When I first read about Geoffrey West’s plan to “solve the city” I was not too surprised by the his idea of metropolis as a “sprawling organism,” and thus the reason cities keep on growing, “is their ability to create massive economies of scale, just as big animals do.” As a physicist he has been striving to find a single equation that solves how the city grows and in one New York Times article last year he describes that he and fellow researchers found “the constants that describe every city,” meaning that he, “…can take these laws and make precise predictions about the number of violent crimes and the surface area of roads in a city in Japan with 200,000 people. I don’t know anything about this city or even where it is or its history, but I can tell you all about it.”
This argument didn’t seem too different than other urban economist and scientist that try to neatly package and understand the complex nature of cities.
Then I found an interview as part of Forbes’ Megacities Blog, where West is asked: How do slums fit into his equation of the city? His answer:
Slums could be thought of as the development of a special organ, or they could be thought of as a tumor that’s grown, and in some ways is unhealthy and could ultimately lead to the city’s destruction. My own feeling is that slums are probably a bit of both. One of the remarkable things about slums is that they do develop their own social organization and economy and even culture that is, on some level, functional and in some cases, remarkably resilient. This is kind of amazing.
In the end it looks like West and his fellow researchers broke away from the neat and orderly equations that govern biology, as they realized cities defy these rules. Instead of getting slower as they grow like animals, cities tend to accelerate. He explains “There is no equivalent for this in nature. It would be like finding an elephant that’s proportionally faster than a mouse.”
West doesn’t directly give advice to urban planners in these interviews but he does want all to know that cities are not about the buildings and infrastructure, but they are all about the people and their interactions.
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.