The Simple Behaviors of Cities

By Matt Johnson

Cities are complex systems with complex and chaotic behaviors, but yet those same systems as philosopher of science Michael Streven’s explains in his book Bigger than Chaos: Understanding Complexity through Probability can contain simple behaviors as well. As Strevens elucidates, “Simplicity in complex systems’ behavior is everywhere.”

Figure 1
Figure 1

As examples, he uses ecosystems, economic systems, the weather, chemical reactions, and societies to explain such simplicity. In his example of societies, he states

…the familiar positive correlation between a person’s family’s social status or wealth and that person’s success in such areas as educational achievement [is a simple behavior].

We have seen simple systems’ behaviors with the graphical information presented time and time again with respect to the systems research of the City of Minneapolis by Urban Dynamics. For example, in a previous post about the foreclosures in the general system of Minneapolis, we saw that although the total foreclosures in the city peaked out around 900 properties in 2008, there has been a fairly consistent decrease over the past 7 to 8 years. Explicitly this is an example of a simple behavior in the system and Figure 1 illustrates this simple behavior.

We have also been exposed to the simple behaviors of some of the subsystems of Minneapolis. For example, we learned that the foreclosure rates of the 2nd Ward in Southeast Minneapolis, and the 4th and 5th Wards in North Minneapolis exhibited different behaviors in their respective locations as illustrated in Figure 2. But adding a bit more systems language, philosophy, and science to our analysis, we now know that the respective behaviors in these subsystems are also simple in nature.

And finally, if we compare the simple behaviors between the general system of Minneapolis and the respective subsystems of Minneapolis, we can see that there are some differences and some similarities. The contrast of the systems’ rates and behavior can provide us with some worthwhile information.

Figure 1
Figure 2

For example, we see a decreasing foreclosure rate in Figure 1. The General Minneapolis System (let’s call it the GMS) is tending downwards towards the horizontal (the x-axis) of the graph. In addition, both the 4th and 5th Wards are exhibiting similar general systems behaviors in their respective subsystems. It appears as though the foreclosures of the GMS and the 4th and 5th Wards are converging if we compare Figure 1 and Figure 2.

As a consequence of this information, are we to assume that as the city goes, the 4th and 5th Wards go? In other words, does the behavior of the 4th and 5th Wards depend on the behavior of the GMS? Do the simple systems’ behaviors of the 4th and 5th Wards reflect the simple system’s behavior of the GMS? Why would we think this?

As we can also see from Figure 2, the 2nd Ward’s behavior is rather flat over the course of the ten years or so. The simple behavior of the 2nd Ward doesn’t seem to be influenced or dependent on the behavior of the GMS. As the GMS is doing its thing, the 2nd Ward is exhibiting completely different behavior. Why might this be?

We must caution ourselves first before we try to answer this question, or any other questions for that matter. We must caution ourselves before assuming too much from the data. If we try to extract more information from the data than we actually can, we risk drawing conclusions that make little sense. Moreover, our overreaching conclusions could have disastrous effects if applied to policy. This data has limits.

Cities can seem a bit overwhelming sometimes. At the ground level, they seem chaotic, and indeed they are. There are a plethora of interactions and activities taking place every second of the day. But the good news is that systems contain simple behaviors in all of the chaos. And the better news is that this simple behavior can be extracted from the chaos and analyzed to provide citizens and policy makers with some much-needed and worthwhile information.

For further reading on similar subject matter, I invite you to read The General System of Minneapolis: ForeclosuresForeclosure Rates: Wards 2, 4, and 5 from 2006 to 2015 and Patterns of the 5th Ward: “Race”.

Remember, you are always welcome to post your comments, thoughts, and questions below. Feedback is always appreciated.

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