Urban Dynamics 50 years later. We still make it wrong

More than a half century ago Jay W. Forrester tried to warn the public about unexpected consequences of policy programmes. When one of the system’s facets was pressed on, he wrote, eventually seemingly unrelated parts would end up being disbalanced, meaning that no matter how good or bad the policy programme was, it would inevitably affect the balance of the system as a whole.

Forrester raised an important issue. Ostensibly promising policy programmes in the U.S. turned out to solve problems inefficiently. Moreover, these policy interventions caused other problems, sometimes resulting in the reverse of a desired outcome. Forrester made a conclusion that this happened due to a lack of our understanding of highly dynamic social complex systems. He believed that human mind was not very good at dealing with such systems—taking long time of evolution, only recently had we started to work with social complexity. At the same time, computer could already handle complexity tasks pretty well. Forrester called the approach for modeling complex systems systems dynamics.

The model Forrester and his team applied to cities considered how industry, housing, and people interacted with each other. They studied four programmes often implemented by authorities. The first was on the creation of jobs through moving unemployed to the suburbs or through governmental jobs. The second was a training programme for the lowest-income population. The third—on providing financial aid to the city through a federal subsidy. The fourth was on the low-cost housing construction. The results of modeling these programmes explained what was going on in the depressed cities, pointing to the failure of these very programmes.

It appeared, for example, that the root of the problems in cities was excess housing in low-income areas. This excess created a social trap for population locked in high-density areas with insufficient income opportunities. Measures to raise the standard of living worked only for a moment, as a higher standard of living made population to grow, and the increase in population led to the decrease in the standard of living—back to the initial level or even lower. Thus, programmes, which addressed the shortage in low-income housing only worsened the situation in already depressed cities.

Urban planning practices, used in many big cities across the world today, fully resemble what Forrester has warned us against. Take Moscow, a typical megalopolis, as an example. As the city with the highest wages and highest standard of living in the whole country, Moscow attracts people from elsewhere. The standard of living inevitably declines, city managers try to improve it via … building roads, and expanding the city far into suburbs. More people come. Vicious circle repeats. Low-cost housing is the programme that is supposed to help out in this situation, but let us look at what it does. First, it attracts more low-income population in the area. The area becomes more attractive to the low-income families and less attractive to job creators. Job opportunities elsewhere are also limited. The economic situation in the area worsens further. The condition of the area soon requires new interventions.

What Forrester proposed in this case was to allocate land to income-earning opportunities, i.e. to give it out to industry. This would help establish a balance, revive economy, and support those low-income families, which were already present in the area of policy intervention. In general, he called upon to treat problems within a context of the entire system. He wrote: “Programs aimed at improving the city can succeed only if they result in eventually raising the average quality of life for the country as a whole”. The only way to improve the quality of urban life of a concrete city is to improve it on average everywhere else. In other case, people will continue to come to the most attractive places, constantly pushing the quality of life down, and creating more and more similar problems.

We are told about rapidly growing share of population living in cities. I guess in view of 2020 events nobody has doubts regarding a variety of problems this urbanisation may bring or escalate. Maybe if the approach of a more balanced development across a whole country rather than focus on ultra hubs is adopted more widely, the projections on urbanisation would be less discouraging. It is quite disappointing to see how city managers repeat the mistakes well studied back in 1960-70s by systems thinkers like Jay Forrester. I hope these mistakes are made without malicious intent, as well said by Upton Sinclair, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Pavel Kiparisov


  • Forrester, J. W. (1970). Urban dynamics. IMR; Industrial Management Review, 11(3), 67.
  • Forrester, J. W. (1971). Counterintuitive behavior of social systems. Theory and decision, 2(2), 109-140.