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Rats Say, 'I'll Take Manhattan'

Tel Aviv University zoologists and geographers, collaborating to invent a new method to test urban designers' city plans, decided to enlist the help of the prototypical urban dweller: the rat.

By building mini-models of urban layouts at the Tel Aviv University Research Zoo, the researchers discovered that grid-like city layouts — such as New York City's Manhattan — are much more rat- and people-friendly than cities with unstructured and winding streets, like those in New Orleans.

"We've found that routes taken by rats and other members of the animal kingdom tend to converge at attractive landmarks, the same way people are attracted, for example, to the Arc de Triumph in Paris," professor David Eilam from TAU's Department of Zoology was quoted in a press release announcing the findings. "Our research takes the art used by humans to create their towns and cities and turns it back to the animal world for testing. We can look at how rats will react to a city's geography to come up with an optimal urban plan."

Eilam and Juval Portugali, a geography researcher and author of "Self-Organization and the City," built their study on the fact that rats create cognitive maps to help orient themselves in the world; this cognitive "rat map" lets them know their location, space and time. The researchers expect that after observing the rats' movements, their choices can eventually be optimized and fed into a computer model to assist in designing urban layouts.

"We've built an environment to test city plans, so that 'soul-less' and ineffective new neighborhoods won't be built," Eilam said. "Using our model of rat behavior, it takes just a few minutes for city planners to test whether a new plan will work. It's a way to avoid disasters and massive expense."

It should be noted that the scientists first tried their experiment on human subjects: They blindfolded biology students to confirm that human orientation strategies and instincts correspond to those of their rodent neighbors. But then it was time to put the rats through their paces.

"We put rats in relatively large areas with objects and routes resembling those in Manhattan," explained Eilam.

And the rats behaved just like people do: They establish a grid to orient themselves, and use it to cover a vast amount of territory quickly. In contrast, the rats in the irregular plan resembling New Orleans failed to move far from their starting point and didn't cover nearly as much territory, despite physically moving the same distance as the "Manhattan rats."

Eilam and his colleagues believe that urban planners can use this rat behavior model to test how the public will respond to new objects in the real world, particularly tall buildings or cooperative housing blocks.