Science and the City: The Mechanics Behind the Metropolis

by Inga Yandell

The modern world is a fascinating study in innovation and unseen mechanics—millions of micro processes underpinning the structure and function of a city go largely un-noticed by many of us.

Science is secretly at work behind the scenes of major cities of the world and will continue to be so. Technological advances in fields as diverse as quantum mechanics, electronics, and nanotechnology are proving increasingly important to city life, and the urban world will turn to science to deliver solutions to the problems of the future; more than 50 percent of the world’s population now lives in cities, and that proportion is growing fast. Can engineering provide the answer to a viable megacity future?

Physicist and sci-comm consultant, Laurie Winkless, translates science and engineering to the digestible joy of every person in her first book ‘Science and the City’.

Science and the City starts at your front door and guides you through the technology of everyday city life: how new approaches to building materials help to construct the tallest skyscrapers in Dubai, how New Yorkers use light to treat their drinking water, how Tokyo commuters’ footsteps power gates in train stations. Uncovering the science and engineering that shapes our cities, Laurie reveals how technology will help us meet the challenges of a soaring world population—from an ever-increasing demand for power, water, and internet access, to simply how to get about in a megacity of tens of millions of people.

Q/A with Laurie

Which innovations driving our cities have the greatest impact on our future?

For me, I think the way we manage ‘waste’ will have the greatest impact on our future. Technologies like greywater recycling and vehicle fuel from organic waste (e.g. faeces, cow dung) are already established in many cities, but we’ll see many more adopting them in future. Our obsession with plastic is causing huge issues for our environment, both in therms of landfills and the cleanliness of the oceans. But cities like Bogota are using waste plastic as the main ingredient for a new building material, while engineers in India use it to build better roads. Other waste streams too are finding uses—for example, scientists in the UK are using chicken feathers to produce insulation panels for homes. We (as a society) need to over the idea that we can throw stuff away—there is no ‘away’, everything we discard ends up somewhere, and if we want our cities to be more sustainable, we need to redefine the waste cycle.

Another thing that will have a huge impact on our cities will be the removal of fuel-belching vehicles from our roads. Poor air quality kills millions of city-dwellers, and the most dangerous components of air pollution (e.g. particulate matter) come from the exhaust pipes of vehicles. There are some technologies that can help ‘clean’ the air, but the easiest solution is to move away from the burning of fossil fuels.

There are many other innovations that might have a role to play—self-healing materials that increases the lifetime of infrastructure (e.g. roads, water pipes), a wholesale move towards renewable energy (e.g wind turbines, solar panels and tidal energy), urban farms, etc!

Where can we explore science in the city?

Trees and parks: add colour and interest, offering us health benefits via science—they remove some of the CO2 in the air, and they help cool cities, which reduces their otherwise considerable energy footprint.

Walkability: shops close to home and business offer a more ‘European’ scale to cities that make it easy to get around on foot or by bike. Thoughtful infrastructure which provides accessibility and supports expansion.

Buildings: from many different eras give urban explorers the chance to see their city as a living, changing thing. In London, you can see structures that date from the Medieval era, right up to the sleekest, tallest skyscraper currently under construction. This reminds us that cities are in a constant state of flux, and that new modes of engineering, new materials, and changing tastes have a significant impact on the landscape.

Traffic lights: traffic is a constant in the life of a city-dweller, and as a pedestrian trying to cross the road, it can be a frustrating experience. But the science and maths behind managing traffic is fascinating, and the road network is a central artery of a city. If we get to a stage that all cars are driverless, street infrastructure (like traffic lights) may well disappear.

Metro: tunnels and the machines that dig them, are an engineering marvel, and in many cases they’re being constructed while the city above ground just keeps moving. Their construction can also uncover secrets of the city that existed in the ancient past—when we dig underground, we dig through history. Watch Laurie’s video on floating track slabs.

Laurie insists, science is not just for scientists! Through her book ‘Science and the City’ unlocks this branch of knowledge giving us all the tools and sight for science.

Visit Laurie @ www.lauriewinkless.com

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Inga Yandell
Explorer and photo-journalist, passionate about nature, culture and travel. Combining science and conservation with investigative journalism to provide educational resources and a platform for science exploration.
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