Thursday, March 24, 2011

Urban Design and the Principle of Least Effort

Looking out the window of an office in Macau and seeing the paths worn in the grass by pedestrians taking the shortest route available reminded me of two things— George K. Zipf’s 1949 book, Human Behavior and the Principle of Least effort, and urban walkability.   

Zipf, a linguist, was initially interested in the relationship between the rank order and frequency with which words appeared in written language. The mathematical relationship he observed became known as an example of Zipf’s Law. Of relevance here was that he found that a similar relationship between aspects of urban design. For example, ranked city sizes and their population, telephone calls and geographic proximity and so on. 

Recently, there has been a flurry of interest among mathematicians in the way the characteristic curve identified by the late Professor Zipf reflects the link between the size of cities and the resources needed to operate them. And this observation allows me to segue to talking about walkability. I would put money on there being a Zipfian relationship between urban density and walkability. The implication being that if we know the density of an area, we should be able to have a fair crack at estimating the extent to which people will walk rather than use their car for the daily errands of life.  This would be one step in estimating the economic value in health and wellbeing that would be achieved at certain densities. (Of course, this assumes that the density includes the shops, playgrounds and services people need.) 

Some people are already working on this issue of trying to find the “sweet spot” for urban density at which social benefits might occur. For an example, see Shaping Suburbia

Another contribution to the field is the online tool at WalkScore. The tool lets you calculate a Walkability Score for any address in Australia and the U.S. based on urban density and location of amenities. 

Posted by Rob Hall.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Social policy

Society as a whole is a messy system of intersecting influences. Like all systems, societies feature scarcity of supply and competing needs, along with real-time adaptation and feedback loops. I picture it like a squiggly mass of inter-coiled tentacles.

Governments steer this messy system along, trying to avoid the worst feedback systems that create economic boom and bust and the attendant misery. Then something blows up and the whole squiggling mass writhes and spasms. Today the Bank of Japan poured a record 15 trillion yen ($183 billion) into the financial system to avoid ... something economists and bankers know about.

We mere mortals hope that the highly trained treasurers, economists, bankers and finacial experts see some orderly processes under the squiggling mass of contemporary economic societies.

In our humble corner, we make our own contribution to social well-being and order through the social impact studies we conduct. Social impact studies set out to describe and delineate the social costs and benefits of places and services. Whether it is a new gambling service or a new museum, we can document its social consequences.

A new book by Lois Silverman is a welcome addition to the field. In The Social Work of Museums Silverman describes some of the ways in which museums are socially healing places.

She points to the scope of her work in the preface:

Museums have long been institutions that care for the world's treasures. It is my passonate belief that the most important and essential work museums do is to use their unique resources to benefit human relationships and, ultimately, repair the world.

She sets out to provide a theoretical framework as a foundation for future practice. Along the way she examines the ways that museums foster social functioning, human well-being, favourable social conditions, and social change.

Taking a social work perspective, Silverman gives specific examples of ways contemporary museums help individuals, pairs, families and groups achieve the needs essential to a healthy individual and society.
In Silverman's hands, society no longer looks like a messy clump of writhing tentacles. It looks much more orderly and more human. Which is just what good museums do – they reflect our greater potential. Who can put a price on that?

Posted by Gillian Savage