Thursday, July 28th, 2011

Geoffrey West TED Talk on the Surprising Math of Cities

I’ve previously featured writings about Geoffrey West and his band of researchers who have been trying to show that cities follow a series of fairly simple mathematical laws related to their size, similar to biological organisms. Their findings are controversial to many, but it’s certainly worth considering what they have to say if nothing else. Geoffrey West recently gave a TED talk on their findings that I think presents them in a very accessible way, so here it is for those who are interested. There are certainly some potentially interesting implications in here. (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here).

h/t Dave Hix

Update: Courtesy of Jim Russell, here’s a thougthful analysis of Dr. West’s work.

Topics: Demographic Analysis, Economic Development, Sustainability, Talent Attraction

7 Responses to “Geoffrey West TED Talk on the Surprising Math of Cities”

  1. Jim Russell says:


    What’s so controversial about the findings?

  2. I can’t cite anything off hand, but recall reading some things critical of it. I also can’t help but note that in other areas this is used as a call for increasing density, when the findings themselves don’t seem to make any reference to density, only size.

  3. Jim Russell says:

    According to this (West) model, density is irrelevant. If you stumble upon a salient critique, let me know. I would like to read one.

  4. Here is a piece that talks about density. It’s not entirely clear to me how that got in there, but it seems like if not West himself, then others are trying to use his conclusions to justify high density cities.

    Here was my reaction to this at the time:

    The NYT Magazine article from last Sunday about a physicist who claims to have solved the city by reducing it to “a few exquisitely simple equations.” has been getting tons of airplay in the urbanist world.

    I can’t figure out why. The article is IMO poorly written and despite its length, it doesn’t actually tell us much at all about what these equations are or what they say. We only learn three things about this:

    1. Cities get more cost efficient as they grow larger
    2. People are more productive in bigger cities. (“cities are valuable because they facilitate human interactions”)
    3. Social pathologies of various types increase at a greater than proportional with city size.

    None of these says much new. The first one is a straightforward application of scale economics. If you’ve got fixed costs and variable costs, your unit cost declines as volume increases. That’s why high volume manufacturers have a lower unit cost than small ones. The productivity can easily be taken both from Adam Smith’s division of labor principle – larger cities enable greater specialization and division of labor – and the reduction of transaction costs – both properties of cities that have long been known. As for crime and the big city? Puhleeze. So where’s the beef in this article?

    Presumably urbanists get excited because West mentions Jane Jacobs and seems to endorse density and urban form. But a careful reading shows that the article itself never asserts West is claiming anything about density or urbanity in his equations, only city size. He also doesn’t explain why cities like Detroit stop growing while new ones like Atlanta spring up and many other things a casual observer can note about cities. Detroit didn’t suffer from any exhaustion of resources other than customers willing to buy its cars at a profitable price, for example.

    Possibly his actual work contains more than this, but this weak article certainly doesn’t bring it to life. In short, I can’t figure out what all the excitement is about.

  5. Jim Russell says:

    You can view the piece in Nature here:

    The density dividend, if you will, is relative to non-urban patterns. Size (i.e. population) measures metro, not urban core. The observed boon is an average over all cities, regardless of density.

    I notice that West and Bettencourt venture into the realm of urban policy. It’s a sloppy turn. The TED talk was much better.

  6. Matthew Hall says:

    I agree with Urbanophile, that this isn’t really revolutionary to those who follow the public debate on urban development. The difficulty and opportunities of growing beyond certain economic and population limits is well known in many circles. The difficulty many cities have in pushing through the 2 million population barrier and the clear difference in social, economic and political sophistication between metros of 1.5 or even 1.8 million and those of 2.1 or 2.2 million certainly holds true in the U.S. in my experience. Despite their growth in indy and columbus they are clearly much simpler places than cincy or cleveland despite seemingly small differences in current population. This is whay portland and austin are so interesting to so many. They managed to do this within a generation. I doubt charlotte, nashville, or raleigh ever will.

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