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On City and Biology

by on August 9, 2011

With the city mankind has created an organism operating beyond the bounds of biology.

In a paper for Science in 1997, Geoffrey West and his team proposed Allometric Scaling Laws. They believe that cities are complex systems who are subject to scalability of organism. Cities operate within the dynamic range of living organisms.

The bigger the city, the faster people walk and the faster they innovate–in sublinear proportion. City growth driven by wealth creation increases at a rate that is faster than exponential. Cities are able to be computed into equations.

Rather than going into mechanical explanations, it is interesting to treat cities as organism–an appealing way to see cities from another perspective.

Such treatment applies on macro level. But how about observed dynamics on micro level, such as slums? What are the symbiosis between the higher- and lower- organisms?

Cities are predominantly heterotroph organism. It depends on complex external organic substances for nutrition. It can not fix carbon and uses organic carbon for growth. In fact, the materialization of zero-carbon city is not yet come into being.

Slums grow organically. It mushrooms against the notion of planned urban space. In order to sustain its metabolism, an organism has to be, at least partially, self-sufficient in any possible means.

In this case, slum settlement is arguably saprophytic. Like fungi, it grows on and derives its nourishment from dead or decaying organic matter.

While affluent households enjoy formal, private, personal, and advanced facilities, poor households engage in informal, public, communal, and one-step-behind facilities at a cheaper price. Arcade machines are ancient entities which virtually exist in almost each of urban slum settlement. Internet café thrives by recycling old computers.

Being disconnected from the city’s piped water network, poor households pay more at unit price and consume less water (in a lower quality) compared to affluent households who directly connected to the line and consume it privately.

Arcade game, Baseco, Manila

Arcade Game, Dharavi, Mumbai

However, the term saprophyte is obsolete now because there are no true saprophytes. It is now known that no plant is physiologically capable of direct breakdown of organic matter and that in order to get food, non-photosynthetic plants must engage in parasitism, either through myco-heterotrophy or direct parasitism of other plants.

The symbiotic relationship of higher organism (the city, heterotroph, the plant) and lower organism (the slum, saprophyte, the fungi) is more similar to Myco-heterotrophy.

It is the city who badly needs the slum. Like the plants that have parasitic dependence upon fungi, the city tirelessly outsource cheap labor from slum and produce high-quality commodities on a shoestring.

Myco-heterotrophic plants require fungal-carbon during their critical early establishment phases. That fungal-carbon is translated spatially as in squalid slum settlements. Ain’t all cities at first were made of slums?


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One Comment
  1. kak wiwiiiiid, ini Peaaaa 🙂 Keren pisan euy blog nya 🙂 Love to read it 🙂

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