Why We Need to View Cities as Being Complex Systems

Why We Need to View Cities as Being Complex Systems

Cities are complex systems that involve people and communities interacting with one another and with objects such as roads, buildings and parks on a daily basis within the urban setting. If looking at the individual components that make up a city, it makes it difficult to analyze the factors that are rendering them unable to join the 21st century. However, using a form of cognitive work analysis, which is the process of analysis and design of complex engineering systems, then we can begin to analyze and design cities more efficiently.

image © Pixabay

image © Pixabay

If you look at the way cities are designed today, you can recognize how cities are based on human resources, social capital, education, innovation, communication, and digital technologies. The guidance for a good city according to the Congress for the New Urbanism, is a city that has 'walkable' urban neighbourhoods, transit-oriented developments, as well as residential and community facilities near public transportation systems.  As a result, we are creating principles of design that should be followed and it leads to "creative", "smart", and "knowledge" cities. 

While there is nothing inherently wrong with designing cities in this way, there is, however, a more efficient way to design a city. That way is to view the implications of key elements in a city. Take for example public art. Initially it is viewed as a landmark as well as form of communication. Then it is used by individuals as a marker for a destination and adds further social interaction in the street. Due to the individuals gathering to the landmark, it then creates a sense of community which finally translates to also a sense of safety in the community. The video above provides further details on the interconnected relationships of objects in the city. 

image © Anthony Quintano

Another component of a city that must be considered is the technical intention of a design as well as the urban design contribution that it makes. Take for example a footpath: the technical intention for the foot path is to act as a means of guiding pedestrians to their destination. The urban design contribution of the footpath, however, is the social interaction that it exhibits. So while the footpath is initially intended for one purpose - to move traffic, it can actually take on different applications as it interacts with pedestrians.

image © Tim Gouw

image © Tim Gouw

While understanding the implications of each design choice is arguably already being done, what's not being achieved is a more collaborative design process that involves decision-makers, designers, and members of the community to plan. Currently, built environments are working in silos where planning, architecture, engineering, transportation, water, power, commercial, and retail development are all dealt in isolation. This results in fragmented decision making as the entirety of how the city will function is not considered. Once the different AEC disciplines become more collaborative then we can see how built environments will not only be working efficiently but also effectively to meet our needs for more sustainable communities in the future. 


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