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Looking at Cities as Molecular Structures

Matt Ball on July 21, 2014 - in Analysis, Planning, Smart Cities

Franz-Josef Ulm, an engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has built a career as an expert on the properties, patterns, and environmental potential of concrete. Taking a coffee break at MIT’s Stata Center late one afternoon, he and a colleague were looking at a large aerial photograph of a city when they had a “eureka” moment: “Hey, doesn’t that look like a molecular structure?”

With colleagues, Ulm began analyzing cities the way you’d analyze a material, looking at factors such as the arrangement of buildings, each building’s center of mass, and how they’re ordered around each other. They concluded that cities could be grouped into categories: Boston’s structure, for example, looks a lot like an “amorphous liquid.” Seattle is another liquid, and so is Los Angeles. Chicago, which was designed on a grid, looks like glass, he says; New York resembles a highly ordered crystal.

So far Ulm and his fellow researchers have presented their work at conferences, but it has not yet been published in a scientific journal. If the analogy does hold up, Ulm hopes it will give planners a new tool to understand a city’s structure, its energy use, and possibly even its resilience to climate change.

Read more in the Boston Globe

About Matt Ball

Matt Ball is founder and editorial director of V1 Media, publisher of Informed Infrastructure, Earth Imaging Journal, Sensors & Systems, Asian Surveying & Mapping and the video news site GeoSpatial Stream.

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