Summer Reading
Aug 25, 2013
4 minutes read

Last week @elsatch asked his twitter friends for reading tips for his vacation. I’m only guessing he was taking a break as many tourists have returned home by now… I made a recommendation then but wish to complement it in this post with two books which are relevant to us living in cities. I know César is an active citizen cofounder of Makespace Madrid and suspect he would find these books more relevant.

Maker spaces are innovation places regularly involved in designing sensing instruments for use in urban activities. Understanding how cities work is definitely helpful. Considering all the efforts in making our cities smarter and my own interest in citizen sensing, I figured I could benefit from insights into various aspects of our lives in cities and their infrastructures. Below is a brief write-up.

The Works: Anatomy Of A City

Written by Kate Ascher and published by Penguin in 2005, this book provides an overview of infrastructure systems grouped as follows:

  • moving people - streets, subway, bridges & tunnels
  • moving freight - rail, maritime freight, air cargo and markets
  • power - electricity, natural gas, steam
  • communications - telephone, moving the mail, airwaves
  • keeping it clean - water, sewage, garbage

This will give you a sense of the city as system of systems, an expression often used by IBM in its Smarter Cities program. The illustrations are abundant and provide a clear overview of what’s going on. I learned about street repairs and other the street defects beyond the pothole that is often mentioned in 311 online apps. These include ponding, cracked manhole covers, sinkholes, old utility cuts, hummocks, misaligned street hardware or open street cuts. The book focuses on New York which is where the author gained her experience. Trees planted in the city’s right-of-way become its property after one year. Citizens can green their city by filling out a street tree request form, visit the parks department’s one-stop tree shop or obtaining a permit for planting it themselves.

Section after section, you’ll notice the common pattern of more-or-less packetized displacement of resources through specially designed routes. Flows of cars or trucks through streets, subway cars or freight boxcars on rails, watts of electricity through wires, cubic feet of gas through pipes, or gallons of water through high-pressure mains. That’s many flows to manage. With all the citizen sensing projects addressing one or the other aspect of the city through participation, this book is a nice addition to a maker space bookshelf as a quick introduction to the many fascinating aspects of infrastructure that we take for granted.

X And The City

Written by John Adam and published by Princeton University Press is a different kind of book. It’s written by a physicist using the language of mathematics to make some sense of various aspects of our lives in cities. Calculus and formulas are relatively simple if you’re not allergic to algebra. Adam will suggest simple models to estimate for example:

  • the number of facilities in a city of size N
  • how many tomatoes are consumed by city-dwellers each year
  • how to compare a corridor system and network system of public transportation
  • relations between vehicle acceleration and noise for traffic engineering
  • the maximum flow rate of vehicles to allow children crossing the street when leaving school
  • how fast a traffic line increases when it is stationary
  • population growth
  • size of the city
  • the maximum concentration of a pollutant emitted by a point source

The appendices provide additional material on certain tools applied throughout the book. It’s also one of those books that lets you pick a chapter and explore its ideas without the need to go from cover to cover. Mathematics and the art of modeling phenomena is something physicists do very well and we can all learn from.

These were a couple of representative summer readings I wanted to share with you on this blog and with César as candidates for his reading list.


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