Mechanicity is a research programme at the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (part of University College London’s Bartlett School of Planning) aimed at investigating the changing shape of cities, exploring how they use energy, and modelling their impact upon the environment. It is funded as a European Research Council Advanced Award and runs from July 2010 to June 2015.
The programme proposal, interim report and final report are available here:
The programme has a number of goals:
- to extend existing theories of urban morphology (including those based on fractals and allometry) to incorporate energetics, drawing on a diverse range of theoretical work (such as metabolic scaling);
- to link models of urban morphology to statistical thermodynamics, spatial interaction and location modelling, where energy, entropy, and accessibility are central concepts;
- to synthesize these bodies of theory to enable the comparative analysis of city shape, compactness, energy use, and density;
- to explore different dynamic regimes building on self-criticality and bifurcation;
- to operationalise the research, building on our London Tyndall Centre model, and in collaboration with academic partners [such as Arizona State University and Shanghai University];
- to develop a web-based platform for collaborating with partners and stakeholders, sharing and co-developing theoretical and empirical models, and for posing ‘what if’ questions about climate change and energy balance.
Mechanicity’s research comes under seven broad headings, although it must be noted there is a degree of overlap between some of these:
- Urban Scaling – understanding the role of city size in the urban system as a whole, its correlations with urban measures, and emergent agglomeration effects;
- Percolation and Urban Morphology – developing methodologies to define cities in a consistent way, from density thresholds to percolation theory. We look at the emergent hierarchical properties of countries, and at the fractal nature of cities;
- Networks – understanding the properties and performance of urban systems through the underlying structures of their physical infrastructure and social networks;
- Entropy and the Physics of Cities – determining land use and settlement change through spatial interaction;
- Land-Use/Transportation Interaction Modelling (LUTi) – exploring the symbiotic relationships between transportation and land-use;
- Big Data and Transport Systems – [description];
- Generative Modelling – Agent Based Modelling and other techniques to model patterns of individual and collective behaviour;
Background to the research
Despite half a century of sustained research into the structure of cities, we still cannot answer the most basic questions of how their morphology is affected by the energy and income of their populations. We do not know if cities will become more compact or more spread out as energy usage changes due to global warming and as we switch to renewable energy sources.
What we need is much more robust theory with applicable computer models for forecasting such impacts. Many of the rudiments involving agglomeration economics, growth theory, trade, nonlinear dynamics, and fractal geometry have already been put in place with the complexity sciences providing a framework for this new social physics. But so far, energy has been strangely absent. Here we will embrace this role, thus generating theory and models able to address what cities will look like if current predictions of climate change are borne out.