Urban planners and city leaders look for a new framework to think about sustainable transport that promotes accessibility over mobility. Photo by Trevor Pritchard/Flickr.

Urban planners and city leaders look for a new framework to think about sustainable transport that promotes accessibility over mobility. Photo by Trevor Pritchard/Flickr.

Being able to use a bus to travel ten miles to a super market is not the same as having a grocery store around the corner. Mobility, even sustainable mobility, is not the same as access. In order to create accessibility in cities, urban planners and city leaders are still trying to find new ways to think about how sustainable transport systems fit into the larger development of the city. The field of Ekistics might just provide that framework.

Ekistics used to be a highly theoretical field that dealt with the entirety of human settlement through the study of five interconnected systems: nature, man, society, shell, and network. It is often seen as the philosophic side of studying human settlements, whereas urban planning is the application of these principles in the development of cities. However, software programs like Adobe, AutoCAD, and ARCGIS that allow planners and designers to model how a new subway line will impact congestion, or how a road will impact rain water runoff, have allowed Ekistics to drastically morph in the past few years into a far more scientific study of the complex systems at work in urban environments. This emerging field is already proving to be useful to real estate agencies but might also prove useful to urban planners as they deal with intricate systems of land use, zoning, transport, environment, and economics and create cities that boast the less tangible components of accessibility, safety, sustainability, and a sense of community.

Ekistics 101: A systems approach to understanding cities

Constantinos Apostolous Doxiadis, a Greek urban planner in the 1960s, came up with the concept of Ekistics in the search to create a new paradigm for urban planning that could simultaneously deal with the scale of cities and people’s desire for close-knit communities. He rose to prominence as the lead architect of Islamabad, Pakistan, which was built on the ambitious plan to allow for easy access to low-cost public transport and growth by the addition of small neighborhoods. Although only a small number of people directly carry on his work, many of his ideas, like ecumenopolis – the idea of several cities merging into one mega-city – or global city – one that is a node in the global economic system – are both ideas that still surface in contemporary discussions of urban theory.

What Doxiadis gave to urban planners was the idea that cities were composed of many interconnected systems. In today’s world, with professional fields in Systems Engineering and degrees in Information Systems, this might not sound unusual. However, in the 1960s urban planning was highly influenced by architecture and civil engineering, which sought to codify solutions to urban problems and solve them through urban design. This type of thinking brought about large apartment complexes that separated people from the city’s street life and six-lane highways that created more demand for cars and exacerbated congestion. Doxiadis believed that the beauty of cities existed in the complicated interactions between people and place, and demanded knowing the social sciences, anthropometrics – the study of human physical variation across populations – and economics that influenced these inter-relations.

Cities grapple with increasingly complex problems

Today, as urban planners and city leaders are facing the range of challenges presented by a rapidly urbanizing world, they need new sets of methodologies to approach these problems. Seeing transport not as an independent variable, but as a component of systems of land use, economic development, ecology, and health, and developing policies that move forward these multiple goals, is a strong start.

Digging deeper into far-reaching solutions as opposed self-evident ‘fixes’ is another component in creating this new kind of thinking. This means instead of tackling congestion by creating wider roads (the obvious solution), planners need to look deeper into the systems that create this problem, like zoning that creates sprawl, an insufficient number of services near housing, or a work day that demands heavy traffic at two major times of the day. Although changing the zoning structure of an entire city or changing the structure of the work place is likely impossible for even a handful of planners to accomplish, understanding how one bike lane impedes or supports a larger goal of accessibility can help move the entire system in the right direction.

Shift from “standard of living” to “quality of life”

Another way to think of this is that Ekistics asks the why before the what. Finding the complex answers to questions like which services people want close to them and what kind of interactions people want to have will likely be painstakingly difficult. However, people have found out that a car does not alone give them freedom, and a house in the suburbs does not alone give them community. Houses and cars are things, the easy solution. Asking people what kind of connections they want with the world around them is a much harder question. But as urban planners are seeing that mobility is not the same as access, perhaps with an understanding of Ekistics, they can move transport policy towards the right answer to these vital questions.