Can Science Save Planning from Extinction?

In a recent paper, urban theorist Stephen Marshall rehashes Jane Jacobs's criticism of city planning as a pseudoscience built "on a foundation of nonsense." Can science and design be reconciled to provide planning a more stable foundation?

1 minute read

December 7, 2012, 11:00 AM PST

By Jonathan Nettler @nettsj


discusses the premise of Marshall's paper, published in Urban Design International, that echoes the 50-year-old critique by Jacobs. "The problem with urban design," says Marshall, "is that its theories are untested, yet accepted as fact. Marshall proposes to overhaul the way that urban design incorporates science into its fabric, calling for more and better urban science, and for the theories to be challenged with alternative hypotheses and rigorously tested."

While some agree, arguing that planners and designers could produce better outcomes by using better models, others such as Peter Laurence, an architect at Clemson University, debate whether the complexity of interactions and behaviors that make up the city could effectively be studied and predicted. "Geoffrey West, a physicist at the Santa Fe Institute who studies urban growth, agrees. People who study cities 'are dealing with maybe one of the most complex systems in the universe,' he says. 'The idea that you could reduce it to an equation is extremely hubristic.'"

"Marshall says that if urban designers don't build themselves a more scientific foundation, then outside researchers will do it for them," adds Fecht. "To survive, the field needs to incorporate scientific training into its educational curricula, and cultivate 'a concern for testing and validation, critical assimilation of scientific findings from disparate sources, and dissemination of the most reliable, up-to-date findings.'"

Friday, December 7, 2012 in Scientific American

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