This long article in the New York Times explains why theoretical physicist Geoffrey West – as well as Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and Michael Bloomberg – has turned his attention to cities. The article mentions the two writers on the city who most interest me: Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford. I’m intrigued by the idea of “urban science” because I see more and more evidence that the sciences and social sciences need to be integrated. We also need to bring in creative economists (I know, that sounds weird, but I’m fairly sure that such people exist) because urban economies are very complicated indeed.
Furthermore, the pace of urbanization is accelerating as people all over the world flee the countryside and flock to the crowded street.This relentless urban growth has led to a renewed interest in cities in academia and in government. In February 2009, President Obama established the first White House Office of Urban Affairs, which has been told to develop a “policy agenda for urban America.” Meanwhile, new perspectives have come to the field of urban studies. Macroeconomists, for instance, have focused on the role of cities in driving gross domestic product and improving living standards, while psychologists have investigated the impact of city life on self-control and short-term memory. Even architects are moving into the area: Rem Koolhaas, for one, has argued that architects have become so obsessed with pretty buildings that they’ve neglected the vital spaces between them. But West wasn’t satisfied with any of these approaches. He didn’t want to be constrained by the old methods of social science, and he had little patience for the unconstrained speculations of architects. West considers urban theory to be a field without principles, comparing it to physics before Kepler pioneered the laws of planetary motion in the 17th century. Instead, West wanted to begin with a blank page, to study cities as if they had never been studied before. He was tired of urban theory — he wanted to invent urban science.