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Evolution in Urban Development: Planning, Control Memes and Competition for Space

elly's picture

Elly Leman


WebPaper #2

Due March 14, 2011


Evolution in Urban Development

Planning, Control Memes and Competition for Space


As a Growth and Structure of Cities major here at Bryn Mawr, I tend to think of many theories in terms of their relevance to the built environment and the patterns of the growth in our nation’s cities. I believe that Darwin and Dennett’s ideas offer much insight into these patterns, specifically with Darwin’s ideas of evolution in terms of differential reproductive success and random variation, where reproductive success represents the economic success and therefore size of the city, and random variation accounting for cases where seemingly random occurrences, perhaps due to cultural factors may cause the decline or success of a city, e.g. Detroit, and as stated here by D. R. Stoddart from his article Darwin’s Impact on Geography, “…[a] theme in Darwin's writings, the random nature of original variations, was ignored by geographers until recently.” (D. R. Stoddart, 1966)

      Whereas Dennett’s idea of the cultural meme comes into play when considering the topic discussed in AnnaP’s webpaper of control memes,  or harmful cultural memes which can “marginalize and maintain the status quo” which may result in segregation and separation of certain cultural groups within a city. Furthermore, each of these culturally or racially defined pieces of the city are constantly in competition for space, and within this better real estate, school systems etc., which returns us to Darwin and his discussion of competition, “The themes of selection and struggle were deterministically applied in both human and political geography.” (D. R. Stoddart, 1966)

When attempting to plan a city, planners search for an ideal design that will fit all cities and be the perfect formula for the future of our urban environment. However, this is impossible as there is no one concrete truth or definition for the perfect city; it all depends on the story behind each specific city and the individual stories of those who inhabit it. Just as it seems incredibly difficult to create an algorithm that would allow a computer to learn and develop as a human can, it would be impossible to create an algorithm to account for all possible development within cities because evolutionary change is really boiled down to random variation.

Despite this, humans tend to believe that they have more agency than they actually do and attempt to influence the development of a city as much as possible. They may tear down Cabrini Green in Chicago because of the rampant crime and violence, but destroying the buildings will not change the deeper issues behind the area, and the stories of the people who lived in the housing project. There are harmful cultural memes, or control memes, as AnnaP discusses through her reference to, which affect our perceptions of the area despite how unbiased the people of the city, and the people making decisions, may claim to be. “While these examples seem relatively harmless (referencing her earlier ‘catchy songs and Mozart’ example), I started realizing how alarming this idea really was; what about racist and sexist cultural memes?” (AnnaP, 2011)

This quote from an article on the evolution of cities from ScienceDaily by Professor Batty, a scholar in urban studies states the complexity of city systems quite well: “Cities are the example par excellence of complex systems: emergent, far from equilibrium, requiring enormous energies to maintain themselves, displaying patterns of inequality spawned through agglomeration and intense competition for space…” (ScienceDaily, 2008) He implies here that there is an order and pattern to cities, but these patterns are not equal across all cities, but rather rely on the specific influence of their environment, the competition for space amongst their residents (which is influenced by cultural memes), and therefore you cannot impose an overarching idealized plan on all cities.

“Idealized cities are simply too naïve with respect to the workings of the development process, and competition for the use of space that characterizes the contemporary city and the degree of diversity and heterogeneity that the most vibrant cities manifest.” (ScienceDaily 2008) Competition for the use of space within a city is similar to the competition for resources and food, and therefore survival and differential reproductive success, referenced in The Origin of Species.

      Survival in a city seems to depend, as described by the cultural norms set up by our society, on the purchase of a house, the ability to send your children to a good school, and the acquisition of a monetarily impressive job, or the meme of the American Dream.

The impacts of climate change, the quest for better performance, and the seemingly intractable problems of ethnic segregation and deprivation due to failures in job and housing markets can all be informed by a science that links size to scale and shape through information and material and social networks that constitute the essential functioning of cities. (ScienceDaily, 2008)


We have created environments for ourselves which no longer require us to hunt and gather to survive, but are the new “requirements” set up by our imposed cultural ideals and “control memes” (which are only furthered by typical planning attitudes) the new definition of being “fit?”










AnnaP. “’Changing the Story’: Using Memes for Social Change” Serendip Bryn Mawr College: 

      Evolution of Stories 2011. </exchange/node/9500>.


University College London. "Theory Of Evolution Of Cities Links Science, Fractal Geometry. 

      "ScienceDaily 21 February 2008. < /releases/2008/02/080215211940.htm>.


Stoddart, D. R. “Darwin’s Impact on Geography.” Annals of the Association of American 

      Geographers 1966: 56.4, 683-698.



Paul Grobstein's picture

evolution and cities

 The contrast between thinking of cities as "planned" (ideally or otherwise) and thinking of them as the resultants of an evolutionary process involving random change and differential survival of lots of different elements is one that helps to highlight unique features of the evolutionary perspective that may be relevant beyond their origins in biology.  Jane Jacobs was one of the first to call attention to these parallels and issues.