William Solecki compares the current study of cities to natural history in the 19th century. Back then most natural scientists were content to explore and document the extent of biological and behavioral differences in the world. Only recently has science moved from cataloguing life to understanding the genetic code that forms its very basis.
It's time for urban studies to evolve the same way, says Solecki, a geographer at Hunter College who's also director of the C.U.N.Y. Institute for Sustainable Cities. Scholars from any number of disciplines — economics and history to ecology and psychology — have explored and documented various aspects of city life through their own unique lenses. What's needed now, Solecki contends, is a new science of urbanization that looks beyond the surface of cities to the fundamental laws that form their very basis too.
"What we need is a comprehensive, integrated, system-level analysis of the city-building process," says Solecki.
Solecki recently made the case for a new science of urbanization in an issue of Environment magazine [PDF], alongside environmental scholar Karen Seto of Yale and geography colleague Peter Marcotullio of Hunter. The current fragmentary nature of urban studies, they write, has led to a disconnected "smorgasbord of information" about cities. In response, they suggest moving away from the study of cities as "places" and toward the study of urbanization as a "process."
"Urban studies illustrates the diversity of cities, the conditions under which cities are built," says Solecki. "But that really, in large part, hasn't focused on the process through which there's this ongoing development or change of cities. … I think one of the things we can start to ask is how do we look at cities as not only objects, but also to look at them in a slightly more sophisticated way."
In Environment, the researchers outline three basic research goals for their proposed science of urbanization:
- To define the basic components of urbanization across time, space, and place.
- To identify the universal laws of city-building, presenting urbanization as a natural system.
- To link this new system of urbanization with other fundamental processes that occur in the world.
The result, Solecki believes, will be a stronger understanding of the "DNA" of cities — and, by extension, an improved ability to address urban problems in a systemic manner. Right now, for instance, urban transport scholars respond to the problem of sprawl and congestion with ideas like bike lanes or bus-rapid transit lines. Those programs can be great for cities, but in a way they fix a symptom of a problem that still lingers. An improved science of urbanization would isolate the underlying processes that caused this unsustainable development in the first place.
"This is maybe the tension or the difference between urban studies and let's say urbanization science," says Solecki. "What we're really looking at are the forces, the laws, the principles, the axiomatic statements that we can say about how these cities are constructed, built, and rebuilt. So the object of study isn't so much the final thing" — meaning the city itself — "it's the process of building that thing."
With a background in environmental studies, Solecki sees a pressing need for a science of urbanization so cities can make smarter decisions about sustainability moving forward. An improved understanding of urbanization could guide recovery from natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy that are sure to increase as climate change worsens. There aren't strong enough standards for these types of efforts at regional or national levels, he says, let alone a global one.
"Now's our window — now's our time to build these cities as best we can," he says. "So we must study this fantastic city-building process that's underway with all the rigor of a science."