Stewart Brand talks about cities

Last week’s Long Now talk was by Stewart Brand, one of the organizers and author of the book How Buildings Learn. This talk was about cities, and how cities learn.

He started off the talk by talking about demographics. Within the next couple years, more than 50% of the world will live in cities. And the percentage is growing exponentially – in 1800, it was 3%, in 1900, it was 14%. Is this a good or a bad thing? Brand thinks that it’s a great thing, and this talk presents the case against those that think that cities are awful and horrible, and we should all return to living in nature.

He made three seemingly outlandish claims about cities: that they solve the population problem, cure poverty, and are environmentally sound. But he makes a case for each one. They solve the population problem because people in cities don’t have lots of kids. In the country, kids are a benefit – they do chores and help out on the farm. In the cities, kids are a pain; young adults have better things to do than make babies. As he wryly put it, “Which would you rather have, a million dollars or a child?” In fact, people in cities do not even hit the 2.1 children per female average necessary to sustain a population. Since the majority of the world is now in cities, he put up numbers suggesting that the population of Earth will peak this century and then head back down to the 2-3 billion range.

His second claim, that living in cities cures poverty, is also seemingly crazy. When one sees the utter poverty and squalor of the squatter cities outside of Mumbai, how can one claim that cities bring wealth? He cites a book, Shadow Cities, where the author went and studied those squatter cities. It turns out that for many of them, the squatter city was actually an improvement over their hometown. They had more wealth, and insanely more opportunity. Back home, they were condemned to a life of poverty no matter what they did. In the city, they had a chance, albeit a small one, to escape that life, and they were willing to take that chance.

The last claim, that cities are environmentally friendly, he defends by analyzing the ecological footprint of cities. Essentially, the footprint goes up logarithmically with the number of people. Once the infrastructure in place, it basically starts to level off. Or, as he put it, if you took everybody out of a village of 10,000 people, you’d reduce the footprint of the village to zero. If you added those 10,000 people to the city, the city’s footprint would not go up linearly – it would bump up minutely, because most of the infrastructure is in place. I’m not sure I entirely buy it, but it does provide a new perspective on the benefits of cities.

The other concept that he introduced was a hierarchy of change layers. Fashion changes faster than commerce, which changes faster than infrastructure, then governance, culture and nature. He explained it as saying the top, fast-moving layers of fashion and commerce are agents of change, where things are tried dynamically, proposed and discarded if they don’t work. Things lower down, like infrastructure and governance, are more static; they take what the faster layers learn and integrate them. He originally conceived it for an explanation of how cities change and learn, and then later realized that it also maps to how civilizations change and learn. His conclusion? Civilization = cities.

Because change is so important, he points out that it is much better to design one’s structures to evolve and respond to their inhabitants than it is to try to get things right on the first try. He used the example of low-income housing. The best-designed, least-flexible housing always ends up as the worst slums. The housing that is slapped together, but that can be changed in response to people’s needs, does much better. I liked this vision of designing to evolve, because it fits in with my own philosophy.

Afterwards, in the open Q&A session, I asked whether it was possible that the differentiating factor between cities and villages was the ability of cities to evolve, to rapidly respond to their inhabitants. His response was, essentially, yes. He pointed out that cities are laboratories for civilization, that change fast and then teach everybody else how to do things. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but it sparked this great vision in my head, where cities are essentially petri dishes of innovation, each innovating and evolving in its own way. And then by people choosing between the various cities’ innovations, we have a form of natural selection, where things evolve crazily, and the best things are kept. When I shared that idea with him after the talk, he pointed out that cities wouldn’t differentiate themselves, because they’re all so connected these days that they would all copy successful innovations, and discard unsuccessful ones. But it makes the natural selection analogy even tighter, I think, because traits will spread quickly throughout the population. I really really like this idea. Evolution is everywhere. Don’t design, just put constraints in place, and let things evolve and respond. It’s like Kevin Kelly’s book, Out of Control, which I should really re-read, because I think I’d get a lot more out of it now than I did ten years ago.

Anyway. Interesting talk. These Long Now talks are pretty darn good. I’ve only been to a couple that were lame, and most are excellent. I’ll keep on going, and boring y’all with these summaries. Ha!

