Responsive urban design


We’ve been planning cities for almost as long as they have existed. Archaeological evidence suggests the ancient Egyptians did so 5,000 years ago. Hippodamos, considered by many to be the father of urban planning, imposed street grids on every ancient Greek city that would let him. Since then, we’ve been busily drawing, revising, and otherwise fussing about how best to design our cities.

It turns out we may have it all wrong. Or at least wrong for today’s cities. Urban areas have always been in constant flux, but we’re now demanding far more of them than before. They’ve never housed, transported, or employed so many people. To cope, cities have been changing at an astonishingly rapid pace. The results can be inspiring—as they are in Seoul, Singapore, and Tokyo—or depressing—just look at anywhere with extensive slums. In some cases, it seems urban planning is up to the task. In others, it’s not.

Where it falls flat, urban planning’s failings aren’t necessarily the fault of the designers. Too often planning is focused on minutiae—ordinances, regulations, zoning, setbacks, and so on. Even when it tackles bigger problems like economic growth, it doesn’t necessarily consider the city as a whole.¹

The solution, according to Michael Batty, an urban planner and professor at University College London, is infusing planning with science. Systems science, specifically, where bright minds and complex mathematical models try to digest the entirety of a system, like a city. It’s no simple task. IBM is just one company throwing billions of dollars and tons of silicon at the problem. What they’ll get out of it is anybody’s guess, but they seem certain they’ll get something. Cities are overflowing with collectable data. It’s making sense of it that’s difficult. The possibilities it presents is what I think is going drive us to rethink city planning.

Urban planning has its origins in the design world, which is both a bonus and a handicap. Architects make natural planners—they design the buildings, why not have them design the streets, too? When those planners are enlightened designers, the results are attractive and livable cities. If they’re not? Well, we’ve all seen what happens when they’re not. But as much as good design has created great cities, I and others suspect it can’t deal with the coming challenges. Not on its own, at least. Good design can solve many problems, but it can’t solve them all. At some point, you need science.

The rate at which cities are growing and changing presents a problem for the traditional design-centric approach. Good design requires a thorough understanding of your problem. But these days, problems are appearing and evolving so quickly that we don’t have enough time to properly observe them.

Urban planning is at a crossroads, much like ecology was 50 years ago.² Planning is still largely descriptive and not very scientific, again, much like ecology was 50 years ago. Sure, cities gather hard data like traffic and sewage flows. Yes, they model projected growth and consider the social factors behind neighborhood demands. But urban planning lacks a unified, data-driven theoretical foundation.

That’s beginning to change. Michael Batty, Geoffrey West, Luis Bettencourt, and others are proposing data-driven theories and testing them, just like Robert MacArthur and Edward O. Wilson did in ecology back in the 1960s and 70s. Though these new urban theorists are trying to shake things up, they’re not trying to eliminate planning as we know it. Their science of cities won’t be a replacement for current planning, but a superset. Think of it as a grand theory to tie it all together, to make sense of why cities have evolved the way they did and how we can coax them to cope with 5 billion people.

The science of cities may be in its infancy, but we can see where it will lead. The first stage, the one we’re in right now, is descriptive. It involves gathering data, assembling huge models, and tuning them until we’re satisfied. Then we’ll apply those models, and see how the real world reacts. There will be some stumbles, but that’ll only give us more data to work with. Eventually, we’ll arrive at a theory of cities that’s universal and flexible enough that it can be applied anywhere. It will be a foundation that will underpin models that grind through piles of data and make sound, timely recommendations which designers can implement.

Getting to that last stage is important, I think. In many cities, it’s clear that we don’t know what to do with all these new urbanites. Even in cities where things appear hunky dory, cracks are beginning to show. Subways are crowded, freeways are jammed, and sewers are overflowing. Throwing money at temporary fixes will only get us so far. We need to dig deeper and develop a responsive urbanism,³ one that’s grand in scale and scientifically focused. We need to listen to what cities are telling us, decide what we want them to do, and plan accordingly.

