This morning I had the opportunity to hear presentations on some of the projects being pursued by the Baltimore Ecosystem Study, which is part of the NSF’s Long Term Ecological Research Network. It was a very interesting morning, with presentations from a wide (relatively speaking) variety of fields.

In the broadest sense, there were two major groups present, urban planners and ecologists. The hope is that much will come out of the intersection of the two fields, and I think that will be the case, since cities and civilization have a lot in common with living organisms and systems thereof.

To name just one of those commonalities, both cities and ecosystems are phenomenally complex. Some of the discussion this morning was about integrating the two systems — thinking of a city and its surroundings as an ecological system. Urban planners, of course, would take on the planning of not one but two complex systems. There was even mention of planned ecosystems.

It’s fun to think about this happening. But one of the thoughts that kept creeping into my mind was how hard it is to plan for the behavior of a non-linear system like an ecosystem or a city (or both together) and to get it to do what you want it to do or what you think it “should” do.

An explanation of the title of the post is below.I also thought of another extremely complex, non-linear system: the world economy and the economic decision making of about 6 billion individuals. Last week I posted on the connection between ecologists and economists.

However, today’s presentations have, besides other things, convinced me that we’ve got to connect all three. There was some discussion of economics this morning, but not a whole lot. The spectacular failure of central planning in one of the three fields would lead me to believe that it’s pretty fruitless to pursue in the other two.

Maybe my analogy is bunk, or maybe just oversimplified. Even if it’s true, I’m not saying that urban planners would be out of a job, just that they could benefit from the lesson of economics, as well as the ordered disorder of squatter cities.  

Squatter cities are a post in their own right, which I plan to get to soon. (And yes, I realize that I have now promised two posts without following through after yesterday’s pledge to prognosticate on the perks of New Urbanism.)