The Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis


CASA Working Paper 202

3 August 2015

Cities in Disequilibrium

Our perceptions of cities until quite recently were that they were largely stable in spatial structure over long periods of time, decades, even centuries, and that this suggested that they were in equilibrium. Cities appeared similar from generation to generation and although there were superficial changes due to fashion and technology, their overall structures were unchanging. To a large extent, this view of cities in equilibrium is borne of thinking about them physically but as soon as we unpack their dynamics, we realise that this a superficial perception. Cities are always in disequilibrium. They are in fact far-from‐equilibrium being maintained in statis through a tension of many countervailing forces that break down and build up on many different spatial and temporal scales, thus all coalescing in strong volatility and heterogeneity in urban form and function. Here we first review the concept of equilibrium and dynamics, and then we introduce ideas about discontinuity drawing on ideas from catastrophe and chaos theory. We argue that we should think of cities as being far‐from-equilibrium structures and allude to ideas about innovation and technological change that condition their dynamic entirely. Our conclusion is that what happens in cities is increasingly

disconnected from their physical form and this is particularly the case in the contemporary world where changes to the built environment are ever out‐of-sync with changes in human

behaviours, activity locations, patterns of movement, and globalisation.

Author: Michael Batty

Publication date: 3 August 2015

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