Everyday entropy: urban necrosis

apoptosis and necrosis

“Apoptosis exhibits peculiar morphological traits, including pseudopod retraction, the rounding up of cells, decreased cellular volume (pyknosis), chromatin condensation and nuclear fragmentation (karyorrhexis), blebbing of the intact plasma membrane, shedding of vacuoles containing cytoplasmic portions and apparently unchanged organelles (known as apoptotic bodies), and the in vivo uptake of apoptotic corpses by neighbouring cells or professional phagocytes (see the figure, part a)

Necrotic cells exhibit some common morphological features, including an increasingly translucent cytoplasm, swelling of organelles, minor ultrastructural modifications of the nucleus (specifically, dilatation of the nuclear membrane and condensation of chromatin into small, irregular, circumscribed patches) and increased cell volume (oncosis), culminating in the disruption of the plasma membrane (see the figure, part b). Necrotic cells do not fragment into discrete corpses as their apoptotic counterparts do. Moreover, their nuclei remain intact and can aggregate and accumulate in necrotic tissues.”


Urban necrosis in Toronto

A cell is like a city, and a city is like a cell.  For the vast majority of cities, the automobile caused something akin to cell necrosis, the disorderly disintegration of the infrastructure and the loss of functional connectivity.  There is a significant move to repopulate the urban core, but the cost of city property is now so high that the new urbanism is more like a resort than a functional urban core, with “workers” carted in from suburban slums.  It will take more than gentrification to reverse the necrosis.

We all know that cities should look like downtown and the countryside should look like either farmland or meadow or forest.  So why does everything, from the city center to the farthest exurb, look the same, with a bit of meadow, a tree, a house on a plot surrounded by a ridiculously ineffective fence?  This process looks just like entropy and cell necrosis.  Pent-up potential seeks resolution, so people packed into tight spaces adjacent to open spaces will spread into the open space, and landowners with space will exploit the differential in demand to profit off the conversion.  But once the conversion from country to suburban housing is complete, what’s left is less efficient and less energetic.  Now people need to travel further to work, food and water need to travel further to find consumers, and the energy potential of high-density next to low density is lost. High-density development reduces energy consumption for heating and cooling as well transportation.

But it’s hard to go back.  The city only works if it contains a significant amount of unimproved or at least un-mechanised space.  City planners tend to be wealthy enough that they have country retreats, so they see no need to waste city space on parks when there is so much profit in development, but the parks make the city liveable, which in turn makes the remaining property many times more valuable.  City space without parkland quickly degenerates into slum because people with money will not live there.  Look at a map.  The rich neighbourhoods have parks, the slums don’t, and no amount of education or urban renewal will change that.  Anxiety is overwhelming if you can’t get away from everybody for at least a few hours every week, which may explain why schizophrenia rates double in cities.

If you look at the election map of France for 2017, you can see that city people are moderate and humane, while the suburbs are dominated by antisocial isolationists.  People who can handle city life reap the benefits.  It is tempting to view this as the difference between urban and rural, but only 3 percent of French people are farmers, so those vast swaths of non-city land are essentially suburb, full of people with urban jobs and urban shopping habits who are trying to avoid other people, but failing because there are people everywhere.  This failure, a fundamental misunderstanding of space and time, is eroding European civilisation as well as the cities from which it emerged.

NY Times french election map

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