School of Cities / Research / City Research Insights

Volume 1: Issue 4 | Urban Evolution: A new framework for understanding city growth and change

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Meet the experts behind this issue: Dan Silver

Daniel Silver headshot
  1. How did the Human Genome project inspire you to create the Urban Genome working group?

The phrase “urban genome” goes back to conversations that I had with Richard Florida, back when the notion of a School of Cities was just a glimmer in somebody’s eyes. We were talking about exciting new directions in urban studies, and somehow that phrase came out of it, reflecting a sort of multidisciplinary effort to try to get at the basic kinds of information that is encoded in the city. It became one of those things that we thought we would have a chance to pursue with the School of Cities. So, it started there, the idea of bringing together people from different disciplines to try to bring expertise to map out the basic features of this domain. As our actual project evolved, we moved away from the genome as the key metaphor, and it is much more now about the question of urban evolution.

  1. What does building a “science of cities” involve?

There is a very interesting and long history of dialogue between social sciences and biology that goes back to the foundation of urban sociology within the Chicago school of sociology and with the concept of human ecology. But in recent years, I think it had somewhat stagnated. We wondered how the work towards a science of cities could be advanced if we took on the key features of Darwinian evolution. The key components of that are variation, selection, and inheritance. Variation is about where variants in the urban form come from. For example, maybe somebody’s trying out a new balcony form, or people are immigrating from one place to another and bringing different ideas with them. Selection is related to how much the ideas stick. If we’re talking about urban evolution, selection means, say, for a business, do they survive? Or, when introducing a new type of balcony, does it get approved in the zoning codes? Inheritance is about whether, once something is selected, does it get passed along? In biology, that’s reproduction, like I’ve got traits encoded in my DNA, and then those are passed on to my kids. So those are the three key components, variation, selection, and retention, and then we try to build up a theory and different studies around that.

  1. Which disciplines are involved? How did you determine which disciplines should be included? Are there others you would like to include?

In the core members, we have sociology and engineering. And we’ve had people who are more or less involved in various ways from across many disciplines. We’ve had engineering, architecture, geography, economics, computer science, among others. We’ve also had evolution, evolutionary biology, and ecology.

I think there are lots of great chances to involve other fields like anthropology and archaeology. In those fields, you have people who study evolution of early human civilizations, artifacts and things like that. They have really thought a lot about how to adapt evolutionary concepts to the study of human culture, and both the concepts and the methods have gotten very advanced. It would be great to get them involved too.

  1. How has the affiliation with the School of Cities facilitated this project?

The School of Cities was instrumental to the idea that research wouldn’t necessarily be oriented towards a short-term payoff. To me, that was really important. It’s a challenge for these kinds of projects. They allow you to exchange perspectives, but it’s hard to establish a common language. Once you do that, and you try to start publishing, it’s hard because every field has its own things that it’s interested in at that moment. The interdisciplinary emphasis is really great if people are willing to take that step, but it’s not easy, and it needs time.

  1. Have you had consultations or engagements with practicing planners and policy advisors? How are they responding to your work so far? How are they contributing?

One of our projects was to create the online interface, Piccard, that visualizes the long-term changes in neighbourhoods in Canadian and U.S. cities. We went out to some practitioners and got their feedback on it, and that was really useful. Then on the basis of that, I’ve been working with a colleague, Zack Taylor, at Western. We’re hoping to do something with Social Planning Toronto because they were very interested in the visualization. We showed it to them, and they were very enthusiastic because they want to have the ability to see how any part of the city is now in its current state, and in the context of its long-run trajectory. That’s very important to them, thinking about heritage and the history of an area. They have data available for that right now, but it doesn’t go back longer than 1991 or so, and it’s not in an easily accessible format even beyond that. What we’re trying to do is take the interface and then make it something useful, a workable tool. I don’t think it’s completely a done deal, but it’s close to being done.

  1. How would you apply the urban genome concept to complex, current urban issues – like pandemic recovery?

I don’t think we know how it’s going to go because there are going to be changes to cities, but it’s going to happen within a context of the template that’s already there. So that’s where that DNA idea is going to come in. There’s never a blank slate. It’s going to be an adaptation of what’s there beforehand.

Meet the experts behind this issue: Mark Fox

Mark S. Fox
  1. Tell us about your work on the Urban Genome Project.

What I have been working on is coming up with a formal mathematical model of the urban genome. The model will characterize, in essence, the genomics of a spatial area, such as a city or neighbourhood. The model is constructed in such a way that we can model what the neighbourhood looks like today, or a year ago, or ten years ago, and we can test theories of how the neighbourhood evolved over time. The whole point of the mathematical model is to provide this representation of urban forms. Once we have that model, we can create software that can encode information about that neighbourhood. And then we can perform analyses to see how the formulas have changed over time as a spatial area evolved over time, or we can do an analysis that shows similarity of the area to others.

  1. Where do you want to go next with this work?

The next stage is really getting more data so that we can create a more 360-degree view of what goes on within a neighbourhood or spatial area. I’m currently working with a student named Anderson Wong, and he’s been working on translating StatsCan census data into a form that allows us to manipulate it for the type of analyses we want to be able to do.

  1. I can imagine for policymakers that it would provide tremendous insight to be able to understand how a community or neighbourhood has changed over time and to be able to craft policy around the needs of the people in that community.

Right. And this is not to say that policymakers aren’t doing that now. But they often spend their time gathering narrow data that allows them to make specific decisions. We’re trying to, in essence, broaden the type of data policymakers have access to. What’s important about the Urban Genome Project is that it’s looking for the fundamental formemes that characterize a spatial area like a city – the formemes that are durable and form the core of what goes on in a particular area. If you understand what the core formemes are in a spatial area, then you can begin to identify why this particular area or city is successful. Maybe it’s the case that there are specific formemes that are the basis of that success.

  1. Can you tell me a little bit about the Urban Data Centre?

The goal with the Urban Data Centre originally was to create one place where all urban data is deposited so that it’s a kind of “one stop shop.” Initially, I thought we would create this single repository everybody can deposit their data into. But as I began to talk to different people and organizations, it quickly became clear to me that everybody is creating their own repository, like the federal and provincial governments and every city has its own open data portal. The only problem with city open data is it’s not comprehensive, so it’s not comparable. Nor is it the case that cities always give the appropriate funding to make comprehensive data available.

I realized eventually that it’s unlikely that everyone will deposit their data into one repository. So let’s at least get them to the point that they provide us with information about their datasets that we can build into a catalogue. What we’re amplifying in our work now is the creation of a national data standard for metadata about datasets. We’re not starting from scratch – we’re building on existing dataset-related standards that are out there. This project will address what I refer to as the awareness problem – many people aren’t even aware that data sets actually exist out there.