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Modern cities modelled as “super-cells” rather than multicellular organisms (wiley.com)
122 points by XzetaU8 6 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 53 comments

Brah, no way. If you get stoned on an airplane, you shall see that highways distinctly resemble veins and arteries. Cells don't have circulatory systems. Bam. My model fits better with Superorganism. Now, let me write a paper and invent words to rival your "eukarcity" and "cityplasm".

okay dr dshiv, what about cytoskeletons, microtubules, filaments, and their associated proteins such as dynein?


I love intracellular transport videos like this. I want to see them set to Philip Glass: https://youtu.be/5dVIAISw68U https://youtu.be/6aMq6dZkMyQ

Next best thing, animated DNA : https://youtu.be/7Hk9jct2ozY

I have no words. This is fascinating. This conveys how mind blowing complex our body is better than anything I've seen before.

It's a computer based on vibrations. Every molecule has a different intrinsic oscillation!

Reminds me of the game Factorio, but in 3D instead of 2, and under water.

This single video could replace a whole month of boring biology lessons in high school… amazing really

I need me some proteins walking microtubules videos. Little damn machines almost make you want to believe in intelligent design, but natural selection and physics are just right to make it awesome.

Heard of Michael Levin yet? :)

("What Bodies Think About: Bioelectric Computation Outside the Nervous System" https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18736698 )

The work coming out of his lab seems to me to indicate that intelligence is ambient in living tissue, with the corallary that living systems are designed by intelligence: their own.

Yeap. ;-)

ATP synthase!



I think of it as a hydroelectric power plant. Hydrogen atoms are water, the electrochemical gradient is gravity and the enzyme is the turbine.

Those are building-level infrastructure. Girders, pneumatic tubes, elevators, staircases, segways ...

Nah, Sam Vimes in Guards Guards had it all worked out. And he was lying in a gutter at the time.

“The city wasa, wasa, wasa wossname. Thing. Woman. Thass what it was. Woman. Roaring, ancient, centuries old. Strung you along, let you fall in thingy, love, with her, then kicked you inna, inna, thingy. Thingy, in your mouth. Tongue. Tonsils. Teeth.”

Your work should cause you to cruise through tenure review.

I've had the same thoughts. Roads are basically moving around cars, which move people and resources. This is the same function as red blood cells. This analogy includes white blood cells-- highway patrol police. People are perhaps the oxygen which is the catalyst for everything to work, and the resources like food, materials, etc., are like the nutrients the human body needs. Buildings are also individual cells of different kinds, and you can see different buildings have different functions as well, just like cells.

I think cities are clusters of cells, and just like clusters of cells in the body, they perform functions that could, in turn, categorize them as "organs", because there is a dominant industry in that city, and the buildings in that city serve specific functions that get exported out to the rest of the cities in the country or the world.

I think the paper's analysis is interesting, but I also think the starting point for the analysis should be function and not hierarchical structure, which is mostly static.

I tend to think of them as ant trails, but a circulatory system works too.

And maps of cities are like histology slides.

Tokyo is an example of a "multicellural" city, with its Special Wards each functioning as a separate city with only some services shared among them.

The wards each have a population of a few hundred thousand people, and some take top spots in the list of biggest cities in Japan. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cities_in_Japan

The city has been run like this for decades, and it seems to work out for Tokyo pretty well.

New York's boroughs are another fine example.

Arguably the Bay Area is something similar, and I would further argue would be much better off if it were closer in governance and self-concept to Tokyo or New York than it is in fact.

New York’s boroughs aren’t that decentralized, Manhattan is clearly the center with almost a quarter of metro area jobs and certainly not anywhere near a quarter of the metro’s population.

Fun fact: Manhattan contains both the largest and fourth largest business districts in the US, Midtown and Downtown respectively.

Downtown Brooklyn, Jersey City and Long Island city have all skyrocketed in the past decade, granted they are all centered around Manhattan and can be viewed as skyscraper sprawl.

Flushing, which is more on the outskirts, has grown rapidly very recently and has some massive development planned.

The city is definitely moving in the direction of decentralization, but that could just be because the center is saturated. Will be interesting to see what it looks like in the next decade.

I think a key step will be the Triboro RX. In the short term it would be a regular circumferential subway line, but that will allow Brooklyn and Queens to function without Manhattan more.

I think the the combination of geography and state boundary politics makes NYC hard to actually become multi centered, but it wold be interesting to be proven wrong. Certainly we should strive to see Long Island, North Jersey, and West Connecticut have better rail and be less car-dominant.

I have very severe doubts about TriboroRX happening in my lifetime because of a combination of exorbitant costs at the MTA ($12B and counting for East Side Access) and the State's/MTA's tendency to slow-walk and sandbag projects they're not particularly interested in ($8B estimates for the Rockaway Beach Branch, radio silence on Utica Avenue or NYS high speed rail)

ohhhhhh yes. I wrote "will" but I should have wrote "would"; I don't believe its inevitable by any means.

