The Slow Metropolis

By Adam Brock 

Back in April, I mused on the idea of examining social systems as if they were single organisms, comprised of networks of human cells. “The Living City,” a provocative article by Jonah Lehrer in last month’s Seed Magazine, is a perfect example of how we can use this lens of the social organism to design a more ecologically sound society. The article profiles the work of Geoffrey West, a scientist at the Santa Fe Institute comparing city life with the metabolism of animals. Unfortunately, it’s not available online, but here are some of the points I found interesting:

In the early thirties, biologist Max Kleiber discovered that animal metabolic rates were directly correlated with the animal’s mass: the larger a species is, the more efficiently it uses energy. Working from where Kleiber left off, West and his colleagues have been searching for similar patterns of metabolism in urban centers. Using a multitude of variables like per-capita gas consumption and total length of electrical cables, West’s work has shown that, just like animals, cities invariably get more efficient as they get larger.

So far, this just reinforces what’s more or less common knowledge among greens; verdy New Yorkers have been bragging for years about how their city’s density makes it inherently eco-friendly. But the article really starts to get interesting where it starts talking about how the tendencies of urban metabolism break with those of animals.

In the biological realm, metabolism decreases with mass; an elephant, for example, has a far slower heart rate and gestation period than a mouse. But cities, as we all know, work just the opposite: the bigger they get, the faster the activity within. As Lehrer explains, this results in a feedback loop, whereby growth in a city’s activity encourages more growth (if you’re familiar with critiques of modern capitalism, this is probably starting to sound familiar). In order to maintain that growth, cities must constantly innovate, and do so at an ever faster pace, in order to avoid collapse.

This, to me, gets very close to the crux of our predicament. An animal that needs to keep growing larger just to stay alive dies out very quickly – a lesson that we would do well at this point to heed. What would it look like if urban metabolism were to decrease with mass? If cities, instead of being buzzing epicenters of human activity, were actually slower (but still more efficient) than the countryside? This notion runs completely counter to our ideas of what cities should be. But if West and his colleagues are right, cities as we currently idealize them are out of whack with the laws of biology.

Perhaps the idea of the “slow metropolis” is taking West’s comparison too far. After all, cities and creatures share at least one fundamental difference: animals need to move while, Archigram’s wild concepts aside, cities don’t. Regardless, it’s clear that our cities are in desperate need of an organ transplant or two. Like a stately oak whose branches are all facing the wrong way to capture the sun’s energy, the centrally planned, asphalt-smothered 20th century city is ill-equipped to take advantage of natural forces. It’s up to us, then, to figure out how to give our cities an ecological retrofit – and in the process, sync up our urban metabolism with that of the rest of the planet.

Photo credit: flickr/pbo31

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