If there’s one thing I love, it’s a good visual study of cities and roads, and today, we’re going to be looking at a study from 2019 that analyzed the spatial configuration and entropy of a city’s streets, represented by some very nifty circles. Let us know if you find your city on this list of 100 and how chaotic it is.
What is the entropy of a city street? Basically, it’s a measure of how ordered or disordered your city is. This study, called “Urban spatial order: street network orientation, configuration, and entropy” by Geoff Boeing. You can read the full study here, but in essence, Boeing compared the road networks of cities around the world to create visual patterns that illustrate a concept most of us have intuitively known but couldn’t quantify: North American road networks tend to be more grid-based than their international counterparts. The entropy measurement is basically how circuitous the roads are—or, how confusing.
Here’s a little more from the study itself:
Spatial networks such as streets, paths, and transit lines organize the human dynamics of complex urban systems. They shape travel behavior, location decisions, and the texture of the urban fabric… Past studies have typically explored circuity and entropy in individual or paired case studies—less is known about broader cross-sectional trends worldwide. How do street network configurations organize and order urban space in cities around the world?
That last question is the one that Boeing aims to answer by measuring the order and configuration of 100 city street networks around the world, then lays it all out in such a way as to express how far the street network deviates from the traditional grid. The main thing here is that a strongly gridded city generally—but not always—allows for a more cohesive spread of social services, land use, the availability and type of public transportation, and more. The grid also tends to translate into “express political power, promote military rule, improve cadastral legibility, foster egalitarianism, and encourage land speculation and development.”
I’ll let you read Boeing’s article to get the full sense of how he created his spatial graphs—math has never been my forte. But let’s take a look at what his final result was:
You can also compare the street maps for an ordered versus a disordered city to really see what those graphs look like in real life:
The five most organized cities that Boeing studied are Chicago, Miami, Minneapolis, Vancouver, and Seattle. In fact, the first 13 cities on the list are from the United States, and the first 16 are North American.
The most disorganized city, though, is also American: Charlotte, North Carolina. Its spatial graph is almost terrifying. After that, the most disorganized cities are Sao Paulo, Rome, Singapore, and Helsinki.
I’d be interested to see how this data can be analyzed through other critical lenses: political temperaments, history, race, culture, and more. I’d love to see one city’s growth analyzed through different eras; how different is the sprawling, historical core compared to the more urban areas that were intentionally planned, not spontaneously generated.