What is the Urban-Immune System?

What is the Urban-Immune System?

To begin developing some ideas about what we might produce as part of our research project I thought it would be useful to expand upon the concept of the Urban Immune System and speculate on what this might be. In this text I will condense some of our early discussions on the subject and outline some speculative models for looking at the notion of urban immunity.

If one were to imagine the city or urban spaces as living super organisms what would help or hinder it to survive? What might constitute its immune system? What regulates the city and maintains homeostasis? How might one define urban health?

To begin thinking about what an urban immune system might be it’s first useful to try and understand what an organic immune system is and how it operates. This proved to be harder to define than we first thought as essentially every cell in any given organism is a constituent part of what might be considered the immune system. Skin, although an organ that performs many vital roles is a key component in keeping any aggressive organisms out of your body. Your circulatory system warms your body up to kill off aggressive organisms in your body, and your digestive system filters and ejects them from from your system. So in essence your whole body is an immune system in it’s entirety.

Although an interesting consideration it perhaps isn’t the most useful starting point when thinking about the notion of urban immune systems as a design project. If the whole organism is the immune system then to design an urban immune system is to design an entirely new urban environment.But we don’t want to build a new urban metropolis or a Logan’s run-esque model future cityscape. This would in essence emulate the late the 60’s top down approach to urban design.

The idea of the UISR developed through an interest in exploring how cities function in useful and not so useful ways, how individuals relate to urban environments, and why urban space, designed around convenient human living, often creates culturally and experiencially poor environments for those that inhabit it. In essence, in a desire to delve a little deeper into understanding what urban health is and how you measure it and how urban health relates to human experience.

To look a little closer at the guiding principles of how an immune system in an organism operates, can perhaps provide a more interesting way of looking at the problem of the UISR project. Perhaps the easiest way to do this is to look at how the immune system operates a microbial level within humans.

Helper T-cells are a subset of T-cells which form part of the cell-mediated immune system. To explain thier function simply, they identify the presence of antigens in the body and release cytokines that inform other components of the adaptive immune system such as Natural Killer T-cells and B-cells which in turn identify the specific antigen present and attack it on a cellular level as well as encouraging the body to respond by warming up, cooling down, coughing, getting a snotty nose etc etc to help make your body a hostile environment for that particular aggressive antigen.

The Helper T-cell operates to make the distinction between self antigens (those emitted by your body’s cells) or non-self antigens (those emitted by the cells of a foreign body or organism). It in essence makes the judgement call over whether that microbe is healthy or not healthy, belongs, or does not belong.

This notion of belonging and not belonging is perhaps more useful in an urban context. Before we get quoted at the next BNP rally I’d like to make clear that in this context belonging isn’t simply a case of local and foreign, us and them mentality. Our bodies contain many foreign bodies alive and inert, bacteria, food, drugs, chemicals etc etc. Without these bacteria and other foreign bodies we could not survive so belonging is more about contributing to the greater good of the wider organism, forming part of a wider system.

Another factor we’ve discussed from the beginning of the project is trying to consider the notion of urban health from the cities’ perspective rather than the human perspective. Surprisingly hard to do as citys are built by and for people. How do you assess the ‘health’ of an urban-organism? organic models don’t quite work as cities don’t work like quite like creatures. To start with they don’t die, they don’t reproduce, they don’t eat in the ways we think of it. From a human perspective they exist to serve our needs. but I’m sure the bacteria in our guts would feel much the same given their perspective on it.

So we started to try and think what sustains cities, makes them thrive, and grow. Infrastructurally they rely on access to energy resources, as animal bodies do. They also thrive on information and data transfer, and not just since the information age and the dawn of the internet. The power of Rome spread so far and grew to incredible prosperity because it drew all it needed to do so through a network of roads and trade routes that connected it to a massive variety of resources and crucially became a hub for knowledge creation with ideas coming from the furthest reaches of its empire.

Shared through these connections the information gets shared, altered, interbred and comes together in world changing developments that made Rome flourish. These developments could be seen as adaptations that enable the organism to more effectively utilise its resources and grow further.So perhaps a cities health is dependent on it’s ability to gather and effectively utilise whatever resources it has to hand.

So perhaps the more effectively a city can create and utilise energy from it’s resources the healthier a city is. The closest example to a dead city is Detroit. Detroit is not dead but effectively dying as it relied so heavily upon the automotive industry, a rich resource that provided all it needed for growth. However it relied too heavily on this one resource and excluded other options. So when it suffered from the ‘Auto-blight’ of recession it couldn’t adapt to survive.

This brings me neatly to my last model for a healthy immune system. The notion of exposure. Immune systems do not know how to do what they do perfectly from day one. Memory T-Cells and Memory B-cells remain in the blood stream after an infection has been defeated, so if the body is re-infected they will be present to deal with the threat. They learn immunity in the same way you learnt to speak. It’s only from practicing and doing things for real that you really learn how to do them well. In the same way an immune system that isn’t exposed to any foreign bodies won’t be as proficient at distinguishing ‘good’ cells from ‘bad’ much less know how best to adapt to combat them.

To immunise ourselves against viruses the human body can’t cope with we develop similar, but very mild mannered versions of the virus in question to help the body learn how to recognise it as bad and deal with it.

Can the same approach be applied to an urban immune system? Can we aggravate our cities to learn to adapt and defend themselves before they get hit with the full force of ‘Auto-blight’ or similar? Can we combat urban ill health by making it a more visible problem? Not that we want to incite vandalism or violent and provocative acts, but this approach may offer new ways of identifying existing problems.

After all, an immune system that spends a long time unexposed to antigens may, for example, create a disproportionately strong response when encountering a very unfamiliar pollen even when it’s doing little more than smelling nice. In this case perhaps what the urban immune system really needs is more problems, or at least more diffused and varied exposure to positive and negative stimulus.

These are very rough explanations of very complex ideas but they do perhaps offer up some interesting and challenging questions about how to approach the notion of an Urban Immune System. For any experts reading this I understand some of the analogies may be a bit sketchy. We are, after all, none of us immunologists, so please feel to correct us on any glaring errors. We offer these first thoughts, full of holes, for you to pick apart and criticise and hopefully contribute to the development of the ideas and the project as a whole.


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