Cities are a lot like an organism. It is as if they are living, breathing things. Or like some kinds of sea-creatures, are colonies of millions of living things that are specialized in function and ability. Cities are an intricate and complex network of systems interconnected to one another, receiving and responding to internal and external stimuli.
Take your own body: you are an extraordinary collection of biological systems crafted over millions of years of evolution to work the way you do. You have a brain and nerves that control billions of bits of information faster than you can blink. Your nervous system is wired into every other aspect of your being: the network of blood vessels and capillaries, which in turn are connected to your respiratory system; and your digestive system, distributing nutrients to your cells, each of which helps the whole function on a microscopic level. This is not a biology lesson, but you get the idea.
Thinking about cities as living organisms is helpful in the ongoing debate about how they ought to function. The systems required to maintain and support a substantial population of people perform well in dense structures. One thing all cities seem to share is some level of density. As with multi-celled organisms, the more complex a structure is, the more density it seems to have in terms of cells and the greater the degree of specialization. Density is not the key, but a crucial condition for cities to thrive: not only that of people, but of everything else as well. We pack everything that 8.3 million people could need (or want) into the roughly 300 square miles that make up New York City. The result of this concentration includes high levels of interconnectivity, the exchange of ideas, goods, services, the movement of people on surface transit that can take them through all 5 boroughs, the movement of people underground, on boats and ferries, the shuttling of information at high speeds on cables, the sharing of languages and meals and customs, the celebrating of achievement and the collective mourning of failure and loss.
Consider also how deeply the organism of the City is impacted when one of its critical systems does not function well. We have seen several examples of system failure in recent years:
- Transit Systems: Hurricanes Irene and Sandy both shut down the entire Public Transit network for the first (and second) time in its more than 100 year history, and the results were devastating for New Yorkers stranded in areas hardest hit by the storms.
- Electrical Systems: Blackouts and rolling-brownouts (isolated power failures) in the summer of 2003 when businesses were forced to close and lost inventory, when senior citizens and other vulnerable residents were unable to access critical air-conditioning at the height of brutal summer heat waves and suffered greatly.
- Streets and Delivery Systems: Immediately following 9/11, a significant portion of the financial powerhouse of the city (if not arguably the world) was closed to traffic, deliveries, and business. We may have divided opinions about the work of those on Wall Street, but for thousands of residents in the neighborhoods nearest the World Trade Center site that translated directly into a lack of supplies as basic as milk and bread.
- Food Systems: In the poorest parts of the City, fresh and affordable food is hard to find and residents are often left with few healthy options for feeding their families.
- Educational and Justice Systems: Our schools fail our children, our police target minorities, and incarceration of young men of color in the City is at an all-time high.
When our critical systems are not functioning well, the organism gets sick. Communities suffer tremendous psychological trauma, businesses shutter, the vulnerable die, and the old scars of mistrust created from inequality and neighborhood disinvestment are unable to heal.
It seems to me that many of the issues that grab considerable attention from the media such as policing, economic boom and bust, and clashes between race/culture/creed are the symptoms of much more deeply rooted issues in planning and policy. Do you think about the city as a whole, or only as its various parts? The MTA gets you somewhere, but how does that connect to jobs? Do you care? You should.
I have long lamented that there seem to be too few approaches to city governance and planning that take a holistic or comprehensive approach to the systemic and widespread challenges that face all of our 8.3 million people and our 300 square miles of land (we have an additional 164 square miles of waterways, by the by). How can you diagnose the issues of a patient without taking stock of the way that the whole body is functioning? Too often do I find that city agencies are uncoordinated, with little incentive to communicate or collaborate on projects that have widespread impacts on more than just the way buildings go up, how traffic moves, or where people are moving.
The kind of policy that is good for a city is the kind that takes into account the intersectional nature of issues, seeking to make connections between the different ‘organs’ or ‘systems’. The right hand needs to know what the left is doing, as they say. Good policy for the City as Organism promotes, even demands, creativity and collaboration across public and private sectors, within and among agencies that have not always agreed or had a coherent agenda, and takes its cues from a population of people who feel empowered and valued. Good policy will not solve one ‘sickness’ at the expense of another part of the organism- all too often our current way of doing things. When we start to conceive of our city as a thing larger than simply as the sum of its parts, we are able to conceptualize how it works as a whole entity.
Planners sometimes take this opportunity to talk about a top-down versus a bottom-up approach in the age old Moses vs. Jacobs debate (more on that in another article). What I am advocating for is not one or the other, but a combination of the two. I think we need master-planners who see the larger organism and want to connect it to itself (minus the racism, classism, and maniacal power brokering) just as much as we need community members, the individual cells in our systems, giving feedback about localized issues. This is the kind of holism and comprehensiveness for which I long. Cities are alive — cities are organisms and need to be treated as such: bridges and tunnels and highways as our veins and arteries, parks and greenways and blue belts as our lungs, the Council and Mayor and other agencies as our nervous system, and the people as our heart.