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Urban Physics

March 21, 2016

Cities are complex environments. Planning interventions that borrow principles from theoretical physics could help to improve peoples' lives. Cities comprise large numbers of people, and the many ecological, cultural, social and economic entities that make up their environment. All these factors interact in time and space to form complex systems that constantly evolve in response to changes in climate, environment and people. 

As physicist and Nobel laureate Philip W. Anderson proposed complexity theory in his 1972 article "More is Different" in an effort to understand the "shift from quantitative to qualitative differentiation" in his discipline of many-body physics. The behavior of complex aggregates of elementary particles such as the atomic nucleus could not be understood solely in terms of the properties of their individual components. Instead, at each level of complexity entirely new properties appear, and each level of understanding requires a new conceptual structure.

The same is true of cities. As one expands from the perspective of an individual urban dweller to the neighborhood or town level, new interactions emerge and the complexity of the network increases. Complex systems such as cities are alive with feedback loops. Th effects of an intervention in one area can produce changes in another, which can, in turn, either amplify or oppose the original intervention. By identifying the interactions within urban systems, it is hoped that real-world policy can be changed to improve the health of cities. Threats to urban health and well-being span disciplinary boundaries, and systems thinking offers a tool by which these boundaries can be bridged, says Franz Gatzweiler, director of the ICSU Urban Health and Well-Being Programme. Read more here.


Pollock, Kevin. 2016. Policy: Urban Physics. Nature 531 (7594): S64–66. 

Anderson, P. W. 1972. “More Is Different.” Science 177 (4047): 393–96. 

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