CORDIS - EU research results

Morphology, Energy and Climate Change in the City

Final Report Summary - MECHANICITY (Morphology, Energy and Climate Change in the City)

Mechanicity is a project that seeks to develop a theory of how cities grow which is based on the flow of energy and information between the different parts of the city which maintain its functioning. It is about ways in which the various social and economic functions that cities enable us to realize have an impact on the form – the shape and size – of the city. This is important because when we try and improve cities, we usually approach this through urban planning by changing their form. We do this because changing the behavior of the populations that reside in these cities is not ethical. Manipulating urban form might change behaviours but does not control it and of course this is part of the public good.

The project draws on theories of how cities evolve from the bottom up as the product of millions and millions of decisions that are made by individuals and groups engaging in social and economic interactions which foster their well-being. Viewed in this way cities are complex systems that are almost impossible to control and plan in the ways that policy makers and scientific experts have traditionally assumed. New ways must be found to intervene sensibly and appropriately in their functioning so that their overall well-being and sustainability is developed. This project seeks to extend the knowledge base that is required to do this.

The project thus builds on regular patterns that have been observed in cities for many years and seeks to articulate these in new and effective ways. In particular as cities grow, their structure changes qualitatively and we can give some measure to such changes by examining what happens to key indicators such as income, crime, the provision of infrastructure and such like attributes as cities get larger. In essence, what has been articulated during the last 20 years is the fact that as cities get larger, they tend to get wealthier per capita. In short if you live in a big city, then you tend to be wealthier than your counterpart in a small city. In big cities, people tend to interact more, they innovate more, they move a little faster and so on. In short the pace of life increases as cities grow in size, all other things remaining equal. However we argue in the project that as cities are getting much more complex and because they are ever more global in their functions, particularly as many populations now interact over immense distances using internet technologies, these simple relationships are being destroyed or rather they need to be considered differently. So far in the project we have not found in the UK that the bigger the city, the wealthier, because arguably the urban system is much more integrated and globalized than in the US. We are extending these ideas to other cities and one part of our project is comparative analysis to explore what is happening in other cities around the world.

We have also begun to use these ideas to provide appropriate definitions of cities from their networks – starting with their street and road networks. We use a technique called percolation which identifies the hierarchy of connected parts in such networks. This lets us define regions and nations in which cities exist and it provides a wonderful way to visualize how cities are connected to each other and how they sprawl into each other. This has major implications for their performance and for their future planning.

We are also underpinning our theories with ideas about energy and there is a direct link between the energy used and the size of cities. We have only just broached these ideas in the project but it is very clear that we need to be very careful about how we specify energy because energy and information are different sides of the same coin and we need think hard about what information is doing to city forms and functions. Although our project has strong theoretical underpinnings, we are very conscious that we are not simply exploring what happens in growing cities for their own sake; we are conscious that our science is key to city planning and as we noted earlier, we require new kinds of city planning to explore how energy and information and changes in the basic technology of how cities are organized. To this end, we are developing quite specific land use transportation models that are part of a long tradition of looking predictively at the city. We are fashioning these models to explore ‘what if?’ kinds of question as for example in ‘what if the cost of gasoline doubled, then what would happen to the form of the city?’ ‘Would people travel less or by different transport modes or what?’ This requires us to two things: first extend our models using new theories of morphology and energy and information, and second to embed our models in new information technologies that enable scientists and policy makers to ask and answer these ‘what if?’ questions with new methods of ICT that enable active participation in the process of urban planning for sustainable cities.

From the project, we have developed a whole range of tools that we are beginning to operationalize through two companies that have spun off from the research: one dealing with building modelling platforms for large scale urban development so that our forecasting and design might be improved. This is Prospective Labs Ltd and has just been formed. The other is based on building web based methods to disseminate and facilitate the process of physical land use plan design. This is called GeodesignHub. Both companies complement one other.