Understanding Cities: Implications for Sustainability Planning

Do cities really behave like biological systems?

I just learned of Geoffrey West, a theoretical physicist by training who has turned his attention (part of it anyway) toward studying the behavior and development of cities.  He believes that cities adhere to straightforward mathematical laws – not unlike those that already exist in biology, namely Kleiber’s Law.

West and his colleagues at the renowned Santa Fe Institute claim they are able to predict an astonishing range of socio-economic details about cities such as crime rates, homelessness, GDP, and more banal matters, such as number of gas stations and educational institutions, you name it, based on one number: population.

According to West, the general rule is that all of these socio-economic ‘indices’ increase by +/- 15 % when population size doubles. Of course the mathematics can’t apply to all cities, because cities have the ability to skew the equations by adding more police officers to
streets or increasing social services.

The implications of this research could be staggering.  For instance, urban planners and politicians would have the ability to identify whether their city is declining or progressing based on the degree of divergence from West’s urban scaling law.  This would allow them to better prepare for growth and economic development and to craft new policies with the
aim of improving those indices with subpar performance.

While West’s research is interesting, it is controversial.  Do cities really behave like biological systems? And if they do, can physical laws be transferred to socially volatile and complex constructs such as our cities?  One thing is certain: the better we understand our cities, the more likely it is that we will be able to achieve more sustainable growth.  West is certainly making a thought provoking contribution – one that moves towards a more scientific understanding of our cities.

Check out Geoffrey West’s Ted talk entitled ‘The Surprising Math of Cities and Corporations’.

Andrzej Schreyer , R.P.P. is a senior land use and environmental planner with Hardy Stevenson and Associates and a member of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute and the Canadian Institute of Planners. His experience includes developing and implementing public participation and communications plans, managing social impact assessments and land use studies in support of infrastructure projects and preparing community-based strategic plans.



About Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited

Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited (HSAL) is a multidisciplinary strategic planning and public affairs consultancy, focused on environmental and land use planning, stakeholder relations (including communications, facilitation, public consultation and engagement), socio-economic impact assessment, communications, engineering and related services. We have the expertise to predict and decipher technical and public policy issues, and significant experience mitigating them, building consensus and attaining even the most complex approvals. For more information, visit www.hardystevenson.com
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