Cities Are a New Kind of Complex System: Part Social Reactor, Part ...

From the Santa Fe Institute, Professor Luis Bettencourt dramatically advances our understanding of how cities function.

In a paper published this week in Science, Bettencourt derives a series of mathematical formulas that describe how cities' properties vary in relation to their population size, and then posits a novel unified, quantitative framework for understanding how cities function and grow.

His resulting theoretical framework predicts very closely dozens of statistical relationships observed in thousands of real cities around the world for which reliable data are available.

"As more people lead urban lives and the number and size of cities expand everywhere, understanding more quantitatively how cities function is increasingly important," Bettencourt says. "Only with a much better understanding of what cities are will we be able to seize the opportunities that cities create and try to avoid some of the immense problems they present. This framework is a step toward a better grasp of the functioning of cities everywhere."

... the foundation for a quantitative theory of cities. Its bricks and mortar are the statistical "scaling" relationships that seem to predict, based on a city's size, the average numerical characteristics of a city, from the number of patents it produces to the total length of its roads or the number of social interactions its inhabitants enjoy. Those relationships and the related equations, models, network analyses, and methods provide the basis for Bettencourt's theoretical framework.

... cities achieve something very special as they grow. They balance the creation of larger and denser social webs that encourage people to learn, specialize, and depend on each other in new and deeper ways, with an increase in the extent and quality of infrastructure.

The paper shows how obstacles to socialization, such as crime or segregation, and enablers that promote the ability of people to connect, such as transportation and electricity, all become part of the same equation.

"Rapid urbanization is the fastest, most intense social phenomenon that ever happened to humankind, perhaps to biology on Earth," says Bettencourt. [emphasis mine]

Tags: quantitative theory of cities

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