Whenever a city doubles in size, every measure of economic activity, from construction spending to the amount of bank deposits, increases by approximately 15 percent per capita. It doesn’t matter how big the city is; the law remains the same.
West admits that all successful cities are a little uncomfortable. He describes the purpose of urban planning as finding a way to minimize our distress while maximizing our interactions.
Cities are unruly places, largely immune to the desires of politicians and planners. “Think about how powerless a mayor is,” West says. “They can’t tell people where to live or what to do or who to talk to. Cities can’t be managed, and that’s what keeps them so vibrant. They’re just these insane masses of people, bumping into each other and maybe sharing an idea or two. It’s the freedom of the city that keeps it alive.”
### nytimes.com 17 December 2010
A Physicist Solves the City
By Jonah Lehrer
Geoffrey West is a theoretical physicist in search of fundamental laws, he likes to compare his work to that of Kepler, Galileo and Newton. …although West worked for decades as a physicist at Stanford University and Los Alamos National Laboratory, he started thinking about leaving the field after the financing for the Texas superconducting supercollider was cancelled by Congress in 1993. West, however, wasn’t ready to retire, and so he began searching for subjects that needed his skill set. Eventually he settled on cities: the urban jungle looked chaotic — all those taxi horns and traffic jams — but perhaps it might be found to obey a short list of universal rules.
“We spend all this time thinking about cities in terms of their local details, their restaurants and museums and weather,” West says. “I had this hunch that there was something more, that every city was also shaped by a set of hidden laws.”
And so West set out to solve the City.
West saw the metropolis as a sprawling organism, defined by its infrastructure. (The boulevard was like a blood vessel, the back alley a capillary.) This implied that the real purpose of cities, and the reason cities keep on growing, is their ability to create massive economies of scale, just as big animals do.
After analysing the first sets of city data — the physicists began with infrastructure and consumption statistics — they concluded that cities looked a lot like elephants. In city after city, the indicators of urban “metabolism”, like the number of gas stations or the total surface area of roads, showed that when a city doubles in size, it requires an increase in resources of only 85 percent. This straightforward observation has some surprising implications. It suggests, for instance, that modern cities are the real centres of sustainability.
Post by Elizabeth Kerr