Urban Complexity and the March Toward Qualifying Exams

The Department of City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley has a rather arduous process for advancing to candidacy in the PhD program. It essentially consists of 6 parts:

  1. Take all the required courses
  2. Produce an inside field statement – a sort of literature review and synthesis explaining the niche within urban planning in which you will be positioning your dissertation research
  3. Complete an outside field – sort of like what a minor was in college
  4. Take an inside field written exam
  5. Produce a defensible dissertation prospectus
  6. Take an oral comprehensive exam covering your inside field, your outside field, general planning theory and history, and finally presenting your prospectus.

Whew. Lots to do this year. The good news is I am currently wrapping up my inside field statement and preparing to take the inside field exam. My topic is generally around complexity theory in urban planning. Here is the working abstract from my statement:

Complexity theory is a fundamental shift away from certainty in the understanding of complex systems such as cities. However, it can serve as a useful new lens for explaining urban phenomena, studying city processes and form, and considering planning interventions. It is a comprehensive framework that can help build connections between quantitative and qualitative urban disciplines.

Yet it is not without flaws. Complexity theory is sometimes adopted into the planning literature in obscure or contradictory ways, and appealing concepts or methods are cherry-picked from it without robustly confronting the theory and its full implications. While this framework has been used to criticize past and current planning paradigms, it too often has little to say about how planning should proceed instead.

This inside field statement surveys how complexity has been applied to city planning in the literature. Part one discusses complexity theory and its prior application to cities and planning decisions, particularly from a qualitative perspective. The second and third parts explore livability and the transportation-land use connection, respectively. These are two city planning issues to which – more than others – formal complexity theory is particularly well-suited to speak. However, it has been only lightly applied in the past.

Part two examines livability through the lens of urban design. It looks at livability’s subcomponents – particularly visual complexity and neighborhood completeness – and how they fit with complexity theories of cities. Part three presents theory and research in the transportation-land use connection. I explore the complex nonlinear relationship between components in transportation-land use systems and discuss policy analyses arising from this body of research. Part four synthesizes and summarizes the preceding discussion of complexity and planning.

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