A look at network dynamics

In any given system, energy is the driving factor of all dynamic flows and processes on every scale. Living things can even be seen as ‘energy storage devices’, the flow of nutrients stuck in a sort of animated limbo; eventually returned to decompose back into the earth. With the rise of industrial cities, the organic networks of energy and constant cycles are forgotten. History itself becomes erased and irrelevant, we forget where we come from. Jacobs attacks this, and asserts that a monolithic culture has terrible resilience. Mass produced cultures and non-human industry lead to lifeless models that lack the human experience. This past week has been an exploration of different networks, and the evolution of urban and architectural networks over time—discussing what works and what fails.

A culture dominated by external, hierarchical forces is considered a centralized network. Centralized networks are imposing and limiting, not resilient and often very inefficient. Applying machine-like qualities to a city brings with it the brittle inability to respond to change while also squelching the organic life within it—the way the feudal lords suffocated the army of serfs that served them.


In nature, distributed networks bubble up and fuse together many different systems of nature that rely on each other, evolving and changing with one another in synchronized harmony. Distributed networks are empowering, connective, and resilient, allowing for innovation and experimentation and a constant swing and flow of change. Ecosystems are distributed networks, links of chains holding on to each other and providing specific functions that evolve and adapt. Our human bodies are distributed networks, feedback loops of hormones and chemicals registering to keep us healthy. Emergent cities are distributed networks, sustaining dialogue with their immediate environment and looking for change and growth into the future as more life begins to fill its scaffolding.

As humans, we need not forget about our role in the distributed network that is the world ecosystem. Our mechanized industry is an imposing hierarchy that pays no mind to its surroundings, causing ecosystems to flex beyond their point of resilience.  According to DeLanda, feedback in any system is never linear, and we must understand our history to understand our current dynamic state. In analyzing all of the problems that mankind has caused natural ecosystems, we must turn to their origins.

A striking consequence of centralized and decentralized city network  systems in our modern era can be seen in the Chesapeake Bay. In the midst of metropolitan sprawl, it’s easy to forget about the natural world. The Chesapeake is the epicenter for the East Coast’s biodiversity, but the entire ecosystem is suffering because of unsustainable human activity. According to the documentary Poisoned Waters, within the last 25 years, annual crab catch is down 50%. Small fisheries have been decimated by the changing ecosystem. The very heart of the bay has become a ‘dead zone’, a wasteland occupying 40% of the once-pristine waters. This means that the water’s oxygen content has been depleted such that conditions are toxic for marine life. Hypoxic conditions are caused by algae blooms, caused by an increase in available nutrients (namely, phosphorous and nitrogen). These chemicals come from runoff emptying into various rivers eventually leading to the bay.


The changing urban landscape of the centralized D.C. area is a major contributor to these chemicals. The metropolitan area has become an inefficient network of sprawling suburban centers, channeling in resources from far and wide and utterly disregarding our landscape. The forests of the Potomac are becoming impermeable concrete and asphalt surfaces before our very eyes, and rainwater sweeps traffic pollution down the river and into the Chesapeake Bay.


DeLanda discusses that urban infrastructure is like “bone to our fleshy parts”, but that they often operate far from natural equilibrium. Markets surpass the size of local gatherings, and become a hierarchy of meshworks: falling into cycles of intense exploitations and then depletions that halt growth. In the industrial age, the bifurcations that previously functioned as self-regulating feedback loops are now ignored and invented beyond. Tyson’s corner is a good example of this disregard for a system that doesn’t work. A network of sprawling roads from the heart of the shopping center has become 6 lanes of traffic, people drive for hours just to reach a singular urban location.

Our decentralized food networks also contribute to this. In the 20th century, Purdue turned chicken farms into chicken factories. Large-scale farming as a mass producing machine is fundamentally altering the dynamics of our country’s ecosystems. The organic waste from enterprises such as this is shocking, also a major contributer to nitrogen and phosphorous flow into the Chesapeake Bay. The UPC (United Poultry Concerns) discusses that the annual litter from a typical broiler chicken house of 22,000 birds contains as much phosphorous as in the sewage from a community of 6,000 people. Excess nitrogen converts to ammonia and nitrates, burning the fragile cells of land plants and poisoning ground and surface waters. Concentrated poultry waste spawns excess algae that consume aquatic nutrients and block sunlight needed by underwater grasses. In decay, the algae suffocate fish. High levels of nitrate in groundwater used as drinking water can cause methemoglobinemia, a blood disorder in infants, known also as “blue baby disease” (http://www.upc-online.org/fouling.html). Instead of fetching resources from so far away, distributed networks rely on that which is directly available to them, and work through a series of linkages and natural feedback loops to keep both their growth and efficiency in check.

I think that if Americans begin to realize that we cannot ‘design’ our way out of every problem that we encounter, and start listening to the natural flows of the earth, our planet as a whole will function much more smoothly. Networks and feedback loops will be at ease, and the places that we live will breathe into a new sort of resilience like our very bodies. 


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