The Inside Field Exam and Urban Complexity

I recently completed my inside field exam, one of the many steps involved in advancing to candidacy. The three professors on your inside field committee send you six questions – a pair per professor – and you are given 72 hours total to answer one question from each pair. The answers are to be in the form of a scholarly article with thorough citations. Long story short, you’ve got to write 30 pages of academic scholarship in three days.

The exam questions themselves are very interesting. The professors construct them based on their reading of your inside field statement, trying to probe areas that might be particularly rich or a bit weak in the statement. Here are the questions I answered:

Concepts such as complexity have been incorporated into the planning literature in various ways by different scholars. These appropriations of complexity theory into planning have varied in the way they appropriate complexity theory, with some representing only loose metaphorical connections to the original ideas, and some representing more explicit use of the concepts. Using your own interpretation, discuss the effectiveness of the appropriation of complexity theory by planning scholars in developing planning concepts and approaches. What do you think the most important elements of complexity theory are for informing planning scholarship, and why?

An interesting question. My approach to it was to break down the urban complexity academic literature into three general streams of scholarship and identify ways in which they correspond or contradict one another. The second exam question I answered was:

In your Inside Field Statement you identify neighborhood completeness and visual complexity as the main ways in which complexity theory interfaces with ideas of livability. You also identify a lineage of seminal urban form theorists whose ideas influenced present day concepts of livability. Choose four seminal theorists (including at least one modernist) and compare and contrast their ideas related to livability (though they may not have used that terminology), focusing in particular on what they said or didn’t say about concepts or design approaches related to neighborhood completeness and visual complexity. Discuss as well how their ideas on these matters have influenced present day planning practice and resultant built form.

For this response, I chose Clarence Perry, Le Corbusier, Jane Jacobs, and Allan Jacobs and compared/contrasted their theories of livability, particularly noting how they correspond with complexity theories of cities. The third exam question I answered was quite involved:

Contemporary normative theories on transportation and land-use interactions espoused by the likes of Boarnet and Crane argue that travel behavior is largely a product of the influences of built environments on costs and prices, drawing from economic utility theory. Mixed-use environments thus reduce travel by lowering the costs of connecting spatially proximate places. Urban design theorists argue for creating complete and mixed-use neighborhoods to promote livability, place-making, and social-cultural diversity, among other aims. Are the goals of travel cost minimization, livability, placemaking and diversity necessarily compatible? Based on your reading of the literature, to what degree do theories and empirical research of transportation scholars square with those of urban design theorists and practitioners in advancing mixed-use, complete communities that are sustainable (i.e., small mobility footprints) and livable (i.e., strong sense of place, residential satisfaction, happiness)? How does complexity theory help mediate conflicts in advancing the smart-growth travel-cost minimization goals of transportation planning scholars and the place-making, livability objectives of urban design theorists and practitioners?

This question assumes a certain posture that makes it both fascinating and challenging to answer. In the end, I analyzed the proposed sustainability versus livability conflict in terms of economic frameworks for travel demand and livability frameworks for urban design. My thesis was that they are not only not in conflict, but in fact mutually rely on one another to succeed.

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