Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What is a Metacity?

Metacity: Beyond Mere Size
Hong Kong. Copyright Brian McGrath.
The term “metacity” was introduced by the United Nations as a way to capture the increasing size of the largest urban aggregations on the planet.  Previously, the term “megacity” had been the largest category of city, referring to any urban area comprising more than 10 million people.  With a number of cities, such as Mexico City, Tokyo, Lagos, breaking the ceiling of 20 million inhabitants, UN Habitat chose to introduce a new term.  The sequence of city size classes now includes city at the lower end, grading through increasing sizes of metropolis, megacity or hypercity, with metacity representing the largest agglomeration.  

BES Co-PI Brian McGrath suggested that the emphasis on size of the city by this classification left much to be desired.  For example, the metacity category included such different cities as metropolitan New York and Lagos, Nigeria.  The first is a city with sanitary infrastructure, and long established control over the form and location of growth.  Lagos, on the other hand, like many huge cities in the Global south, is plagued by sprawling in-migration and lack of well developed sanitary infrastructure, among other constraints.  Lumping these cities together in terms of mere size fails to take account of the vast social and environmental differences that they exhibit.  

A Dynamic Concept for Urban Design
Shenzhen. Copyright Brian McGrath.
McGrath pointed out that a better use of the metacity concept was to highlight the dynamic and patchy changes that cities were experiencing.  If cities are considered to be complex spatial mosaics, reflecting spatially distinct changes in the buildings, infrastructure, human demography, and economic investment and activity, the idea of metacity could help focus on those things, not just mere size.  A dynamic, spatially patchy metacity could just as well be shrinking as a result of declining residential density or industrial activity, as it could be growing explosively in an unplanned manner.

Metacity as a Parallel between Ecology and Urban Design
HERCULES patch mosaic, Glyndon, Baltimore.
When McGrath introduced me to the metacity concept, and its dynamic refinements, I was immediately struck by the parallels with some “meta” terms in ecology.  Metapopulations and metacommunities are characterized not by size, but by being “systems of systems.”  A metapopulation is a collection of spatially discrete populations of a species that may periodically be linked by migration, exchange of genes, or sharing information.  Different populations in the collection can grow, shrink, or even go extinct relatively independently.  Similarly, a metacommunity is a collection of different species that is represented by spatially distinct patches.  Large, physically powerful disturbances are a cause of loss of different members of a collection of a particular kind of community.  Likewise, metacities can comprise patches that are changing as well as patches that are relatively stable.  The changing patches can be shifting in social or architectural composition, population density, access to transportation and other resources, and in many other ways.  Baltimore as a city-suburban-exurban system is surely a metacity, with growth, shrinkage, economic and demographic shifts occurring in different patches across the five county metropolitan area.  In other words, a metacity and various kinds of meta-ecology share important dynamic features.

So the metacity concept is an excellent way to link the concerns, theories, and activities of socio-ecological research with urban design and regional land use decisions.  This concept and its power as an integrative tool is explored in a new paper by McGrath and myself. If you want to have a look at the original publication, follow this link:


Saturday, October 8, 2011

Why Does BES Have Rules for Running Meetings?

There are two answers to this question.  First, a wise man, Prof. M. Gordon “Reds” Wolman, suggested at our first meeting that we needed some rules to guide how such meetings were conducted.  Reds, who died last year, was a famous and creative scientist, an accomplished administrator, and a leader in the Nation's scientific discourse.  I first met him when he chaired a committee of the National Research Council on human population and environment.  So when Reds suggested something, we knew to listen.

Second, we needed rules to be sure that all voices were heard during our meetings.  This idea reflects that discussions should be conceived of first as opportunities to listen, and only second as opportunities to talk.  But because this "golden rule" of meetings is rarely recognized, more operational rules are needed to ensure all voices are heard.  BES is a complicated organization, involving people who don’t work together all the time.  In fact the people who participate in BES represent a wide variety of cultures – ranging from academics, to government agencies, to community and non-governmental organizations.  At any given meeting of BES there are likely to be graduate students, middle school teachers, senior professors, municipal managers, community activists, and technicians present.  And this list doesn’t exhaust the roster.  Consequently, we needed rules to be sure that everybody knew that their ideas would be heard in the dialog.  This reason is what an evolutionary biologist would call the ultimate cause.  The fact that Reds Wolman suggested that we needed rules is what an evolutionary biologist would call a proximate cause.

So here are the rules we came up with at our first quarterly research meeting.  

1. Identify a leader for the discussion.  This is to ensure that someone is looking out for the discussion as an inclusive process.  This person is responsible for making sure the rest of the rules are followed.  His or her priorities are to be sure that all voices are heard, that no voice dominates, and that the discussion achieves its stated goals.  If a meeting is a long one, it is not necessary for the same leader to be responsible for the whole meeting.  Different leaders may be chosen for different time periods, or for different topics.  In identifying a leader, a useful corollary is to choose someone to take notes.  This person may also be responsible for reporting the key points of the discussion if it is a part of a larger meeting.  Don’t expect the leader to take notes.  He or she has enough to worry about in managing the discussion in a fair and transparent way.

2. Raise your hand to be recognized.  In order to participate in the discussion, people should raise their hands.  The leader should call on people in the order in which they raised their hands.  Exceptions can be made for a point of clarification about a comment that was just made by another speaker.  An exception is also possible if a person wants to respond to something that the last speaker has just said.  However, the leader is in charge, and can call people in order regardless of what their points pertain to.

3. There should only be one conversation at a time.  If people begin to have side conversations, the leader is empowered to halt them and refocus on the larger group.  If there is a need for breakout groups or subsets, the group can organize itself into smaller clusters for such conversations.  But in any meeting, or clustered discussion, there must be only one speaker at any one time.  If the leader calls for cessation of a side conversation, this must be respected.

4. Once you have been recognized, do not monopolize the floor.  Make your comments brief, or your question clear.  Do not talk just to hold the floor.   If people hold forth, the leader may reasonably ask them to come to their point so the discussion can move on.

5. Not all silence is bad.  Sometimes leaving a little space for people to consider a response, or to reflect on what’s going on is a good idea.

6. If the discussion is a long one, the leader should arrange for breaks for physiological comfort or for getting some fresh air.  If discussants need to take a break before the leader calls for one, people should feel free to either propose a break, or simply excuse themselves as need be.

7. The leader should call for at least one “two minute drill” as a summarizing tactic.  If the discussion is a very long one, say lasting a whole day, it may be appropriate to have two minute drills periodically.  A two minute drill ensures that even those who have not participated in the discussion before the two minute drill have a safe place to comment.  A two minute drill invites each person in the group to make a comment.  It can be a summary point, identification of an issue that was missed or under-emphasized, or a point of agreement or disagreement.  Basically, discussants can make any brief point that they wish.  It is important to keep these brief and focused, however.  The modifier “two minute” refers to the brevity of the entire exercise, not to the amount of time that each member may take.  The leader can specify the amount of time, or ask participants to wrap up if they are taking excessive time.  

8. The leader may change the rules.  But at all times, it should be clear what the rules are, and everybody should be prepared to follow them.

These, then, are the Baltimore Rules.  We have found them to be very helpful in ensuring orderly, open, and fair discussions.  We don’t have many rules in BES, but these are fundamental, and have helped build our respectful, collaborative, interdisciplinary culture.