Solving the City

A fascinating article in the New York Times about a theoretical physicist, Geoffrey West, who is attempting to describe the mathematical equations which describe the way a city works. From the Times:

It’s when West switches the conversation from infrastructure to people that he brings up the work of Jane Jacobs, the urban activist and author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Jacobs was a fierce advocate for the preservation of small-scale neighborhoods, like Greenwich Village and the North End in Boston. The value of such urban areas, she said, is that they facilitate the free flow of information between city dwellers. To illustrate her point, Jacobs described her local stretch of Hudson Street in the Village. She compared the crowded sidewalk to a spontaneous “ballet,” filled with people from different walks of life. School kids on the stoops, gossiping homemakers, “business lunchers” on their way back to the office. While urban planners had long derided such neighborhoods for their inefficiencies — that’s why Robert Moses, the “master builder” of New York, wanted to build an eight-lane elevated highway through SoHo and the Village — Jacobs insisted that these casual exchanges were essential. She saw the city not as a mass of buildings but rather as a vessel of empty spaces, in which people interacted with other people. The city wasn’t a skyline — it was a dance.

If West’s basic idea was familiar, however, the evidence he provided for it was anything but. The challenge for Bettencourt and West was finding a way to quantify urban interactions. As usual, they began with reams of statistics. The first data set they analyzed was on the economic productivity of American cities, and it quickly became clear that their working hypothesis — like elephants, cities become more efficient as they get bigger — was profoundly incomplete. According to the data, 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. “This remarkable equation is why people move to the big city,” West says. “Because you can take the same person, and if you just move them to a city that’s twice as big, then all of a sudden they’ll do 15 percent more of everything that we can measure.” While Jacobs could only speculate on the value of our urban interactions, West insists that he has found a way to “scientifically confirm” her conjectures. “One of my favorite compliments is when people come up to me and say, ‘You have done what Jane Jacobs would have done, if only she could do mathematics,’ ” West says. “What the data clearly shows, and what she was clever enough to anticipate, is that when people come together, they become much more productive.”

A Physicist Turns the City into an Equation [NYTimes]

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