5 thoughts on “Stewart Brand talks about cities

  1. I’ve been a big fan of the idea of cities having a lower environmental impact. Basically, by concentrating living arrangements, you’re reducing transportation costs. Everybody in this country has their food and goods trucked in; at least in a city, there is greater concentration (fewer miles travelled for obtain goods), and the off chance that people might obtain their goods without consuming fossil fuels (i.e., walking).

    Also, in terms of physical footprint, the city has a lower impact, with its greater concentration. A suburban home takes, what, a 1/4 or 1/2 acre for 3-4 people. In the city, let’s see, my old apartment building in Cambridge has 3 families, effectively, in a much smaller space, stacked vertically. I’d much rather concentrate the effect of people in a limited space, and hopefully leave areas further our undeveloped (as opposed to plowing farms under for McMansions). For a somewhat ranty viewpoint of how energy intensive the suburbs are, see James Howard Kunstler’s blog, Clusterfuck Nation. (i.e., author of The Geography of Nowhere and Home From Nowhere).

    Brand’s idea of change layers was also introduced in terms of buildings; he creates a heirarchy from least changeable to most changeable (“Site, Structure, Skin, Services, Space, and Stuff”), and recommends that we design so that changes to the ephemeral side can be done without major revisions to the more permanent items. So, for instance, tying your services into your structure (read: running pipes and wires through all your exterior walls) causes difficulty down the line when changes are required.

    Incidentally, the current Atlantic Monthly has an article by a French journalist, titled, “In the Footsteps of Tocquefille”–a view of America in foreign eyes. One section was titled, “They Shoot Cities, Don’t They”: it’s how the U.S. has let some previously great cities decay (Buffalo, Detroit, Cleveland), while in Europe, this type of behavior is unthinkable. I guess Europe does not have the space to develop suburbs, which is where the 1970’s/1980’s ‘white flight’ went to.

  2. Responding to a comment over on Livejournal here, so that the two threads are semi-linked. Kinda. Sorta.

    Working backwards…
    I think that female education is a big part of it as well, and I doubt he’d disagree. But I think his point is valid in that cities provide a choice – in a rural or even small town environment, there may be only a few life options for women, or men for that matter, no matter how educated they can get in such an environment.

    I think he does assume rural=farm, because from a global perspective, it often does. And Americans in small towns don’t have the use for youth labor, and aren’t having the babies. I’m pretty sure that the only reason America is even able to maintain ZPG is through immigration, and newly immigrated families having lots of kids to help support themselves. Which pokes a hole in the cities theory, but such is life. I tend to view these things not as hard facts, but as ways of opening up new perspectives. And his talk did that for me, so I consider it a useful perspective even if the details don’t all work out.

    “To urbanize today’s suburbs, you’d have to basically tear all the buildings down and start over.”
    I don’t think he’d consider that a problem. One of the points he made was that one of the glories of cities was that they do continually renew themselves. He showed a picture of downtown Boston from 100 years ago or something, and only one building was the same – the Old South Church. The rest had all been replaced. His first video was actually of Philadelphia blowing up its stadium last year, and he said that that sort of creative destruction was the point of cities.

    And, yes, public transit is a disaster. In the US. Saying that Americans are selfish and greedy and short-sighted isn’t exactly news. But there are places where it doesn’t suck. Manhattan was fabulous – everybody out on the streets walking around just made the whole city more vibrant. And having a subway that runs all the time is just awesome.

  3. Wow! This is really cool stuff. Interestingly, I read some of the exact same stuff in… some magazine, maybe Tech Review? Maybe it was just online. Anyway, it was all about shifts in attitude that Greens will (need to) be making in the near future. “Cities good” was one of them, along with “nuclear power good”.

    The more I learn about land use and urban physics, the more I conclude that cities are great, and rural living is fine, and that suburbs are one of The Worst Ideas Ever.

  4. d00d, you’re the 4th hit on google for “stewart brand skin structure” which is apparently what i type when i can’t remember all six levels of brand’s hierachy.

  5. You might be interested to know that Stewart Brand has recently endorsed a techno-thriller novel about the American nuclear power industry, written by a longtime nuclear engineer (me). This book provides an entertaining and accurate portrait of the nuclear industry today and how a nuclear accident would be handled. It is called “Rad Decision”, and is currently running as a serial at There is no cost to readers.

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