I’ve just caught up with a wonderful New York Times article on the underlying social structure of cities and how seemingly simple mathematical formulas can describe the complexities of urban living.
Geoffrey West is an ex-particle physicist who decided to ‘solve’ cities and set about looking for mathematical laws in the seething mass of statistics generated by city life.
There is something deeply strange about thinking of the metropolis in such abstract terms. We usually describe cities, after all, as local entities defined by geography and history. New Orleans isn’t a generic place of 336,644 people. It’s the bayou and Katrina and Cajun cuisine. New York isn’t just another city. It’s a former Dutch fur-trading settlement, the center of the finance industry and home to the Yankees.
And yet, West insists, those facts are mere details, interesting anecdotes that don’t explain very much. The only way to really understand the city, West says, is to understand its deep structure, its defining patterns, which will show us whether a metropolis will flourish or fall apart. We can’t make our cities work better until we know how they work. And, West says, he knows how they work.
It’s not just about the fundamental of our most complex human societies though – the article reflects on the role of large social groups in human development and their varying forms of durability.
My description doesn’t nearly do the piece justice, however, which remains one of the most intriguing and stimulating articles I’ve ever read on the evolution of urban living.