In this July 2011 TEDGlobal talk, physicist Geoffrey West argues that mathematical laws of networks and scalability govern the properties of cities. West demonstrates how wealth, crime rate, walking speed, and other aspects of a city can be predicted based on a city’s population–universally, and with startling accuracy.
West’s presentation is constructed through a comparison of cities’ statistical similarities with the mathematical laws of biology. Both are dominated by economies of scale, but while the pace of life decreases as biological organisms scale upwards, the pace of life in cities increases. For example, doubling the size of a city systematically increases income, wealth, number of patents, number of colleges, number of creative people, the number of police, crime rate, number of aids and flu cases, and waste by 15% per capita.
Although some might find West’s fervent empiricism tiresome, his model of urban scientific inquiry holds massive potential both as data and methodological model for theoretical inquiry autonomous from practice. As a scientist, West is free from our field’s predilection towards theory as model for practice–he can speak of his observations, but lets them remain as such. Any practical suggestion would limit the versatility of the information he and his team have produced, forever linking that new body of knowledge with a delimited body of interpretations. By way of example: West’s argument is reminiscent of Christopher Alexander’s classic essay, “A City is Not a Tree,” in which Alexander argues that cities are fundamentally social networks, and that those lattice like-networks are in opposition to the synthetic tree-like networks designed by Modernists from Tange to Hilbershimer. Alexander’s essay, organized categorically and grounded in anecdotal models, is too oppositional to have easy currency outside of its use with respect to the projects it references and criticizes. Given that, it is not surprising that Alexander’s later work in A Pattern Language is more often identified as a political statement against modern planning ideals than as the dictionary of design strategies it purported assumed itself to be. West’s argument, organized systematically rather than categorically and grounded in data rather than anecdote, operates in an epistemological universe resistant to the political and able to be understood and applied in a wide variety of contexts for numerous related and unrelated causes.