  1. Enlightened planners out there—and there are quite a few—can take umbrage with my characterization here. But they’ll admit that there are quite a few in their profession that dabble too much in the details.
  2. Though urban planning is behind the curve relative to ecology when it comes to mathematical and theoretical rigor, data gathering is one place where it’s ahead. We already have many data sets in hand along with the infrastructure to gather more.
  3. I’m thinking bigger than pop-up parks, an oft cited example of “responsive urbanism”.


Batty, M. (2008). The Size, Scale, and Shape of Cities, Science, 319 (5864) 771. DOI: 10.1126/science.1151419

Batty, M. (2012). Building a science of cities, Cities, 29 S16. DOI: 10.1016/j.cities.2011.11.008

Bettencourt, L.M.A., Lobo, J., Helbing, D., Kuhnert, C. & West, G.B. (2007). Growth, innovation, scaling, and the pace of life in cities, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104 (17) 7306. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0610172104

Photo by MagnusL3D

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  1. Interesting post, Tim, particularly the parallels between urban planning and ecology, but how about a concrete example of how a systems science approach to a problem in urban planning compares to design approach, particularly for those of us without journal access?

    1. Thanks, Ken-ichi. At this point, it seems like he and his colleagues are still in the theoretical stage (there wasn’t a lot in the way of concrete examples in those papers). It’s my understanding, though, that the systems approach could operate above the design approach—not necessarily dictating the design process, but serving as a way of understanding that can inform it. Sort of the way ecological theory interacts with ecological restoration. The two can operate independently or cooperatively, depending on the context.

  2. Tim deC –

    Absolutely the agenda that anyone dealing with urban conditions needs to be working with, great post.
    However, I’d take issue with the idea that design is running out of steam:

    “Good design can solve many problems, but it can’t solve them all. At some point, you need science. ”

    I suggest this misunderstands what design is.

    If by design you are referring to a singular designer creating a singular, object-orientated vision (the Fountainhead model of architecture, if you like) currently exemplified by StArchitects such as Gehry, then you are correct to suggest that this has run it’s course.

    But this is a particular characterisation of design that is perpetuated for it’s commercial value and through the rather limited capability of many design schools/teachers. Clients (homebuilders, developers, and sometimes planners) love the idea of commissioning the big man (typically) who creates magical visions that solve everything with a static, monolithic model.

    In reality ‘design’ practice has always been about resolving complexity, and even the StArchitects work in a far more compex manner than they allow us to believe (big teams, data-driven tools, complex social theories).

    The reality of complexity is why design exists. It is not disconnected from science and data – good design is the resolution and integration of many competing issues.

    But there is an emerging understanding of how designers need to be far more conscious of adapting to today’s challenges. Some design schools, and increasing numbers of practices see this change and are responding to it:

    The architecture / landscape / urban design / interior architecture practice I am part of is beginning to work this way; inter-disciplinary, drawing on wide-ranging science and data (especially social and environmental), questioning the models of work that we inherited from decades of static business models, and searching for new models of planning, development delivery and ecological integration.

    The one other thing I would question is putting too much faith in analytical, data-driven (engineered) answers. From all of your blog posts I think you are far from this position really; I’d rather articulate where we are going in the future as being people-centric, planet-aware, taking data and employing the intelligence that it gives us in a less linear, engineering manner.

    Responding creatively to data (ie design-led thinking) is what really leads to transformative change.

    Tim Robinson

    1. Thanks for the reply, Tim. You’re absolutely right that designers, architects, and the like these days use copious amounts of data and rely heavily on academic research. But my point was that there isn’t an overarching science, one based in theory and tested in data, that connects the different disciplines that overlap in the city. I don’t think developing such a science would necessarily risk falling into an analytical trap. It could do the opposite, in fact, by bridging the gaps between the different fields.

  3. Schools anchor neighbourhoods, attract talent, build prosperity. The 21st century community needs to plan for safe public space so that residents have face time to exchange information.

