Urban Explosion and The Significance of Place

Jonah Lehrer  wrote a great post entitled The Importance of Physical Space, building on one written by David Brooks last week, called The Splendor of Cities, essentially about the power people living in cities possess over the rest of the population.  As Lehrer points out, at the beginning of the digital revolution we all thought geography would become irrelevant as people adapted to increasing levels of connectedness.  However, (and I know adaptation on this level takes time) research is showing more and more that everything evolves faster in a densely populated, physical environment.  Brooks explains in his column:

This is a point Edward Glaeser fleshes out in his terrific new book, “Triumph of the City.” Glaeser points out that far from withering in the age of instant global information flows, cities have only become more important.

That’s because humans communicate best when they are physically brought together. Two University of Michigan researchers brought groups of people together face to face and asked them to play a difficult cooperation game. Then they organized other groups and had them communicate electronically. The face-to-face groups thrived. The electronic groups fractured and struggled.

A great study, but if you think about it, it’s no surprise that humans are more effective at solving problems face to face.  Thousands of years of evolution that can’t be undone in 15 years of the world wide web.  Brooks continues:

Cities magnify people’s strengths, Glaeser argues, because ideas spread more easily in dense environments. If you want to compete in a global marketplace it really helps to be near a downtown. Companies that are near the geographic center of their industry are more productive. Year by year, workers in cities see their wages grow faster than workers outside of cities because their skills grow faster. Inventors disproportionately cite ideas from others who live physically close to them.

For years, cities like Detroit built fancy towers and development projects in the hopes that this would revive the downtown core. But cities thrive because they host quality conversations, not because they have new buildings and convention centers.

Jane Jacobs was intuitively aware of this in her monumental attack on urban planning, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” (1961) when she said, “Cities are fantastically dynamic places, and this is strikingly true of the successful parts, which offer a fertile ground for the plans of thousands of people.”  But, as Jonah Lehrer points out in an interview from November with Geoffrey West, entitled A Physicist Solves the City, the future value of cities is about more that just accelerating the spread of ideas:

In city after city, the indicators of urban “metabolism,” like the number of gas stations or the total surface area of roads, showed that when a city doubles in size, it requires an increase in resources of only 85 percent.  This phenomenon is known as “sublinear scaling.”

Geoffrey West is well-known for first discovering this principle to be true in the metabolism of animals of all sizes and species.

This straightforward observation has some surprising implications. It suggests, for instance, that modern cities are the real centers of sustainability. According to the data, people who live in densely populated places require less heat in the winter and need fewer miles of asphalt per capita.

West and his colleagues (like Edward Glaseser) looked at the other factors that seem to change with increases in urban populations:

According to the data, whenever a city doubles in size, every measure of economic activity, from construction spending to the amount of bank deposits, increases by approximately 15 percent per capita. It doesn’t matter how big the city is; the law remains the same. “This remarkable equation is why people move to the big city,” West says. “Because you can take the same person, and if you just move them to a city that’s twice as big, then all of a sudden they’ll do 15 percent more of everything that we can measure.”

West and Bettencourt refer to this phenomenon as “superlinear scaling,” which is a fancy way of describing the increased output of people living in big cities.  According to West, these superlinear patterns demonstrate why cities are one of the single most important inventions in human history. They are the idea, he says, that enabled our economic potential and unleashed our ingenuity. “When we started living in cities, we did something that had never happened before in the history of life,” West says. “We broke away from the equations of biology, all of which are sublinear. Every other creature gets slower as it gets bigger. That’s why the elephant plods along. But in cities, the opposite happens. As cities get bigger, everything starts accelerating. There is no equivalent for this in nature. It would be like finding an elephant that’s proportionally faster than a mouse.”

180,000 people move to citites each day, equating to 60 million per year (Intuit, October 2010).  50.5% of the planet now lives in urban areas.  A number that would be significantly higher if outliers such as China, Africa and India were removed, however these three areas will be undergoing some of the most rapid urban expansion in the world over the next several decades (CIA: The World Factbook).

All of this indicates that a new individual is flocking to and being re-born in America’s cities.  One who is driven, spontaneous, social, open-minded and accepting.  One who, almost unknowingly, is welding the friction caused by population density to become more creative and innovative, all while consuming less resources.  However, it’s not all roses.  As Lehrer and West point out:

Because our lifestyle has become so expensive to maintain, every new resource now becomes exhausted at a faster rate. This means that the cycle of innovations has to constantly accelerate, with each breakthrough providing a shorter reprieve.  The end result is that cities aren’t just increasing the pace of life; they are also increasing the pace at which life changes.  “Once we started to urbanize, we put ourselves on this treadmill. We traded away stability for growth.  And growth requires change.”


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