> $8B estimates for the Rockaway Beach Branch

That one still makes my blood boil. There's plenty of reasons why it might be low benefit, but it certainly shouldn't be anywhere near as high cost.

No, Manhattan is still outpacing them all in terms of total and percentage job growth; their share of job growth is growing, but Manhattan is still a whopping 52%. https://www.osc.state.ny.us/files/reports/osdc/pdf/report-1-... Hudson Yards and Midtown East are not showing signs of slowing down.

Flushing is mostly meds and retail, which is fine for a shopping district but is not indicative of a greater jobs market trend. Manhattan's tyranny is largely due to its geography; it is the only place with fast, reliable mass transit access to all of the metropolitan area, and companies don't want to limit their labor pool. It is a pain in the ass to travel within Queens on mass transit (say, Rochdale to Flushing), let alone travel from some place like Westchester or New Jersey to Flushing. Flushing is no Shibuya or Shinjuku.

Your source supports everything that I mentioned in my comment:

"As a result of strong job growth in the outer boroughs, Manhattan’s share of private sector employment has declined, from 64 percent in 1990 to 59 percent in 2018. Brooklyn’s share increased the most, rising from nearly 13 percent to 17 percent. The shares in the other boroughs edged up slightly, with Queens"accounting for more than 15 percent, the Bronx for less than 7 percent, and Staten Island for less than 3 percent."

Would be interesting to look

The city is saturated and almost everyone outside of Manhattan wants more relevance and hates that the observation of Manhattan is accurate.

Soon to be the 10th and 17th id imagine

Based on what data?

NYC is not being buffeted by a major trend that wouldn't also affect every other business district in the US.

NYC is being buffeted by rich/smart people leaving because of murder

The thing is that Tokyo has no city center. The actual center is the Emperor's palace, which is mostly empty and not accessible to the public.

Other than that, each ward has its own downtown, its own suburbs. It really feels like Tokyo is not a city at all but a place where different cities decided to stick together, and administratively, it is. Shinjuku would be closest to a capital but not everything centers around it, in fact, it is not even where the "Tokyo" station is.

The Bay Area is like amoebas or trees that grew into each other. It's almost impossible to tell the different between where one city starts and the next ends.

"Am I in San Jose or Los Gatos?"

37°14'13.57"N 121°55'30.49"W

"Is this Mountain View, Palo Alto, or Los Altos?"

37°24'15.38"N 122° 7'4.09"W

"Are we in San Jose, Saratoga, or Cupertino?"

37°18'11.21"N 122° 1'3.23"W

I suppose most big-enough metropolitan areas are like this. Mexico city is now (technically) a "state" with a few different cities (municipalities) which are nontheless seamlessly blended together.

The Dallas Fort-Worth Metroplex is similar. Separate cities that have grown into each other (conurbation) yet retain separate counties and governance.



Barcelona is a good and obvious example.

I always wonder about the word "obvious." Does it need to be a universal quality or experience in order to be obvious? For example, I have no idea about Barcelona having not had the pleasure of visiting there yet.

I can recommend a good book about this subject - Scale[1] by Geoffrey West.

[1] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/31670196-scale

Thanks for the tip. Could you tell us more about why you would recommend others to read this book?

This is really interesting, but I think it's too literal. If you consider how radically different, but nonetheless alike the human body is from a cell, and how different but similar multicellular life can be - the scale, environmental, and dietary optimizations cause a significant disparity from one organism to the next. To me that says this is too literal, and an exceedingly close reading of the more figurative analogy. With that I think the sensibility erodes rapidly.

I think what one really had ought to take from the cellular analogy is that humanity is inadvertently creating systems in the natural world that mimic evolutionary and biological systems - that the emergent forces of the mind and society are automatically following the very same patterns that selected them. Or perhaps even being forced into that range of development through a limit of range of the function leaving development what is only a handful of viable options. Obversely, we're given the same challenges as any other organism: for example signalling - at first we've a very slow inaccurate system kin to chemical messengers, it's improved upon us, and quite suddenly we've the telegraph and the telephone, it's improved further with coaxial transport. Perhaps we've even improved on the system with the use of light. I do suppose though there is some research in biology that points to quantum phenomena being leveraged by organisms. I don't know that this conception is applicable practically - you won't be able to do anything other than project the trends of evolution of society and probably quite badly but it is interesting food for thought.

Modeling cities as 'cellular' is a common mistake, well explored in A City is not a Tree by Christopher Alexander.


tl;dr we tend to talk about cities in heirarchical, enclosed terms, as having "limits", "neighborhoods", "blocks", "plots", and so on. This can be modeled as a tree, in the maths and computer science sense.

