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May, 2009

The Natural Growth of Cities

Mathematician Steve Strogatz (who was a mentor of Duncan Watts) has an excellent guest column column up at the Olivia Judson blog about the math of cities. In it he outlines some recent (and not-so-recent) discoveries in how cities scale and develop fairly consistently. As Strogatz waxes at the end:

These numerical coincidences seem to be telling us something profound. It appears that Aristotle's metaphor of a city as a living thing is more than merely poetic. There may be deep laws of collective organization at work here, the same laws for aggregates of people and cells.

It was also interesting to compare the following quote with something Paul Krugman wrote about Hong Kong last week. First Strogatz, "Keep in mind that this pattern emerged on its own. No city planner imposed it, and no citizens conspired to make it happen. Something is enforcing this invisible law, but we're still in the dark about what that something might be." Now Krugman:

Hong Kong, with its incredible cluster of tall buildings stacked up the slope of a mountain, is the way the future was supposed to look. The future -- the way I learned it from science-fiction movies -- was supposed to be Manhattan squared: vertical, modernistic, art decoish.

What the future mainly ended up looking like instead was Atlanta -- sprawl, sprawl, and even more sprawl, a landscape of boxy malls and McMansions. Bo-ring.

The future is never as "pretty" as we would imagine it and when we try to impose that false image what we're often left with is something that may look fine for a year, or even five, but won't age much past that. Kind of interesting to think that part of the reason is that there is something organic and natural happening as cities sprout and when we impose false barriers we're somehow standing in the way. With that said, there are laws in ever major city in the world, so who's to say what's "natural" and what's not?

No real conclusion here, just some interesting stuff to think about (and a realization that I need to read some more from Strogatz). Oh, and the Hong Kong thing was especially interesting because I'm supposed to be going there in a few weeks, so if you have any tips on things to do/people to see while I'm there, please leave a comment or drop a line.

May 25, 2009
Noah Brier | Thanks for reading. | Don't fake the funk on a nasty dunk.