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Urban Math

It is increasingly clear that there is a common theme to almost all of the major differences of opinion around the issues we cover on this site. The same theme that I think sums up the contrasting world views of the Auckland Council and the current government. And that is basically around questions of the idea of the city. Is a city a good and valuable thing? Do we really want to encourage it?

It is likely that our background as a small agrarian society makes these questions and the fears they express understandable. These suspicions are probably experienced in all the urban places in New Zealand, but it is particularly evident now in the case of Auckland because of its unusual size and rate of growth in the NZ context. It certainly seems to be behind the idea that I have experienced many times travelling around the country that there is something deeply wrong with Auckland; that it isn’t really part of ‘real’ New Zealand at all. Sometimes expressed as polite bafflement; sometimes as angry rejection.

And often the angriest commenters on this site essentially don’t want more city, they talk up anti-urban solutions to urban issues like ‘decentralisation’ or expanding the Urban Limit to keep growth at a low density.

So it is reasonable to ask; is Auckland a good thing? Is its size and growth desirable or even inevitable?

But then by comparison to most of the world Auckland is a small city and its growth rate pretty slow. And that these other places are getting even bigger faster. So why is urbanisation accelerating? Is bigger always better?

We have looked at the value of cities before through the work of economists for example here. I am pretty much persuaded by the simplest answer of all: Many [perhaps most] people see value [in the broadest sense] in being near other people, ergo; cities. Too simple? Cities can be pretty isolating too and many people only face very tough choices in their lives so:

Is there some universal pattern behind the success of cities?

Well it turns out this is a question that a big team of researchers in the US set out to test and came to the conclusion that the value [and cost] of cities is even quantifiable, their attraction [and burden] reducible to one number.

This is pretty interesting and I think it’s best if you watch Theoretical Physicist Dr Geoffrey West talk you through it. He and his team analysed vast amounts of data across the world to come up with a scientific theory of cities.

Additional introduction from the NYT:

West set out to solve the City. As he points out, this is an intellectual problem with immense practical implications. Urban population growth is the great theme of modern life, one that’s unfolding all across the world, from the factory boomtowns of Southern China to the sprawling favelas of Rio de Janeiro. As a result, for the first time in history, the majority of human beings live in urban areas. (The numbers of city dwellers are far higher in developed countries — the United States, for instance, is 82 percent urbanized.) Furthermore, the pace of urbanization is accelerating as people all over the world flee the countryside and flock to the crowded street.

For West, this first meant trying to gather as much urban data as possible. Along with Luis Bettencourt, another theoretical physicist who had abandoned conventional physics, and a team of disparate researchers, West began scouring libraries and government Web sites for relevant statistics. The scientists downloaded huge files from the Census Bureau, learned about the intricacies of German infrastructure and bought a thick and expensive almanac featuring the provincial cities of China. (Unfortunately, the book was in Mandarin.) They looked at a dizzying array of variables, from the total amount of electrical wire in Frankfurt to the number of college graduates in Boise. They amassed stats on gas stations and personal income, flu outbreaks and homicides, coffee shops and the walking speed of pedestrians.

Here’s the results:


If the embeded video doesn’t work then go here.
[PS the answer is 15% or x 1.15]

7 comments to Urban Math

  • Riccardo

    Part of the problem is anglophone countries inheriting an electoral system of geographic constituencies, rather than pure proportional representation from the start.

    These electorates have always been rigged to give white men on farms more power than they deserve.

    I don’t think it is unique to baby boomers – earlier generations were also open to rural interests dominating despite the numeric advantage of city dwellers.

    The world has voted on the advantages of cities with their feet. Deal with it.

  • Presumably with this, we should be able to say roughly the level of motorways and dedicated PT infrastructure a city of 1.5million would need. Be interesting to see how much Auckland conforms to that or if we are above average in one, and below in another.

  • Dan

    Some physicists think that everything obeys a power law. Geoffrey West appears to fit into that category. I’d ignore him if I were you.

  • qwerty

    lots of long words, lots of bizarre statements “Is Edinburgh a Horse?”, but pretty much nothing of substance.

    With all due respect this post would have been substantially better if you had just finished at your question “…Is there some universal pattern behind the success of cities?…”

    making reference to this lecture has taken more away from the post than added to it.

    • David O

      I’m afraid I’m with qwerty on this one, Patrick. It’s not so much what West is saying,but the fact the he ignores (as physicists sometimes have a habit of doing, http://xkcd.com/793/) pretty much all previous work on cities, that concludes the same or similar things, as if he was the first person ever to think of them. He does at least have the grace to acknowledge Jane Jacobs, but that’s about the height of it. I believe (although it’s technical and even less accessible than West’s work to the average punter) that Cosma Shalizi’s paper http://arxiv.org/abs/1102.4101 shows that if you use per capita quantities rather than city-wide totals in the analysis, then the power law relationship disappears and it’s a lot less clear that size is the most important driver of urban ‘success’ however we choose to measure it.

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