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Metropolis now

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Growing urbanization is heralding a new era of science in the city.

Late last year, Chinese officials reactivated a machine of the state that had lain idle for almost four decades. The government reconvened its Central Urban Work Conference and gave it a crucial task — to report back on how to revamp and revitalize the nation’s growing, and choking, cities.

When the expert group issued its recommendations last month, it backtracked on many of the country’s previous urban policies that had prized growth above all else. The new plan promises denser streets, to break the damaging reign of the car, mixed-use neighbourhoods with greater diversity, and more investment in public transport. China has long been said to have ‘a thousand cities with the same face’. Now it is trying to put a smile on them.

Amid the scientific and social priorities for the coming years, the study and design of cities must be right at the top. Humans are now an urban species and have been since city dwellers started to outnumber rural folk for the first time almost a decade ago. The trend is set to continue, and the United Nations has estimated that 70% of the global population will live in an urban environment by 2050.

What kind of environment will that be? The signs so far are not good. Too many people, especially those in rapidly developing (and urbanizing) countries experience city life much as Charles Dickens put it in his 1850s work Little Dorrit: “Miles of close wells and pits of houses, where the inhabitants gasped for air, stretched far away towards every point of the compass. Through the heart of the town a deadly sewer ebbed and flowed, in the place of a fine fresh river.”

Urban science has some way to go to restore its reputation.

Scientists are responding. Universities in many of the world’s cities — London, New York, Boston, Madrid, Glasgow, Zurich and Singapore among them — are leading a new wave of evidence-driven, data-rich research that aims to understand what makes cities tick, and to keep them running smoothly. Some of these issues, from how best city dwellers should move around, to how to protect their water and them from it, are discussed in a collection of articles this week in a Nature Outlook supplement on urban health and well-being.

Science and technology has a chequered history in the city. On the plus side, great urban visionaries of the past — such as the British town planner Patrick Geddes — trained as scientists, and were able to bring the ideas of ecology and the natural environment to their social tasks. In a less enlightened contribution, some of the haste to design cities around the automobile was justified by claims to rational science. (Even today, many cities in the developing world spend 70% of their transport budgets on serving the car, even though 70% of trips are made by foot or public transport.)

By the 1960s, cities were almost a frontier too far even for science. Asked by then-US President Lyndon Johnson to solve the social problems rooted in US urban areas, a specially convened group of scientists in Woods Hole in Massachusetts responded that “creating a safe, happy city is a greater challenge than a trip to the moon”. Residents of the Bronx in New York City would have agreed: a botched attempt to model demand for fire services in the 1970s contributed to a series of ill-judged fire-station closures and an outbreak of (oddly, not predicted) fires.

Urban science has some way to go to restore its reputation, but the era of big data offers an opportunity, and a new way of thinking. Even as civic leaders crow about the unique merits of their towns, research on cities is trying to dismantle them. Rather than looking at what makes cities different — and then planning accordingly — modern urban science seeks what they have in common.

The new models of urban life start from the ground up and track, for example, people’s journeys and the reasons for them, rather than the flow of traffic through a specific, frequently gridlocked roundabout or intersection. They try to make city science quantifiable, testable and reproducible. It’s a big ask — but that trip to the Moon was achieved. And as the same Woods Hole scientists also told Johnson, the problems of the city “nevertheless, can be attacked in the same logical way we have gone about exploring the universe”.

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Metropolis now. Nature 531, 275–276 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/531275b

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