- How did the Human Genome project inspire you to create the Urban Genome working group?
The phrase "urban genome" goes back to conversations that I had with Richard Florida, back when the notion of a School of Cities was just a glimmer in somebody's eyes. We were talking about exciting new directions in urban studies, and somehow that phrase came out of it, reflecting a sort of multidisciplinary effort to try to get at the basic kinds of information that is encoded in the city. It became one of those things that we thought we would have a chance to pursue with the School of Cities. So, it started there, the idea of bringing together people from different disciplines to try to bring expertise to map out the basic features of this domain. As our actual project evolved, we moved away from the genome as the key metaphor, and it is much more now about the question of urban evolution.
- What does building a "science of cities" involve?
There is a very interesting and long history of dialogue between social sciences and biology that goes back to the foundation of urban sociology within the Chicago school of sociology and with the concept of human ecology. But in recent years, I think it had somewhat stagnated. We wondered how the work towards a science of cities could be advanced if we took on the key features of Darwinian evolution. The key components of that are variation, selection, and inheritance. Variation is about where variants in the urban form come from. For example, maybe somebody's trying out a new balcony form, or people are immigrating from one place to another and bringing different ideas with them. Selection is related to how much the ideas stick. If we're talking about urban evolution, selection means, say, for a business, do they survive? Or, when introducing a new type of balcony, does it get approved in the zoning codes? Inheritance is about whether, once something is selected, does it get passed along? In biology, that's reproduction, like I've got traits encoded in my DNA, and then those are passed on to my kids. So those are the three key components, variation, selection, and retention, and then we try to build up a theory and different studies around that.
- Which disciplines are involved? How did you determine which disciplines should be included? Are there others you would like to include?
In the core members, we have sociology and engineering. And we've had people who are more or less involved in various ways from across many disciplines. We've had engineering, architecture, geography, economics, computer science, among others. We've also had evolution, evolutionary biology, and ecology.
I think there are lots of great chances to involve other fields like anthropology and archaeology. In those fields, you have people who study evolution of early human civilizations, artifacts and things like that. They have really thought a lot about how to adapt evolutionary concepts to the study of human culture, and both the concepts and the methods have gotten very advanced. It would be great to get them involved too.
- How has the affiliation with the School of Cities facilitated this project?
The School of Cities was instrumental to the idea that research wouldn't necessarily be oriented towards a short-term payoff. To me, that was really important. It's a challenge for these kinds of projects. They allow you to exchange perspectives, but it's hard to establish a common language. Once you do that, and you try to start publishing, it's hard because every field has its own things that it's interested in at that moment. The interdisciplinary emphasis is really great if people are willing to take that step, but it's not easy, and it needs time.
- Have you had consultations or engagements with practicing planners and policy advisors? How are they responding to your work so far? How are they contributing?
One of our projects was to create the online interface, Piccard, that visualizes the long-term changes in neighbourhoods in Canadian and U.S. cities. We went out to some practitioners and got their feedback on it, and that was really useful. Then on the basis of that, I've been working with a colleague, Zack Taylor, at Western. We're hoping to do something with Social Planning Toronto because they were very interested in the visualization. We showed it to them, and they were very enthusiastic because they want to have the ability to see how any part of the city is now in its current state, and in the context of its long-run trajectory. That's very important to them, thinking about heritage and the history of an area. They have data available for that right now, but it doesn't go back longer than 1991 or so, and it's not in an easily accessible format even beyond that. What we're trying to do is take the interface and then make it something useful, a workable tool. I don't think it's completely a done deal, but it's close to being done.
- How would you apply the urban genome concept to complex, current urban issues – like pandemic recovery?
I don't think we know how it's going to go because there are going to be changes to cities, but it's going to happen within a context of the template that's already there. So that's where that DNA idea is going to come in. There's never a blank slate. It's going to be an adaptation of what's there beforehand.