The London Meeting – Urban Fitness by Colin Harrison

Metaphors of cities drawn from biology and medicine have frequently come to my mind in recent times.  Geoff West, Luis Bettencourt, José Lobo and others and others have shown how the scaling laws of cities resemble those of biological systems hence that the structure and functioning of cities resemble the morphology and physiology of biological systems.  My own hope is that we can achieve the kinds of revolutions that took place throughout the twentieth century in unifying the perspectives of the many academic and clinical disciplines that study and treat the human body and that we can thereby deal with cities in terms of their underlying pathology rather than, as today, their symptoms.

A recent discussion at the Santa Fe Institute also lead me to think of cities in terms of Darwinian evolution.  Through our ability to modify the environment in which we as individuals and communities find ourselves, we have greatly expanded the ecological niches in which we can survive and this has permitted a great expansion of homo sapiens.  There are of course negative aspects to these modifications which have in the past lead to the collapse of large societies and may indeed threaten the current global society in the coming centuries.  But at least in the relative short-term our cities may be viewed as providing a range of niches combining ecological, societal, and economic support for broad demographics.

The Darwinist view of “fitness” in natural selection refers to the ability of the individual organism to propagate specific characteristics (“allele”) into future generations.  We might take “urban fitness” metaphorically as the ability of a citizen to find or to create a niche in which he or she can sustainability meet his or her needs and desires.  In the context of the USC’s London meeting, we might consider this as an important aspect of “quality of life”.

Human needs and desires can be highly diverse and may evolve quite rapidly under the influence of changing personal circumstances or of a changing environment.  We might consider “life in the city” then as a continuous interaction between citizens – both individually and as groups with similar needs and desires – and the environment of the city.  As the city evolves or more exactly as the citizens’ perception of the city evolves, these individuals and groups adapt their behaviours to extract the maximum benefit.

As a personal example, I have moved several times between countries in Europe.  My own observation is that European countries – for example Germany, Great Britain, Switzerland – provide a narrower range of niches than the United States.  The latter provides almost a continuum of niches, but these individually contain few resources and the citizen has much work to do in constructing a sustainable life.  In Europe the choices are more limited, but each niche is relatively rich in resources.  On occasions when I have moved from the USA to Europe, I have found myself initially struggling against the limit of the niches I could occupy.  But after I while I have discovered how to exploit the resources available to me and how to live very comfortably within one such niche.  And when I return to the USA, I struggle with the need to re-construct my own niche.

Following this line of thought, we might ask whether the relative “fitness” of various individuals and various groups may be in competition.  Changes in the built environment almost inevitably impinge on existing niches.  We are all familiar with the “NIMBY” conflict in which an individual or group perceives – often correctly – that its interests will be jeopardized by some proposed change in the environment that is often intended to benefit some other individual or group or the community at large.  Such stresses may result in polarization of the citizenry and a weakening of the fitness of the city as an organism.  Can the rapidly increasing flows of information among the citizens and between the citizens the city mitigate such stresses and thereby maintain or enhance the overall perception of “quality of life”?

This thought was the genesis during the USC’s 2012 meeting in UC Berkeley of the central idea of the 2013 London meeting:  Can the increased flow of information (about the evolution of the city) provide a new degree of freedom that can overcome or eliminate this conflict between existing and future niches?  Can it permit the city to support a broader range of such niches by adapting to the evolving needs and desires of its citizens?  Can the citizens more effectively exploit the niches offered by the city to maintain or enhance their ability to satisfy their needs and desires?  Can the fitness or the resilience of the city as an organism be enhanced by supporting a wide range of such niches?

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These are the questions I would like us to explore at Imperial College on the 10-11 September 2013.  What I am hoping we can begin to see through these discussions is how the flow of information in a city can complement the structure and services of the built environment and enable cities to match the ever increasing pace of change in its citizens' needs and desires.