|Photo: Vincent Laforest, NY TImes|
Click your heels - solve the city! If only math solved our problems so simply. The TV program Numbers will have us believe it is possible.
I just read a fascinating story in the New York Times magazine (December 17, 2010) about Geoffrey West, a retired physicist - "A Physicist Solves the City."
Every now and then a thinker from one field jumps into another. Sometimes the field-jumper creates new genius, such as Gavin Menzies the ex-submarine commander who posed a new history of how the European Renaissance was ignited by a Chinese fleet in his best-seller 1421: The Year China Discovered the World (2002).
Other times the field-jumper creates Frankenstein. Such is case with ex-lawyer and amateur anthropologist Madison Grant who wrote The Passing of the Great White Race (1916) to explain white racial superiority. Hitler based Mein Kampf on that pseudo-scientific nonsense.
It's too early to tell which version emerges in Solving the City. Ex-physicists West and Luis Bettencourt apply a mathematics known as “superlinear scaling,” to explain patterns in large cities. Superlinear scaling is not dissimilar to threshold theory in criminology that we proposed in 1994 to predict tipping points in crime areas.
“What we found are the constants that describe every city,” says West. “I can take these laws and make precise predictions about the number of violent crimes… I don’t know anything about this city or even where it is or its history, but I can tell you all about it."
West sees cities as a sprawling, uncontrollable organism (though apparently, a predictable one. A fascinating paradox unanswered in the Times story).
The City - An urban ecosystem
West joins a long line of urban thinkers who express the belief that cities are a kind of urban ecosystem, thinkers such as Jane Jacobs and Amos Hawley.
Human ecology is, incidentally, the same theoretical proposition on which SafeGrowth is based.
Solving the puzzle of how cities "work" with the mathematics of superlinear scaling sounds simplistic and naive. Then again, my favorite West quote makes me think he may be on to something:
“Think about how powerless a mayor is,” West says. “They can’t tell people where to live or what to do or who to talk to. Cities can’t be managed, and that’s what keeps them so vibrant. They’re just these insane masses of people, bumping into each other and maybe sharing an idea or two. It’s the freedom of the city that keeps it alive.”
That's the same thing Richard Florida suggests through his "creative class".
Read the article on West HERE.