Evolved Cities

About a week ago I attended a lecture on campus by PZ Myers. As is par for the course here, retirees outnumbered students at least ten to one (despite admission being free for students and $10/person otherwise). Lack of seating aside I really enjoyed it.

It was about intelligent design and why it's not, as people like the Discovery Institute claim, at all on par with evolutionary science. Part of his point was how different things that are designed and things that have evolved by natural selection are.

To illustrate this he brought up evolved satellite antennae. An evolutionary algorithm was used to create and simulate a variety of designs, the most fit one was selected, and them descendant forms of that antennae produced and selected from and so on. The resulting antennae look very weird but work very well - actually far better than the ones NASA engineers designed. They also have a lot of extraneous and awkward parts, the detritus of adaptations. This is why natural selection can produce things like us humans, who have phenomenally advanced brains but precariously located testes.

It took me until this morning, when I was sitting in math and sketching streetcar stations, to connect this to last term's Urban Geography class and realize you could do the same thing with a city.

There's plenty of data to be had on traffic patterns from around the world. From that you can develop a model to simulate the behavior of pedestrians, motorists, bicyclists and rickshaws. Develop a whole range of permutations of city layouts (with all their varieties of intersection types, speed zones, and and select for whatever criteria is desired - least number of accidents, least congestion, most pedestrian-friendly - and go on from there.

I'd be most interested to see how the evolved forms differ from our own. I doubt they'd look like the twisted mazes of Las Vegas suburbs, but it's also unlikely they'd be a nice gridiron like Manhattan.

I'm very glad I came down to Ashland and took that class. Crossing the hell-intersection of Siskiyou and Indiana is far worse than crossing 82nd Street. Part of this is just the drivers. 82nd Street has its fair share of idiots in low riders with oversized spoilers, but Siskiyou has all of them plus hicks in Ford F-150s with oversized tires who - as I learned last Sunday - will gleefully feign running you down for laughs. This plus the retirees. Half the driving population is made up of people 18-22 and 65-80. Of course the main problem is that Siskiyou is fed directly into by Highway 99, and no one can drive below 45. Anyone who was around me during spring break probably heard me bitch about the Ashland government's response to a pedestrian death at that crosswalk: put in more crosswalks.

Urban planning always tickled my interest, maybe in part because I grew up playing with SimCity 2000 and others like it. The anthology on cities I did for my senior English project also did a lot to put my mind on it. Dealing with that intersection and taking that class, though, have actually made me consider it more seriously as a field of study.

Hopefully all this doesn't bleed into the D&D campaign I plan to run over the summer. I don't want to bore my players with diagrams explaining the absolute genius behind Dwarven intermodal separation of transit.

4 responses:

Urban planning is really fascinating stuff. I think about it quite a bit too having been to bizarro places like Tokyo and Hong Kong, which seem to work just fine as cities, while being immensely more interesting-looking than Portland :P

Great post, by the way. I had no idea Ashland was so unfriendly to pedestrians. I always assumed the opposite!

Thursday, April 30, 2009 at 11:02:00 AM PDT  

Ashland north of Siskiyou is just fine, and downtown itself isn't bad at all. Crossing from Greensprings to the University is dangerous though, and past that the hills are way too steep to get up (and sidewalkless).

It probably used to be a lot better, but all new development has been made for cars and nothing's been done to lessen traffic on Siskiyou.

I'd love to go to Tokyo just to look at the city itself. It's amazing how compacted everything is.

Thursday, April 30, 2009 at 11:13:00 AM PDT  

Fascinating post, Monty.

Thursday, April 30, 2009 at 3:38:00 PM PDT  

Monty,

Great comments. You make me proud to be your grandad!


Grandpa Vern

Thursday, May 7, 2009 at 4:08:00 PM PDT  

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