Is there an Urban Science? (I)

The concept of “urban science” emerges from the rapid development of information technology and its applications in an urban context, yet with terminological ambiguity and various interpretations. There are three essential notions to fully understand the term ‘urban science’ and its ambiguity. First, the notion of ‘science’ defines conceptual scope in this discussion. Etymologically, the term originated from the Latin word ‘sciens’ and ‘scientia’ which mean ‘to know, to understand’ and ‘knowledge, intelligence’. Historically the notion of science started as a branch of philosophy, especially, philosophy of nature, and later developed as a disciplined way to study the natural world.[1] Therefore science is a philosophical driven and disciplined approach to better know the world. Scientific theory is based upon ‘an asymmetry between verifiability and falsifiability, which creates logical forms of universal statements’.[2] It provides universal knowledge and the law of the nature but within a certain time and space.

Second, it is essential to understand the definition of a new science and its emergence. Epistemologically a new science defines a new paradigm, which contains distinct set of concepts, theories, methods and standards. Scientific progress and revolution are typically based upon previous paradigms, the division or recombination of mature paradigms and technological innovations.[3] Thus if there is such a new science of city, we need to clarify what are these founded paradigms urban science bases upon. Applied science as a discipline of science focuses on the extensive knowledge development of pure science and practical applications in the real world practice. Applied science such as engineering and healthcare connects nature with human and converts theoretical knowledge to productive applications, and mostly contributes to the prosperity and development of our modern society.[4] On the other hand, inspired by natural science and social concerns, the origin of social science started in the Age of Enlightenment around 1650s when scholars began studying human society in a systematic way by using proper measurement from formal sciences such as mathematics and statistics along with empirical approaches.[5] In late 20th Century, social scientists adopted certain scientific research methods to conduct experiment and test philosophical theories (for example, Bobo doll experiment to test social learning theory[6]).

Finally, the notion of the uniqueness of urban science calibrates urban scientists’ research and practice between natural science, applied science and social science. The fact that cities as agglomerations of human habitat constantly shaped by both nature (natural disasters and climate change) and human (economy, culture, innovation) defines cities as a combination of science and humanity. [7] Therefore urban scientists need to frequently maneuver themselves between the dispassionate objectivity, social concerns and innovative applications. In short, if there is such a science of cities, it has to integrate previous paradigms such as scientific theory, social theory and urban theory systematically.


[1] David C. Lindberg, The beginning of Western science: the European Scientific tradition in philosophical, religious, and institutional context (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2007)

[2] Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (Routledge, 1959), 19

[3] Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1962), 15.

[4] Alvin Gouldner, “Explorations in Applied Social Science,” Sociological Practice 5(1989) 7:1 26-42

[5] Adam Kuper and Jessica Kuper, The Social Science Encyclopedia (Routledge, 1985)

[6] Henry Sims Jr. and Charles Manz, Social Learning Theory, Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 1982, 3:4, 55-63

[7] Mark Gottdiener and Leslie Budd, Key Concepts in Urban Studies (SAGE, 2005), 4-5.

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