    The evidence can be seen in the City of Mississauga, where a 1%cluster of high-ranked secondary schools was identified in the 2012 Fraser Institute Report Card on Ontario Secondary Schools, based on 2010-11 data. See mapping here:

    It is not about the money, honey — it’s about the hands. Parent engagement in the high-ranked school catchments has been routinely supported in both privileged and vulnerable communities by accessing Parent Reaching out grants from the Ministry of Education whcih place workshops in public schools.

    Mississauga’s population has more than doubled to 713,000 since 1996, making it the 6th largest city in Canada. The residents comprise more than 50% not born in Canada, and some 90+ languages are spoken as a mother tongue. In 2011, Mississauga was ranked 16th safest city in Canada.

    The parent grants provide workshops to help parents learn how to better support their students’ outcomes in school. The self-selected participation aims at parent-driven topics. Literacy and school success metrics are among the accountabilities reported back to Ministry of Education.

    Where grants place, literacy and school success are seen to improve. More than 2000 grants are approved for 2012-13 rollout which will engage 40,000+ parents and impact learning for 100,000 students, for less than $3m.

    Deployment of successful parent grants align with human capital management levers identified in Boston Consulting Group August 2012 report “From Capability to Profitability”

    The structure of projects “builds innovation” in the manner suggested by Dr. Kevin Desouza in an April 2012 to UofT’s Rotman School of Management:

    Follow me on twitter @Soplet

    Further background information can be found by mining my Linked-In profile

  4. I like the idea of a more rigorous systems-based approach and think the extra data generated by a concerted effort to measure everything would/will be useful, but I’m highly skeptical of this approach. The very nature of complexity science is that even with all of the infinite data sets contained in a complex system it is impossible to create accurate predictions; if we were able to make accurate predictions, it would be chaos theory (with all of its limitations), not complexity theory. Cities will remain unpredictable in the same way as economies because they’re both based on two wholly unpredictable things: humans and innovation. Sure, we can get a pretty good idea of what the average person in an area would want or do, and we can get a pretty good idea of what places are ripe to develop new innovations based on industry clusters, economic complexity, and labor force skill levels, but the whole concept of turning vast quantities of data into useable, prescriptive results sounds like econometrics – interesting and can be accurate, but almost always misses the cataclysmic events.

    Mr. Batty needs to read Nassim Taleb’s Black Swan immediately, and then shift his focus from a prescriptive math-based science of cities to a slightly less exact, but no less vigorous study like the resilience of cities as social-ecological systems.

    1. The same could be said of ecology or the climate or physics or the universe. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to understand it. If we took that approach, science and medicine wouldn’t be where they are today (or cities for that matter).

  5. Batty’s idea of a “science of cities” is limited to contemporary western cities. His coverage leaves out ancient and historical cities, and non-western cities. While this limitation makes it easier to come up with regularities and formal models, it leaves out 95% of the history of human urbanization. Many of us argue that what is needed today is more diverse ideas about cities, more creative thinking, more models of how people have built and used cities in the past and around the world. A broader, not narrower, perspective will provide a wider range of alternatives and suggestions for thinking creatively about cities in the future. While the relatively narrow work of Batty, West, Bettencourt and others is certainly valuable, there are many alternative sources of ideas for a truly broad “science of cities.” See my blog, “Wide Urban World” for some suggestions.

    -Mike Smith

    1. Thanks for the link, Mike. And you’re right—a diversity of ideas is never a bad thing. I’d guess their argument might be, you have to start somewhere. But that’s good because it leaves plenty of other niches open for folks like you.

  6. Good article, Another venue regarding this is the complex adaptive systems modeling that Eric Beinhocker describes in The Origin of Wealth. Also, the work that the Santa Fe Institute is doing on the scale of urban complexes is interesting. By the way, they are looking at human settlements from prehistoric and historic cultures as well.

    For my part, I’m interesed in the recent developments in cognitive science, that give us a better picture of how and why people think, make descisions and interact. A stronger understanding of human cognitive behavior would help planners to better communicate, build consensus and facilitate organizations.

    1. Really interesting point, John. I think there’s a lot that could be done with cognitive science and cities. They’re a natural laboratory in which to test brain-environment interactions.