Philosophical Society of Washington

Minutes of the 2051st Meeting


Speaker: James Trefil, Department of Physics, George Mason University
Topic: “Science and the Future of Cities”

The President Mr. Ohlmacher called the 2051st meeting to order at 8:25 p.m. on December 1, 1995. The Recording Secretary read the minutes of the 2050th meeting and they were approved. The President then read a portion of the minutes of the 443rd meeting December 6, 1895.

The President introduced Mr. James Trefil, Clarence J. Robinson Professor of Physics at George Mason University to discuss “Science and the Future of Cities”.


Mr. Trefil began by observing that in no city, particularly Washington, is there somebody who is really in charge, no one person who really makes things happen. When America was settled, small groups built on the edge of a continental wilderness; the cities, small as they were, were refuges of safety. But to Jefferson who had traveled in Europe, the city was not a place of safety but the place of the mob. At the start of the Romantic Movement, he thought of the wilderness as good, and in designing his university he sought to improve the lives of young people by removing them from the “evil” and unnatural cities and putting them closer to nature. Cities are still demonized as places of corruption. A city is no more unnatural than a beaver dam. They are another type of ecosystem among the many found on this planet. For example, any animal that can thrive on cliff habitats with detritis food sources can thrive with man in cities, as pigeons, peregrin falcons have done. Other animals that have done well in these man-made ecosystems are those that thrive in the wild at forest-field boundaries or on grazing fields similar to suburban lawns. There are probably more deer in North America now than when Columbus arrived.

It is technology that made cities possible and determined what kind of cities man was able to build. It is science and technology that drive change and development in cities. And the advent of another technological revolution — an information revolution — will undoubtedly shape the city of the future, if there is one. How the city of today developed has been determined by man's ability to manipulate atoms, making and designing new materials, to manipulate energy, making it and moving it to where it could do useful work, and to manipulate information.

Thoughout history, the technology man had at his disposal determined the kind of structures he built in his cities. The first buildings were probably natural plant and animal materials and were not much higher than the people who lived in them. With wood-working technology, the tallest buildings could be about 3 stories (9 m) high. Masonry is can withstand compression forces than wood, but it still cannot withstand shear forces well. The maximum height of brick buildings is about 5 stories (15 m) and the maximum height of vertical wall, stone masonry buildings is about 15 stories (45 m), the height of the tallest medieval cathedrals. Steel is able to withstand both compression and shear forces better than masonry, and after the introduction of the Bessemer large enough quantities of steel could be made to be used in building construction. After the fire of 1871, Chicago was rebuilt in stone until 1895 when the first steel building was constructed in Chicago. Now there is more steel in one modern skyscraper than there was in all of the Roman Empire.

If the technology of material manipulation has determined what kind of cities man could build, it was the tchnology of energy manipulation that determined the where they were located and how they grew. For most of history the primary energy source of man was muscle, either his own or that of animals. Even when the first steel and glass building, the Crystal Palace, was constructed, it was put up not with steam engines, technology then 75 years old, but with muscle power. Although steam energy provides a greater concentration of power and better economy than muscle, its use was limited because it generally had to be used at the point of production. With the introduction of electric power transmission, the site of power generation could be far removed from the site of consumption. San Francisco had the first public electric generator, and New York City's Pearl Street Station was next in 1888. Electric street cars were the first principal consumers of this power. Suburbs like Washington's Glen Echo and Chevy Chase began to grow like fingers along the electric trolley lines. And then with cars, the cities began to grow in concentric rings. Not all development proceeded everywhere in the same way however. In most of the US the rich and middle class moved to the suburbs and commuted into the city, causing an intensification of urban slums. In Europe almost the opposite happened; the rich stayed in their townhouses and the poor were forced into suburban slums.

The popular conception of the city as a central core of tall buildings surrounded by leafy suburbs is very different from reality. Cities are centers of commerce and business driven by information, so cities can be described as networks for generating and moving information. Until recently the size of cities was approximately limited by how long it could take someone to cross it to exchange information and do business. Trolleys and then cars increased personal mobility and vastly increased the size of cities, like Los Angeles. Now electricity permits the unlimited transmission of information, and the information can be moved without moving the people. About 30f the American workforce telecommutes; by 2010 it is estimated 40% will. The centralization of cities is no longer necessary to conduct business and high-rise buildings are no longer necessary or even economically advantageous. The Sears tower was sold and the company moved to suburban locations. A more serious problem is that centralized cities are more prone to catastrophic failures, and such failures are likely have a greater economic impact and endanger more lives.

Our concerns now should be to make our unplanned city more safe, habitable and comfortable. Will there be cities in the future? People live in cities now because they have to; if there are to be cities in the future, it will have to be because people want to live there.



Mr. Trefil kindly answered questions from the audience. The President thanked the speaker on behalf of the Society, introduced one new member, announced the speaker for the next meeting, restated the parking policy, and adjourned the 2051st meeting at 9:45 p.m.

Attendance:51
Temperature:13.9°C
Weather:partly cloudy

Respectfully submitted,
 
John S. Garavelli
Recording Secretary


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