. Ok, the city behaves like a living creature … But why?
Finding the law of a urbanism! (?)
I continued to mess around with my formula till in recent years I believe I’ve found a simple theory that explains large parts of urban behavior. A basic mechanism of spatial economics that can explain and perhaps predict phenomena within the city. From the scale of a single mom and pop store at the corner of the block to giant corporate entities, the spatial economy can present processes of urban growth and decay. Strong forces which, as Prof. West described, create economic acceleration that is bound to collapse over time.
In this blog, in this book I intend to present the theory, the findings that support it, and the conclusions to derive from it. I will write about mathematics and about architecture, about transportation and economics. I think this combined discussion is what we, as urban planners lack.
I know my next statement may be unconventional but I think it’s the obligation of any theorist to say – I may be wrong. I’ve failed twice, I may be failing you here as well. I urge you to be both open minded and skeptic. It would be great if you could add your insights in the comments, add examples to support parts of the theory or to break it.
The moral question
And one final word to my colleagues, architects and city planners. Since I have been in the field myself for several years I also see the moral question folded in it: If the economic forces operating in the city are so much stronger than the planners, should we give up?
My answer is – no! of course not. On the contrary!
Precisely because our influence is minimal, our responsibility as planners is critical. It is important that we understand the processes and know that we are not Napoleon. The laws that we apply to urban planning, the ethics of our work with the entrepreneurs, everything has to take into account the economic forces and try to improve the urban situation at the micro level. At the macro level we hardly have any control. We must learn and understand how to grow with as few harming side effects as possible. We can’t stop the growth, it’s at the macro level.
We are at the beginning of an urban revolution. Like previous urban revolutions, it is the result of a change in the means of transportation. This is our chance to steer the way. We have the responsibility to make the city better – neighborhood by neighborhood, street by street.
Oh… almost forgot
My name is Yuval Karmi. Nice to meet you. All aboard the ride.