December 22, 2010

Geoffrey West, Physicist, Solves the City!

The New York Times Magazine ran an article in the most recent issue titled, "A Physicist Solves the City." Apart from the pretension of, you know, solving a city, I have one other thing to say:

SCOOP there it is!

The article draws its topic from the report published in Nature magazine, brought to my attention by dear reader and resident Scientific Correspondent, KH. I covered it about two months ago with the slightly less ambitious title of "A Unified Theory of Urban Living."

In any case, the findings are excellent, and though the air of conscious superiority that suffuses Mr. West is a bit noxious, I doff my hat to him. Just like I do to the other self-consciously superior Mr. West.

The quick summary is that Mr. West and his collegue, Luis Bettencourt lay good claim to have discovered the urban planning equivalent of Kepler's Laws of Planetary Motion. The notion is that without knowledge of what rules govern a system, efforts to understand, assess, and make improvement to that system are inevitably hindered by the lack of a proper yardstick.

“What we found are the constants that describe every city,” [West] says. “I can take these laws and make precise predictions about the number of violent crimes and the surface area of roads in a city in Japan with 200,000 people. I don’t know anything about this city or even where it is or its history, but I can tell you all about it. And the reason I can do that is because every city is really the same.” After a pause, as if reflecting on his hyperbole, West adds: “Look, we all know that every city is unique. That’s all we talk about when we talk about cities, those things that make New York different from L.A., or Tokyo different from Albuquerque. But focusing on those differences misses the point. Sure, there are differences, but different from what? We’ve found the what.”

"The what" has two key pieces: 1) as cities double in size, their infrastructure footprint only increases by 85%, on average. 2) As cities increase in size, per capita socioeconomic quantities such as wages, GDP, number of patents produced and number of educational and research institutions all increase by approximately 15% more than the expected linear growth. Congestion and crime do, too.

West treats point 2 as a statistical proof of Jane Jacobs' theory that cities should be built to generate diversity by building densely and facilitating easy pedestrian movement and interaction:

“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.”

Geoffrey and Kanye should get in touch--two Mr. Wests re-writing the possibilities of their respective fields. And don't they know it.

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