The city is a built environment, and has been designed by our actions and behaviors. I grew up in Boston, where there is a perplexing layout in the oldest sections of town, with the apocryphal rationale is that the streets were paved over the wanderings of cows and drunken sailors.
There are cognitive universals in how people chose to wander, and what paths we would rather use in cities, and what emerges is a spectrum of quite complex societal outcomes.
Walk this way via The Economist
According to Ruth Conroy Dalton of the University of Northumbria, people perceive routes with changes in directions to be longer than straighter ones, even if they are actually the same distance. Odder still, equivalent routes that have landmarks on them are also reckoned to be longer than routes that do not. That may be because memorising changes in direction and landmarks both require the brain to do more work than a route that simply heads in as straight a line as possible.
These preferences may help explain why it is that some city streets are more crowded than others. Why is it that Oxford Street, for instance, is London’s busiest shopping street and not, say, Regent Street or Piccadilly? Tim Stonor of Space Syntax, an architectural consultancy, says that the answer lies in graph theory, a branch of mathematics that studies nodes and the connections between them. Counterintuitively, though, Space Syntax’s model represents street segments as the graph’s nodes and road intersections as connections between the nodes. The resulting topsy-turvy simulation is then used to chart the most linear conceivable route to join every street in a city with every other street. It soon becomes clear that not all roads are equal. Some are more accessible and integrated than others—which is why Oxford Street is more likely to be walked along than any other street in London.
That has implications for how street layouts can be consciously designed to create areas that are more or less vibrant—more suited to shopping, say, or family living. It can also be used to identify places that are unhealthily segregated. Mr Stonor points out that 85% and 96% of riots last August in north and south London respectively took place within a five-minute walk of a post-war housing estate. Most observers would put that down to the fact that the estates’ cheap accommodation draws poorer folk, resulting in pockets of poverty and deprivation whose denizens are more likely to commit crime and engage in acts of vandalism. But Mr Stonor believes that the complex, insular design of many housing estates exacerbates the problem by limiting interactions between people and thus encouraging anti-social behaviour—the exact opposite of what their creators envisaged.
So, network science seems to get at some fundamentals in our thinking about space, and our movement through it. Stonor’s observations show that alienation will arise when groups are dead-ended in pockets of our cities’ networks of streets, and the result is a corresponding isolation from the non-physical, societal social networks and the social capital that they create, and distribute.
I wonder how we will be able to work through complex social issues like the riots in London, the underlying motivations of the Occupy movement, or the growing inequities of or globalize economy, when our leaders have no understanding of the social physics that underlies human association? We are in a world dominated by business leaders, lawyers, and economists, alas, and far too few anthropologists, physicists, and scientists.