But it's more accurate to model these systems as semilattices. Thus a city isn't multicellular (the cells being the enclosed units of the tree model) nor super-cells (which sort of punts on the internal structure, while still enclosing the city in a sort of membrane which even a walled city doesn't resemble), but a thing distinctly itself.

A semi-lattice structure does not preclude cells. The human body is not a tree.

For those interested in mathematical approaches to architecture and spatial systems I recommend the research work and books of James Hillier and Julienne Hanson:

Social Logic of Space, Hillier & Hanson https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/social-logic-of-space/6...

Butbutbut we have limbs, some people are true to their roots, and branch out. Okay, fine, I'll put the Texas Chainsaw Massacre implement down. Let's self out.

> But it's more accurate to model these systems as semilattices.

That's the first time I've seen order theory used to describe hierarchical structures like a city. Continuing the analogy, what would the join of a nonempty finite subset of parts of a city be? Say the set was an apartment block, road and grocery store, would the join of all these concepts be the "local neighborhood" that makes up part of a town?

It feels to me this analogy is rather weak. Presumably, the point of semilattice (compared to tree) is that the hierarchy is not top-down but can have branches up and down. I'd say the algebraic structure of joins and meets is not really natural here… it's just some form of graph.

Open to counter-arguments though!

Are you arguing that the model proposed by the essay does not describe a semilattice? Or that the model proposed does not describe cities well?

I was (without any better argument than my intuition) arguing that the sentence “But it's more accurate to model these systems as semilattices.” sounds weak to me. I was not making a point on the article, but only on this specific idea.

My feeling is that it's not really fruitful to describe "real life" phenomena in terms of abstract algebraic mathematical structures. It's more of a gut feeling than anything else, but I think there are two points that one can make here:

* Generally, it's better to first observe a phenomenon, understand it, and try to find a good vocabulary for it, mathematical or otherwise, rather than take an out-of-the-box fancy sounding math concept and try to make it fit your phenomenon.

* It seems as soon as you try to describe a phenomenon with an algebraic object, you'll soon get stuck trying to make sense of your functions/axioms: what's the meet? what's the join, is there a bottom element, etc. If you rather work with a more “geometric” notion (graphs, metric spaces,…) you don't have as many things to match, and you can focus on studying your objects.

To be clear, I don't have any strong point here, it's mostly gut feeling/rumblings.

> My feeling is that it's not really fruitful to describe "real life" phenomena in terms of abstract algebraic mathematical structures

I disagree, however I don't think you're enterily wrong. We just need a physical theory to bridge the abstract mathematics with the real world. as a starting point it occurs to me to wonder what does throwing a ball have to do with F = ma

also, the whole point of math is to do everything with such a level of abstraction that you can apply the abstractions to many things.

> we tend to talk about cities in heirarchical, enclosed terms, as having "limits",

Which is funny in a way, because people involved in the city-making business (for lack of a better term) have tried to do just that (i.e. imposing city limits) for centuries (at least).

The medieval city walls are a prime example of that, with anything that stood behind the walls treated as being part of the city and everything that was outside the walls seen as non-city, with non-city dwellers many times being required not to spend the night inside the city walls.

More recently, just the other day I was reading a transcript from a Romanian Communist party meeting from the late 1980s where the Romanian dictator Ceausescu (I'm Romanian and live in Romania myself) was complaining that cities have been let to grow indefinitely and with impunity, without respecting the city limits that had been set in law.

So you've got a late 20th communist dictator and Middle-Age burghers all trying to delay what I personally see as inevitable, i.e. the extension of the city by all means possible.

A little OT, but imo slightly related to this, there was a urban theory that was regarding as "proper" cities only those places with clear limits, for example the European Middle-Age towns, while the places with no clear limits set (many of those places located in the present Middle-Eastern Countries or in Northern Africa) were most of the times seen as "bigger villages", not as proper cities/towns. That was kind of a orientalistic/colonizing way of looking at things which I think stood behind the late 19th-most of the 20th century effort to make those Middle-Eastern cities look like their Western counter-parts, i.e. with clear limits set and with a clearer and more easily readable road structure.

So more like cancer?

Not sure how this differs from Christaller's central place theory of the 1930s except the nomenclature relies on a trendy modern borrow from bioengineering.

Perhaps the authors spent more time tuning the AI they used to write the article than studying the fundamentals of urban geography?

I will have to read this. My hope is when i do read there is some stuff in about exploitation. I tend to see exploitative systems kind of like cancer. Many exploitative systems can exist in cities. I wonder if they have made space in the study for studying exploitative practices and reconcentration over time of the products of public effort and how much the networks produced and reproduced end up actually benefiting society, or how much more society could benefit (with different amounts of exploitation) if the system was reorganized in different ways.

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