February 11, 2017 3:24 AM   Subscribe

A City Is Not a Computer This seems an obvious truth, but we need to say it loud and clear. Urban intelligence is more than information processing
posted by infini (12 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
This was excellent, but has so many ideas inside it I can't really distill one into a smart-sounding response aside from: Woah.
posted by Gin and Broadband at 7:09 AM on February 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

See also A City is Not a Tree.
posted by oulipian at 7:45 AM on February 11, 2017 [4 favorites]

After the Great Fire of 1666, the Elite of London were very excited about the chance to rebuild the city along more rational lines. However, pretty much as soon as the earth had cooled, the residents where back in their same locations rebuilding what they could and resisting the new ideas as hard as they possibly can. Looking at the London street grid and contemplating its various traffic difficulties, anyone would be forgiven wishing that the resistance was, perhaps, hot so total. The fact is, however, that no urban plan has ever survived contact with the people who live in the city, because cities are places for living, and life is dirty, complex, unexpected, chaotic, and highly variable.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:44 AM on February 11, 2017 [5 favorites]

The fact is, however, that no urban plan has ever survived contact with the people who live in the city

NYC seems in the 19th century to have been pretty, um... insistent about a lot of its urban planning. Although, yes, contact with the residents resulted in variations in the end result.
posted by hippybear at 11:48 AM on February 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm not saying that the Elites never get their way; they usually get something tolerably close to what they said they wanted, along with a bunch of unintended consequences that usually make a mess of the Shining Golden Vision a few decades later. The United States is littered with the desiccated husks of planned utopian communities; I expect that techno-utopian data-driven cities will join them, bringing along with them their share of human wreckage (although probably not so much free love or loopy attempts at agriculture).
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:26 PM on February 11, 2017

In November of 2015, basically an inland hurricane moved across the Inland Northwest of Washington, Idaho Panhandle, and Far-Western Montana with winds of 60-90mph, not a microburst but sustained. It basically knocked out power for hundreds of miles for maybe 2 million people. Some power was not restored until nearly a month later because of the complexity of infrastructure repair required in the most difficult areas. (We're talking urban areas built on basalt hills with narrow streets and alleys, not rural valleys and whatever.)

What would that kind of techno-utopian data-driven city suffer with 4 weeks of power outage due to nature?
posted by hippybear at 12:37 PM on February 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

The "what should a city optimize for?" question does matter, though, because what actual (US) cities optimize for is that no one in a car should ever have to wait more than 30 seconds at a traffic signal and that there should always be a parking space available at their destination. If you never ask whether that is the right thing to optimize for, you never get anything that works better for some other definition of "quality of life."
posted by enf at 3:04 PM on February 11, 2017 [8 favorites]

> that there should always be a parking space available at their destination

A tiny point, but if this is done by building a limited amount of parking and charging enough to reduce demand for the parking, it doesn't have to be bad.

In reality, and I think this is what you were lamenting, enf, this is often done by building parking lots or reserving more curb space for street parking, to the exclusion of transit and bike lanes.
posted by batter_my_heart at 4:53 PM on February 11, 2017

Thanks, batter_my_heart. You're right: I should have said "free parking," not just "parking."

I am actually pretty sympathetic to on-street parking, provided it is heavily used with frequent turnover, since it is dramatically more space-efficient than off-street parking, which generally takes up twice as much room because of all the extra space needed for drive aisles. In most cases I'd say it's better to give up a general travel lane than a parking lane to make room for bike lanes or a bus lane.
posted by enf at 7:40 PM on February 11, 2017

You ever see the grids? Takes slow-vision to see the grids ... Hang around for years you get to see the layout. People make the city and the city makes the people. See how lives grow around the grids like vines on a trellis.

- Of course. Birnley, Newtown, Jerold -- the streets where Batman was born. A checkerboard, a blueprint, a machine designed to make Batman.
Now that's what a city should optimise for. NIMBY please!
posted by comealongpole at 10:00 AM on February 12, 2017

Traffic problems in every city are caused by policy that encourages motoring, not squirrelly road layouts.

San Francisco actually had the same situation as London in 1906. The Burnham plan was drafted to turn SF into the Paris of the West Coast, and Polk actually telegrammed Burnham after the quake saying basically that the demolition costs in his plan were now taken care of.

But yes, once again the local property owners and business operators wanted to get things up and running as soon as possible. No one was willing to just sit around and starve while Architects laid ceremonial boulevards over the land they held title to. The army came in and helped shelter people in tents and set up trams and communication links and generally try to save lives.

As tempting as a fresh start sounds, Brasilia shows us that the second system syndrome is as real a problem in urban design as it is in software development. Yes, you'll solve certain problems easily with your new approach, but no complex system is ever faced with only one kind of problem!
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 11:57 AM on February 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

Witness Chandigarh.
posted by infini at 12:37 PM on February 12, 2017

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