The Urban Maze


No single thread has yet been found that can guide us through the tortuous labyrinth of the city

IN a famous phrase recorded by his biographer James Boswell, that peerless eighteenth-century man of lefters Samuel Johnson once declared"when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, for there is in London all that life can afford".

This was less a panegyric of London per se than an affirmation of the fact that cities are the melting-pot of ideas and invention, market-places for the exchange of information and centres of learning, the fount of human culture and creativity-in short, that cities are the sine qua non of civilization.

For the medieval peasant, city life held an additional attraction-residence in a city for a year and a day brought emancipation from serfdom. "Stadtluft macht frei' (City air brings freedom), declared Emperor Henry the Fifth in drawing up the charters of the cities of Speyer and Worms. And even today, this same desire to escape the poverty and servitudes of rural life remains the major driving force behind the explosive expansion of many cities in the developing world.

To the ecologist, however, a city may appear to be a very artificial system. It is true that the sites of man's earliest fixed settlements, such as the rich valleys of the Fertile Crescent, were chosen for their favourable environmental conditions, but with each new technological advance the city-dweller became increasingly divorced from his 'natural" environment until, today, man is able to use almost any environment for town living. Indeed, as Soviet space experiments have shown, man can now live for months on end in a totally artificial, wholly man-made environment.

What is a city?

In these circumstances, the question arises as to whether the ecological approach is applicable to urban systems. What, indeed, is a city? Is it an organism, and, if so, is it a "parasite" with the natural environment as its host? Is a city an organism within an environment, or itself an entire ecosystem?

Urban ecologists are thus still seeking to establish their discipline on a firm theoretical basis, while at the same time being swamped with demands for advice from politicians and city bosses on how to handle the horrific problems resulting from the urban explosion.

The threat of massive failure of cities, through resource depletion, disease and famine, which has always existed, seems more menacing than ever. In the general confusion about the nature of the urban phenomenon, ecologists have perforce adopted an ad hoc approach.

As a result, urban ecology has come to include a heterogeneous ragbag of study topics. These range from studies of energy and materials flows and the use of ecological indicators to measure urban environmental quality, to traditional and experimental building forms and the carrying capacity of urban systems and ecological support systems.

In practice, most urban studies undertaken within the MAB framework have focused on one aspect only, such as the distribution of flora and fauna within urban areas, or the human ecology of children in the city.

One study, which explicitly aimed to integrate city-wide studies of energy, food and water flows with a bio-social survey of individual quality of life and human adaptation (Hong Kong), was unable to demonstrate how a change in one level affected the other, even though it seemed reasonable to suppose they must be interlinked.

Although many of these case studies have succeeded in providing a valuable scientific basis for handling urban planning problems specific to particular cities, the original objective, of setting up an internationally agreed comparative data set for urban systems so that case studies could be contrasted and compared so as to provide answers to common, processoriented questions, has been virtually abandoned.

This is because, owing to the sheer speed and magnitude of the urban explosion, the problems themselves are changing, both in scale and in nature, almost as fast as the necessary data can be collected and collated. …

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