The laws of the city

2 Aug 2012

A deluge of data makes cities laboratories for those seeking to run them better, according to The Economist.

NO FACE looks alike, but human bodies and their genetic make-up are almost identical. Cities too have distinctive charms—but are surprisingly alike behind their façades. Regardless of size, their populations grow at the same average rate everywhere in the world. A city twice as large as its neighbour is likely to be 15% richer. The mix of green space and built-up areas tends to be equal everywhere.

Such findings reflect a recent shift in urban research. Better technology has turned cities into fountains of data that confirm known regularities and reveal striking new patterns. This could transform how cities are regarded, built and managed. Attempts to contain urban sprawl, long the prevailing paradigm of urban planning, for instance, could fall out of favour. Cities could be run with the sort of finely tuned mix of technology and performance associated with Formula 1 racing cars.

Back in the 1940s, George Zipf, an American researcher, noted that a city's population is inversely proportional to its rank in a country. His law holds that the largest city is always about twice as big as the second largest, three times as big as the third largest, and so on. Other regularities have emerged since. Big cities decentralise as they grow, creating more jobs outside the centre. Urban population density in all industrialised countries declines slowly as you move away from the centre. (Moscow, exceptionally, is the other way round.)

The lack of good numbers used to limit such studies. Now data abound. The United Nations and other organisations make most of their statistics freely available. Data have also become more comparable between cities and even between countries. Most important, transport and telecoms networks, and social media, are spawning new data as a free by-product.

This has triggered new research.

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Image: Robin Chevalier / The Economist

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