Geoffrey West: The theoretical physicist with the grand unified theory of cities

Geoffrey West giving a talk in Rekjavik in 2011. Image: Árni Torfason via Flickr.

So, here's a thing. If you double the size of a city, then you don't quite double its infrastructure. If a city of 1m expands to become one of 2m, then the number of, say, petrol stations it has per person will fall by approximately 15 per cent.

This rule of thumb carries over to all sorts of other stuff: the size of the road network, the length of its electrical cables, the size of its sewer system... The more people you have, the less of any given resource each of them will need.

You can probably get your head round this fairly easily: we're all familiar with economies of scale. But bear with me, because it's about to get weirder.

That's because there are other things that increase as a city grows – and the magic number this time is exactly the same. If you double the size of a city, the average wages will increase by approximately 15 per cent. So will the number of patents logged. So will crime. So will energy consumption. So will the number of AIDS cases. For a city, it turns out, growth is kind of a good news/bad news deal.

“The problem of the 21st century is urbanisastion

All this is the contention of Professor Geoffrey West: an English-born theoretical physicist, now working at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. A few years ago he turned his attention to the urban world, set up a team to gather numbers on cities all over the world, and started crunching the hell out of them. His goal, he explained in a 2011 TED talk, was nothing less than universally applicable, grand unified theory:

"My provocative statement is that we desperately need a serious scientific theory of cities. [That] means quantifiable, relying on underlying generic principles that can be made into a predictive framework. That's the quest."

Most of West's research has involved elementary particles, and even though his attention has long since moved onto subjects as diverse as cities, corporations and biology, he says that he still thinks of himself as a physicist: he just wants to bring that paradigm to more complex systems. Physics, he tells me, “is about simplicity. You can encapsulate enormous amounts of data and concepts – the origins of the universe, a theory of everything – in a single equation".

A slide from West's Ted talk, showing how employment and wages increase with population.

Cities are a bit more complicated than particles of course, subject to social and political forces that are entirely independent of straightforward metrics like population size. (Even the latter is contested: West himself bemoans the fact that there isn't a single, universal definition of how to define their limits.) As a result, any two cities of similar size, but which have had radically different histories – London and Moscow, say, or New York and Jakarta – will look radically different, too.

But West's contention was that it ought to be possible to understand and predict the characteristics of a city in at least broad strokes. Even if there’s no way to predict when any given individual will die, "we ought to be able to understand why the scale of a human lifespan is 100 years". By the same token, while you can't look at London and predict the characteristics of Moscow, you should be able to use the two cities’ relative sizes to make some educated guesses about Manchester.

When he started this line of research, one of West’s questions was whether cities behaved according to biological rules: “Are cities part of biology?" he asked in his TED talk. “Is London a great big whale?"

As it turns out, though, things are rather more complicated than that. Animals obey what are known as “sub linear relationships”: if you double the size of an organism, you only need 75 per cent more energy to run it. Pound for pound, elephants are more efficient than mice, so have lower metabolic rates and longer lifespans. (West has studied this, too.)

Cities obey these rules when it comes to their infrastructure. But they invert them when it comes to social factors like wages, patents, crime and so forth, where instead they obey super linear relationships: the bigger something is, the more per capita it has. "The question you have to ask,” West says, “is why should that be when urban systems evolved independently.”

His answer is that it’s because of the thing they have in common: human beings, and the network effect you get from putting a lot of them in one place. "The bigger you are, the more interactions take place, the more we talk, and the more we can create more wealth, new ideas, and so on.”

West's research has come in for criticism. Not every animal has been kind enough to obey his laws (the crayfish stubbornly refuses). The same is true of cities, and it isn't always a matter of diverse national histories, either. Over the last couple of decades, the US has seen a lot of growth shift to the suburbs, with much of the real economic innovation coming not from highly networked and high energy places like New York or LA, but from leafy low density areas like Silicon Valley.

West’s response is that his work is simply a first draft, something he expects others to refine and build on. "Overall the response has been very positive. The only serious negative response has come from economists. But I don't think of economics as a serious science, I think they were just threatened."

Anyway, he says, it’s better to have a flawed theory than no theory at all – and coming up with one is a matter of some urgency. The one thing that stops a superlinear growth curve – and the reason we wouldn’t be better off living in one planet-wide city of 8bn people – is the limitation of natural resources. The bigger cities get, the higher living standards are, and the more we consume. (There is some evidence contradicting this in specific contexts - New Yorkers burn less petrol than the residents of Phoenix, Arizona – but it does seem, globally, to hold true.)  That means that, once in a while, we run into a cliff edge: you simply can't get any bigger at current resource levels.

Historically we've got around that through technological innovation. But the more energy hungry we get, the faster those innovations have to come to keep things moving. In other words, West told TED, "We're not only on a treadmill that's going faster: we have to change the treadmill faster and faster. The question is, can we as socio-economic beings avoid a heart attack?"

The grand unified theory of cities isn't going to solve that all by itself. But it could make a contribution, by offering some clues as to how we maximise growth while minimising energy usage, West says. "The purpose of urban planning is finding a way to minimize our distress while maximising our interactions."

Previous attempts to begin new cities from scratch – from Canberra to Milton Keynes to Brasilia – have initially been a failure. It’s only after half a century or more of “iteration and organic growth that they began to take on a certain well-being,” West notes. Today, though, we don't have 50 years: around a million people are estimated to be moving to cities every week, and China is aiming to build hundreds of new settlements over the next couple of decades. 

"The problem of the 21st century is urbanisation," West concludes. "Climate change is actually a supplementary problem to understanding cities.” You wouldn’t build an aeroplane without doing some science, he notes – but when it comes to our urban habitats, “that is pretty much what we've done in the past". If we're to survive the 21st century, it might be time for a change in approach.

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America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 


In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.