Monday, April 16, 2012

Living City - The Search for the Urban Genome

Chinese artist Lu Xinjian displayed some amazing art pieces in his ongoing project entitled “City DNA” (1). In the art series, Xinjian creates art based on the aerial views of various cities in Google Maps-- from bustling Beijing to sophisticated Paris. Beautiful as they look, they offer some thoughtful insights on the subject of urban structure and design.


Xinjian's art represents not the blueprint (as these are merely floor areas) but the genome of the cities that he references. Just as how the DNA of a human being dictates almost every biological trait that a person can be (it's diseases, it's physical attributes, its mental states) the urban genome could also tell every potential traits of any city. It could indicate at what age or era of the city's existence would it suffer from pollution, or overpopulation or traffic congestion. Or how much contribution to the city's growth are effects of the sprawls, or to the city's decay from the blight.

The concept treats the city as a living organism, with wheels flowing through its veined roads and pedestrians staggering its neural pathways. Every building forms the body of the city, with some serving as the the skeleton while some serve as the muscular framework. The city lives and breathes and grows as long as it's citizens remain dynamic just as single-celled organisms would flourish in a food-rich environment. The city endures the battle between eternal birthing of sprawls against the ever-dying blights the way a human body suffers when the immune system battles an infection.

New York

The group of editor-curator Joseph Grima and artist-architect Pedro Reyes has devoted a project for this exact concept but not as an art endeavor but as an actual academic pursuit (2). They call it the Urban Genome Project. Though instead of simply finding that ultimate code on how a city would grow, the project's primary intent is "to map the code on which cities are written, thereby assembling an index of tools for improving the urban environment, with a specific focus on political processes."

The project aims to understand this code so that they can create new and improved genomes that societies can utilize in facing a fast-paced era. They gather best practices, conduct dialogues, do case studies from various cities and collate them into a repository which can be used as tools for urban hyperdevelopment.  I urge the reader to check these for themselves on their website.

Perhaps the only critic that one can see from this project is how tame they are in their stand. The only outcome that the project is aiming for is the establishment of an online archive of all their materials, the publication of their findings in the form of a book and an exhibition.


A more rigorous and much more ambitious approach on this topic was presented by university professor Jonathan Fink in the National Academy of Engineering. In his paper published in the Spring Issue of The Bridge on Urban Sustainability entitled "The Case for an Urban Genome Project: A Shortcut to Global Sustainability?" (3), Fink discusses the similarity between the human genome and the urban genome and how the methods applied to the human genome could as well be applied on a larger scale to a whole city.

As an excerpt, he asks,

What if we could classify the myriad attributes of a city into a finite set of characteristics, and these categories could in turn point urban policy makers toward the best options for alleviating poverty, stabilizing climate, and achieving energy independence? Is this just a utopian fantasy?
Perhaps not. Think, for example, of the Human Genome Project (HGP), one of the most celebrated scientific accomplishments of the late 20th century. The major public- and private-sector investments in HGP were justified on the grounds that all people share a common genetic framework, which when fully deciphered could point the way to cures for human diseases. Might we apply the same logic to cities, using a classification system for all urban traits—an Urban Genome Project (UGP)—to suggest the way(s) to metropolitan health?
Could such a typology inform computer-based models that can map alternative futures for individual cities and for the urbanized world as a whole? What new kinds of data would we have to collect? And how should the contributions of governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), companies, and their academic partners be funded, coordinated, and applied?

Just as how the human genome enabled us to determine possible diseases a person could be afflicted even at birth, then the urban genome could in principle enable us to know all problems the city may encounter in the future right there from the moment the first brick is laid.

The author goes on to discuss the methods on how to measure and classify the cities using various indicators and use these figures as catalysts for mathematical models of urban progress.

Physical attributes of cities, such as air quality, water flow, traffic patterns, building materials, and land use, can be tracked directly. Socio-economic properties, such as jobs, housing, and health outcomes, must be inferred from financial, demographic, occupational or service records maintained mostly by governments.

These are just a few of the myriad variables that can serve as indicators of a cities future. Hence, a properly simulated path of growth could 'predict' future events and ultimately the society could better prepare for any circumstances which may come. There comes the mitigation of disasters through construction of passageways years in advance, as a simple example.

Los Angeles

Although the Urban Genome Project could not in itself be used to change the city into a better equipped one, it would serve as the starting point of any and all progressive endeavors. It could serve as the input for various tools to achieve that purpose. The author discusses some of the useful computational tools for simulating how each variable affect every other aspects of urban living.

One point I gather from the article is it's emphasis on the utilization and implementation of Urban Genome into the real world. It cites various existing software programs and previous organizational efforts regarding urban development that could act as pillars for the Urban Genome Project. This idea is real and it is very achievable as long as the best efforts are put in by key players.

I was reminded by the comic book series written by Scott Snyder titled Batman: The Black Mirror. In his story, he characterizes Gotham City as a  living, breathing character. A character with her own personality, secrets and appetites. In the series, it is the city that molds the lives of her citizens. It is the city,  Snyder implies, that created Batman. It is the city that put the lives of its citizens into salvation or into damnation. And as the city grows, lives grow with her as well. And if the city suffers and dies, her citizens suffer and die with her.

This brings a new meaning to the saying: "The city never sleeps."



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