What are Cities? Density, Efficiency and Social Reactors


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What makes cities work? Image by Henry Photography.

What makes cities work? Image by Henry Photography.

How do cities actually work?  What makes them an efficient way to organize human activity?  What factors influence their growth? The rise of urban populations worldwide make understanding the nature of cites important for future urban planners.

Dr. Luís M. A. Bettencourt, Professor at Santa Fe Institute and former Senior Research Scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory has explained the interaction of  social networking, physical infrastructure, and physical space in a predictive mathematical model by  in the journal Science. 

Bettencourt’s equations, tested on thousands of cities around the world, represent a “set of scaling relations that apply to all urban systems.” Bettencourt describes cities as social reactors, in much the way that stars are nuclear reactors, and set out to learn what made cities burn brightly, or sputter.

Bettencourt, who specializes in understanding complex systems,  believes that taking “a perspective of cities as integrated social networks imbedded in space and time, and requiring general properties for their open-ended land use and infrastructure development” provides “a new unified model of urbanization.”  In other words, understanding cities today means understanding that social (between people) and spatial (in a space) and infrastructural (supporting organizations) systems interact in a predictable manner.

City Size and Efficiency: Influencing Factors

Bettencourt works in abstract concepts.  He factors in land area, network volume (the number of people involved), network length (the amount of space traveled in people’s movement), interactions per capita ( amount of exchanges between people, businesses and other entities, including crime, economic exchanges, and even disease), socioeconomic rates, network power dissipation, and average land rents to predict the growth of thousands of cities.

Bettencourt provided Decoded Science with supplementary information from his research to explain interactions, “The general idea is that, to benefit from their integration in the city, individuals explore different locations at different times but must be able, on their most basic budget, to explore the city fully.”  This leads to density.

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