A Communications Theory of Urban Growth

By Richard L. Meier; Resources for the Future | Go to book overview

PREFACE

In the post dozen years a body of communications theory with far-reaching potentials for simplification and quantification has come into being. It has already begun to affect the new technology that is presently being installed but has had even more significant influences as a consequence of its introduction of a new perspective through which problems of man-machine systems may be viewed. Although the concepts of information, redundancy, control, etc, have entered discussions conducted within the social sciences regarding social interaction and relations with the environment on some occasions, they have not yet been accepted as a means for understanding the functioning of cities. This monograph represents, therefore, a first attempt to express, in extenso, characteristics of urban organization within a communications-oriented framework.

This work must be treated as an interim report. It cuts a broad swath, but leaves much of the crop still standing. Some of the territory that needs to be covered, such as the collection of case study material on specific metropolitan areas, the assembly of empirical statistical data, the evaluation of current trends in technology, and the applications to urban design, is being explored by current investigations, but the full interpretation must be postponed because the data are for from sufficient. Two or three years hence, I intend to construct a more explicit version of the theoretical model, a more elaborate set of supporting arguments, and an amalgamation of the statistical materials.

The principal purpose of this monograph is to bring to the attention of urbanists of all kinds the view of the city that a communications approach affords. Research on urban communications systems seems to provide much greater rewards--in the form of more powerful explanations--than does research in the more traditional fields of human ecology, geography, land economics, municipal administration, and traffic study. There are scores of leads to be followed up by investigators, and many more innovations to be worked out by creative professionals, who might apply the principles for measurement and control to the solution of a wide variety of problems.

I was impressed with the significance of cybernetics and information theory for understanding social organization as soon as the first books and articles appeared (circa 1948-50). Other than a few tentative experiments on the measurement of the quantity of information in prose, poetry, and illustrations carried out with bored students on a slow boat to Europe, I did not have an opportunity to explore these implications until 1953-55, when a survey of the social, economic and other consequences of automation had been undertaken. It then become apparent that the theoretical ideas and general concepts lying behind automation were likely to be of greater significance than the prospective reallocation of the labor force that caused the politicians so much concern.

By November 1955, I arrived at the fundamental insight--that of a city as an open system that must, if it is to remain viable, conserve negative entropy (information). Entropy can be measured by an accounting system that considers both the stock of knowledge available at various addresses and the content of the messages received. Since then exploration of the implications of this body of concepts has led me to many unusual and little-known features of human organization. Along the way I have discovered that other persons, particularly an engineer, two sociologists, and a city planner, arrived

-v-

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