Ant Hills = Brains = Cities


In Godel Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Douglas Hofstadter famously likened human brains to ant colonies.

Achilles: …but what is far more perplexing is all this talk about having conversations with ant colonies. That's impossible. An ant colony is simply a bunch of individual ants running around at random looking for food and making a nest.

Anteater: You could put it that way if you want to insist on seeing the trees but missing the forest, Achilles. In fact, ant colonies, seen as wholes, are quite well-defined units, with their own qualities, at times including the mastery of language….

Tortoise: It seems to me that the situation is not unlike the composition of a human brain out of neurons. Certainly no one would insist that individual brain cells have to be intelligent beings on their own, in order to explain the fact that person can have an intelligent conversation.

Now researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are arguing that cities are like brains:

Just as advanced mammalian brains require a robust neural network to achieve richer and more complex thought, large cities require advanced highways and transportation systems to allow larger and more productive populations. The new study unearthed a striking similarity in how larger brains and cities deal with the difficult problem of maintaining sufficient interconnectedness.

"Natural selection has passively guided the evolution of mammalian brains throughout time, just as politicians and entrepreneurs have indirectly shaped the organization of cities large and small," said Mark Changizi, a neurobiology expert and assistant professor in the Department of Cognitive Science at Rensselaer, who led the study. "It seems both of these invisible hands have arrived at a similar conclusion: brains and cities, as they grow larger, have to be similarly densely interconnected to function optimally."

But, of course, sometimes the "invisible hands" that passively grow livable cities are smacked aside and the all-too-visible hands of planners manufacture urban horrors like Brasilia.

The capital of Brazil was designed in the shape of an airplane because the then-president thought airplanes symbolized modernity. In the design, the Congress, the Presidential Palace, and the Cathedral are all near the "cockpit" and the military headquarters are consigned to the "tail." The residents get to live in "superblocks" in the "wings."

In 2001, Reason interviewed urbanist Jane Jacobs, author of the seminal The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  From the interview intro:

… when her masterpiece The Death and Life of Great American Cities was first published, she was assaulting—and shattering—the fundamental tenets of urban planning.

That book was part literature, part journalism, and part sociology; it looked at cities from the sidewalks and street-corners up, not from the Ivory Tower down. Healthy cities, Jacobs argued, are organic, messy, spontaneous, and serendipitous. They thrive on economic, architectural, and human diversity, on dense populations and mixed land uses—not on orderly redevelopment plans that replaced whole neighborhoods with concrete office parks and plazas in the name of slum clearance or city beautification.

Whole Jacobs interview can be found here. Go here for a look at my colleague Jesse Walker's trenchant analysis of Brasilia's flaws. And finally, see the Rensselaer press release detailing the new research here.