Science is critical for understanding the complexity of cities

Photo: Timon McPhearson
Oct 2016

In this Q&A, Timon McPhearson discusses how the surge in the growth of cities in recent years calls for new push for urban research.

This blog is part of series undertaken in partnership with Habitat X Change. Habitat X Change is a collaborative space that connects science, visualisation and design for the future of cities. It will debut during the Habitat III summit in October in Quito, Ecuador. You can read more about this event here.

Read other stories from this series: "As more power flows to cities, what role for science?" "The time for science and cities to work together is now," "What data visualization can do for science" and "What role will science play in the future of cities?"

Timon McPhearson is an urban researcher who happens to live in what may be the most culturally diverse city on the planet, New York. McPhearson is an associate professor of urban ecology at The New School in Manhattan. He is also the lead author of a commentary published this week in the journal Nature. In it, he and his colleagues discuss the role of research around Habitat III, a landmark United Nations summit on cities that will begin next week in Quito, Ecuador. The event will be critical for shaping the future of cities for years to come. But, the team writes, “science was largely absent” in the lead up to the summit and in the drafting of its key document, the New Urban Agenda.

The paper’s authors also include, among others, Owen Gaffney of Future Earth; Xuemei Bai, a member of the Future Earth Science Committee; Debra Roberts, a member of the Engagement Committee; and Thomas Elmqvist, a member of the Future Earth Urban Knowledge-Action Network.

In this interview, McPhearson talks with Daniel Strain about why global policy-makers have been hesitant to embrace urban research. He also describes possible paths forward, including forming a global scientific body focused on urban areas.

Daniel Strain: Why is science so important for the future of cities?

Timon McPhearson: The changes we’re seeing now globally in and around urban areas are unlike any development patterns we’ve ever seen in the history of human civilization. So the nature of the urban challenge is new and unprecedented, and that alone drives the need for scientists to understand this phenomenon and help decision-makers direct the evolution and development of cities towards more sustainable, resilient and livable forms.

DS: Given how important research is to cities, how well was the scientific community included in Habitat III?

TM: In the lead up to Habitat III, there have been some scientists involved but, overall, not so many, and the role of scientists was subsumed within “civil society.”  So scientific input in developing the New Urban Agenda as part of Habitat III has been quite small compared to, say, the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction or the Sustainable Development Goals. That said, it is clear that meaningful implementation of the New Urban Agenda, including monitoring and evaluation, is going to require coordination and evidence from the scientific community. And when I say scientific community, I mean natural and social scientists, experts from the humanities, practitioner scholars and professionals.

DS: Why do think you there was a reticence to engage with urban research?

TM: Urban systems are incredibly complex, perhaps more than we want to admit, and how do we understand complexity? Generally, we try to reduce it to something more simple so that it's a little bit easier to deal with. Our governance systems and research institutions are all based on this way of looking at systems by breaking them into their component parts, and that's a completely reasonable and rational approach. It’s understandable. And yet, it does not allow us to understand, and therefore influence, the emergent, sometimes unpredictable nature of urban development.

DS: So it’s not appropriate for the reality of cities?

TM: When you look closely at the combination of challenges that cities are facing, it’s truly astounding. For example, one of the things we are seeing is that nearly every city around the world is going to get hotter. We have to understand not just that urban heat is increasing, but how climate change interacts with the urban heat island effect, how it will affect infrastructure and the way it will impact peoples’ daily lives. Climate change, urbanisation, environmental degradation, resource depletion – all of these changes are happening together, and they’re interacting in real time.

It does really boggle the mind to think about how we might actually get a handle on this. And yet, I think this is doable, but we’re going to have to be ambitious, creative and very interdisciplinary and even transdisciplinary. We’re also going to have to learn how to listen to each other in ways that we haven’t before.

DS: How might that look?

TM: We already have global circulation models that are able to predict future changes in climate at the planetary scale. If you back up and think about that, it’s amazing that we can do that. One of my visions is for urban scientists to do something similar for cities. Why can’t we develop sophisticated urban system models for predicting how cities change and give decision-makers an idea of what’s coming and how to prepare in cities all around the world.

DS: You mention interdisciplinary research and transdisciplinary research, which I often think of as doing science with the people who will actually use the results. Why is that important for studying cities?

TM: I think, fundamentally, this goes back to the nature of the urban challenge and cities where every day, every minute, people with different cultures are coming together. I live in New York. Depending on the metric you use, some people have said that over 700 languages are spoken in New York City. It’s perhaps the most culturally diverse place on the planet. And not everyone has the same beliefs, values or way of seeing what they want out of their communities or their neighborhoods. It’s difficult to even do something something as straightforward as to try to understand within a neighborhood what kind of future the people want. That requires us to be very interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary about understanding their views and desires, their needs and goals and how to affect change at the household and neighborhood level and from city to region.

DS: How so?

TM: Just to give an example, cities all around the world are planting trees. And that sounds on the surface every easy – let’s plant a tree. But it still requires social scientists, non-profits and community activists that can help represent the views of their communities, as well as ecologists who have expertise in this area to come together to make sure we plant the right trees in the right locations to achieve our goals. And that’s maybe one of the simpler challenges facing cities. Some of the others are much harder, such as how do we be more inclusive and more socially just about the kinds of services that people need in cities and where to provide them and when?

DS: A lot of what you talked about gets to the question of whether we need a global body for science on cities – what some have, perhaps, mislabeled as an “IPCC for cities.”

TM: One of the discussions that has been happening in the last couple of months in the lead up to Habitat III has been this exact topic. There seems to be growing recognition that we need a global urban science body.

DS: But you’ve also argued that such a body shouldn’t look and work like the IPCC. Why is that?

TM: The IPCC started with the question: Is the climate changing and are humans causing it? What is the simple question to guide sustainable urban development? There isn’t one simple question. There are dozens. 100? And so urban challenges really require a much more complex and interrelated set of questions about equity, about justice, about climate resilience, about economic opportunities, about how we develop infrastructure, about how and where to restore ecosystems. 

DS: Despite the challenges, do you think Habitat III is a chance for urban researchers to bring attention to the importance of science for cities?

TM: Habitat III is a moment, a very important moment, where there is a window of opportunity for us to come together – and us meaning the social and biophysical research communities together with other knowledge holders. My hope is that the global urban research community can come together and be focused in our short week in Quito to generate a shared path forward that we can then build upon in the next months to develop an inclusive, diverse and representative global urban science body.