Cities – some thoughts on a Radiolab exploration

If you are a public radio junkie, and a science+art junkie, you’re probably already addicted to WNYC’s wonderful Radiolab podcast featuring Jad Abumarad and the incomparable Robert Krulwich. If you aren’t already addicted to this podcast… what are you waiting for? Point your browser thither right now, and thence find the appropriate link to download the podcast on your device of choice. Got it? Good.

Now, for this science+radio junkie with a lot of urban ecology on the mind, the Radiolab guys offered up the perfect trifecta recently, when they did a whole hour-long exploration of Cities!! I’ve been mulling it over ever since I heard it several months ago, wanting to write a lengthier blog post about it, but what with teaching, travel, and actually studying urban ecology, never seem to find the time. This episode was brought to mind afresh last week during a trip to Tempe, Arizona, while attending a very stimulating workshop on urban ecology and resilience (hosted by the good folks at the Stockholm Resilience Center). The workshop was a precursor to the 2011 Resilience conference, where I also presented some of our ongoing work on urban water policy, water use, and biodiversity in Fresno-Clovis. As we drove back midway through the conference, while crossing over from the Sonoran to the Mojave deserts, I subjected my sociologist friend and colleague Andrew Jones to this show – and figured I might as well share it here with you. I think it is a rather (typically for Radiolab) rich and unusual exploration of cities from different perspectives, and contains ideas I want to pursue further, some in writing here in time to come. Meanwhile, you can listen to the show right here, right now:

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http://www.radiolab.org/media/audioplayer/player5.swf

The parts that resonate the most with me are in the first several segments, on the comparative metabolism of cities. Could be in part because I am a sucker for comparative ecology and metabolic scaling, more so because I also happen to know Bob Levine, psychologist colleaage here at Fresno State, who shared some of his work on the geography of time with us during an evening at the Central Valley Café Scientifique several years ago. Having lived in a number of cities of various shapes, sizes, and cultures, I have experienced some of this variation in the pace of city life, of how we experience the flow of time in different places. So I can begin to see how cities shape our perception of time in interesting ways. What really intrigues me now, after listening to the show again, is this: do other animals (especially the ones with the sharper brains and cleverer minds like us) also perceive the flow of time differently in different cities? Does the flow of time — or, to put it in behavioral ecology terms: do the rates of certain behaviors and/or the overall time-budget — for a macaque in Bangalore differ from that of its cousins in Mysore or Papanasam? Does a Scrub Jay in Fresno hop or call or cache food at a higher rate than one in Visalia? Are the White-crowned sparrows wintering in Fresno singing at a slower rate than those in Phoenix or San Francisco? I think this calls for another participatory global citizen science project, just like Bob Levine and the Radiolab guys did with humans. I’m developing a comparable simple-but-robust metric and protocol that could be used with urban birds and mammals, and will share it once I’ve got it worked out. If you have any ideas or suggestions on how best to measure the flow of time in non-human animals, please do write to me. This may not amount to a whole lot of science – but I wonder…

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