Scaling the Pace of City Growth

Mon, 2016-02-08 11:19 -- SCC India Staff

Scaling the Pace of City Growth

Geoffrey West is a theoretical physicist whose primary interests have dealt with fundamental questions in physics, especially those concerning elementary particles, their interactions and cosmological implications. His research and contribution focuses on Urban Scaling – A process identifying standard growth trends in cities and preparing for a challenging urban future.

Dr. West’s long-term fascination in the general scaling phenomena evolved into a highly productive collaboration on the origin of universal scaling laws that pervade biology from the molecular genomic scale up through mitochondria and cells to whole organisms and ecosystems. This led to the development of realistic quantitative models for the structural and functional design of organisms based on underlying universal principles. His study and research draws fascinating conclusions about the relationship between the sizes of city populations; their ability to create wealth through innovation; sustainability; and what many of us experience as the increasing speed of modern life.

Cities have since long been known to be society's predominant engine of innovation and wealth creation, yet they are also its main source of crime, pollution, and disease. Mass data provided for prediction of urbanisation in India proves that we are soon going to outgrow our resources for the city. This is because, the infrastructure at present cannot keep up to the growing demands of the ever increasing influx of people from rural to urban. The reasons are diverse but the fact remains that we cannot stop this inflow of population towards cities. Instead we have to cater to them, to ensure that this coexistence is fruitful. A common analogy could be that of the container and it’s contents. Cities can no longer be contained by strict peripheries. They are amorphous by nature and infrastructure planning in and around the city has to respect this very nature of a city. At the same time, Professor West is not advocating limitless city growth either; he’s simply analysing and reporting insights from the available data about cities, and doing it in an innovative and important way.
The following is a brief summary of his findings:
Quantitative measures of the creative performance of cities (such as wealth creation or the number of patents and inventions generated by city populations) – grow faster and faster the more that city size increases.
Quantitative measures of the cost of city infrastructures tend to slow down as city size increases, because bigger cities can exploit economies of scale to grow more cheaply than smaller cities.
West found that these trends were incredibly consistent across cities of very different sizes. Professor West hypothesised that city systems such as transportation and utilities, as well as characteristics of the way that humans interact with each other, would similarly provide the underlying reasons for the urban scaling laws. Those systems are exactly what we need to affect if we are to change the relationship between city size and performance in the future. Cities everywhere are already exploring innovative, sustainable ways to create improvements in the performance of their social, economic and environmental systems. For instance, engaging individuals, communities and utility providers in the sustainable use of resources such as energy and water; as Dubuque and Malta have done, will provide cities with the solutions they need.
Dr. West’s research presents empirical evidence indicating that the processes relating urbanization to economic development and knowledge creation are very general, being shared by all cities belonging to the same urban system and sustained across different nations and times. Certainly, city planners of tomorrow have lot to learn from his findings.

Image Source