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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How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 


CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.