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Modeling Urban Panic
Paul Torrens


Paul Torrens is someone after our hearts, for he has developed a realistic computer 3D model that can predict crowd behavior in various spatial configurations.

It can simulate, for instance, how people navigate through busy city streets, shoppers through urban shopping centers, and tourists through unfamiliar landscapes.

Paul Torrens


For the greenish, this has obvious practical applications. According to a press release from Arizona State University, “the project will develop simulations to explore avenues of sustainability in downtown settings, such as how cities can promote walking as an alternative to driving, and how pedestrian flow can be better integrated with transit-oriented development.”

Paul Torrens


Of course, you can also use the 3D model to simulate far less quotidian, obscenely more interesting scenarios.

“The goal of this project is to develop a reusable and behaviorally founded computer model of pedestrian movement and crowd behavior amid dense urban environments, to serve as a test-bed for experimentation,” says Torrens. “The idea is to use the model to test hypotheses, real-world plans and strategies that are not very easy, or are impossible to test in practice.”

Such as the following: 1) simulate how a crowd flees from a burning car toward a single evacuation point; 2) test out how a pathogen might be transmitted through a mobile pedestrian over a short period of time; 3) see how the existing urban grid facilitate or does not facilitate mass evacuation prior to a hurricane landfall or in the event of dirty bomb detonation; 4) design a mall which can compel customers to shop to the point of bankruptcy, to walk obliviously for miles and miles and miles, endlessly to the point of physical exhaustion and even death; 5) identify, if possible, the tell-tale signs of a peaceful crowd about to metamorphosize into a hellish mob; 6) determine how various urban typologies, such as plazas, parks, major arterial streets and banlieues, can be reconfigured in situ into a neutralizing force when crowds do become riotous; and 7) conversely, figure out how one could, through spatial manipulation, inflame a crowd, even a very small one, to set in motion a series of events that culminates into a full scale Revolution or just your average everyday Southeast Asian coup d'├ętat — regime change through landscape architecture.

Paul Torrens


Or you quadruple the population of Chicago. How about 200 million? And into its historic Emerald Necklace system of parks, you drop an al-Qaeda sleeper cell, a pedophile, an Ebola patient, a migrant worker, a swarm of zombies, and Paris Hilton. Then grab a cold one, sit back and watch the landscape descend into chaos. It'll be better than any megablockbuster movie you'll see this summer.

Equally plausible, Chicago does not suffer total critical system failure. In fact, the built environment is surprisingly malleable, so very accommodating to a wide range of extreme radical transformations, that the city actually thrives during this catastrophe and in the end successfully expels the intruders. Far from being a vector of apocalypses, cities will save the world.

In any case, the resulting video from the simulation will be entered into a film festival near you.


The Kumbh Mela Array
Reconfiguring the Jamarat Bridge
The vortex
Advertisement: Crowd Dynamics Ltd.
The Parkless Park Resurfaces
The Parkless Park
Counting Crowds


Subtopia: Urbanization of Panic
City of Sound: Robert Krulwich
2 COMMENTS —
  • Noel
  • July 5, 2007 at 12:58:00 AM CDT
  • This is a variation on the crowd simulation used for reconfiguring the Jamarat bridge that you wrote about a few months ago. It looks like that company also sells evacuation analysis tools that you can use to try out some of these scenarios if you have CAD files for the areas.

    The crowd's behaviour looks complex, but that's just an emergent property of the individuals following very simple rules that are easy to simulate (these sorts of algorithms are used in video games and for the big CGI battles you see in movies)

    We could simulate the effect of an attractor so powerful that the hapless shoppers orbit it until starvation sets in, but it wouldn't tell us what that attractor actually was.

    In the mean-time, you can can get your post-apocalyptic fix by watching zombie infection simulations.


  • nemo
  • January 14, 2008 at 8:55:00 PM CST
  • interesting. simulations are really good, much effort has been put on them.
    however, I've noticed that the agents are all the same: there are no individuals running faster than others, or taking advantage of others (pushing them back, etc).
    plus, there's no "touch" factor: when in panic, people tend to push each other and not just to keep a distance (as they do when non panicking, i.e. when getting out of a shop).
    thirdly, there doesn't seem to be much randomness in the agent behaviour - and I think that's the key point where crowds turn hostile: when the randomness goes past a certain edge and an emerging, "individual" behaviour appears making the crowd act like a single entity.

    great work, though.


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