Physicist “Solves” the City, Turns It Into an Equation

I went through a ton of urban theories as a Master’s student in city planning, but something I didn’t have access to at that time was physicist Geoffrey West’s urban equations. Because he had not created them yet. The 70-year-old physicist decided to direct his attention to this matter late in his career. While he spent most of his life trying to identify the laws that govern the physical universe, a few years ago he decided to study the urban jungle and try to pull some clear laws and mathematical equations out of the chaos.

“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.” West wanted to solve the city.

As the NYTimes reports:

He didn’t want to be constrained by the old methods of social science…. (West considers urban theory to be a field without principles, comparing it to physics before Kepler pioneered the laws of planetary motion in the 17th century.) … He was tired of urban theory — he wanted to invent urban science.

West, another former theoretical physicist, Luis Bettencourt, and a team of researchers went at it, and after collecting tons and tons of data from around the world for a couple years, they came up with some answers.

After two years of analysis, West and Bettencourt discovered that all of these urban variables could be described by a few exquisitely simple equations. For example, if they know the population of a metropolitan area in a given country, they can estimate, with approximately 85 percent accuracy, its average income and the dimensions of its sewer system. These are the laws, they say, that automatically emerge whenever people “agglomerate,” cramming themselves into apartment buildings and subway cars. It doesn’t matter if the place is Manhattan or Manhattan, Kan.: the urban patterns remain the same. West isn’t shy about describing the magnitude of this accomplishment. “What we found are the constants that describe every city,” he says. “I can take these laws and make precise predictions about the number of violent crimes and the surface area of roads in a city in Japan with 200,000 people. I don’t know anything about this city or even where it is or its history, but I can tell you all about it. And the reason I can do that is because every city is really the same.” After a pause, as if reflecting on his hyperbole, West adds: “Look, we all know that every city is unique. That’s all we talk about when we talk about cities, those things that make New York different from L.A., or Tokyo different from Albuquerque. But focusing on those differences misses the point. Sure, there are differences, but different from what? We’ve found the what.”

I would really have to learn more about their equations and test them out on various cities to completely buy the claim (which I don’t think I would actually ever do… cities are too variable and unruly, I think), but I’m sure the findings can have great use and help in understanding these complex human creations.

West also concedes that his initial findings were not as comprehensive or important as he initially thought. “In retrospect, I was quite stupid,” West says. “[I] didn’t pay enough attention to the ways in which urban areas and organisms are completely different.”

He continued on, getting deeper and deeper into the social and economic features of the city, (but I think there are still some big gaps missing in the equations). Nonetheless, he has come to some amazing findings and a great contribution to our continued study and fascination with cities, some landmark findings and theories. For example, he delves into the issue of how cities relate to the environment, generally, in a way that I think no one has. Many have found that cities are more efficient (“the bigger, the better”), but those findings leave out something quite important, the effects cities have on our consumption.

the societal consumption driven by the process of urbanization — our collective desire for iPads, Frappuccinos and the latest fashions — more than outweighs the ecological benefits of local mass transit.

West illustrates the problem by translating human life into watts. “A human being at rest runs on 90 watts,” he says. “That’s how much power you need just to lie down. And if you’re a hunter-gatherer and you live in the Amazon, you’ll need about 250 watts. That’s how much energy it takes to run about and find food. So how much energy does our lifestyle [in America] require? Well, when you add up all our calories and then you add up the energy needed to run the computer and the air-conditioner, you get an incredibly large number, somewhere around 11,000 watts. Now you can ask yourself: What kind of animal requires 11,000 watts to live? And what you find is that we have created a lifestyle where we need more watts than a blue whale. We require more energy than the biggest animal that has ever existed. That is why our lifestyle is unsustainable. We can’t have seven billion blue whales on this planet. It’s not even clear that we can afford to have 300 million blue whales.”

Very interesting stuff. Read much more on this story on the NYTimes: A Physicist Turns the City into an Equation.

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Photo Credits: ecstaticistecstaticistMorBCNkern.justin (all via flickr under a CC license)