Urban Paradox

/ by Geoffrey West /

Why the future of humanity and the long-term sustainability of the planet are inextricably linked to the fate of our cities.

In 2008 a historic landmark was crossed, with more than half the world’s population now living in urban centers. Cities have traditionally been — and continue to be — crucibles for creativity, innovation, and wealth; as such, their extraordinary growth is often associated with a rapid rise in living standards, prosperity, and quality of life. Indeed, the more-urbanized countries are, on average, richer, and the world’s two most populous countries, China and India, are undergoing unprecedented experiments in urbanization, mostly as a means of achieving greater wealth. 

Analyses of data confirm these trends. Regardless of the indicator, the larger the city, the more innovative the “social capital” it produces. For example, if the size of a city doubles, then, on average, wages, wealth, the number of patents, and the number of educational and research institutions all increase by approximately the same degree, about 15 percent. We refer to this systematic phenomenon as “superlinear scaling”: The bigger the city, the more the average citizen owns, produces, and consumes, whether it’s goods, resources, or ideas. As urban creatures we all participate in this process, manifested in the metropolitan buzz of productivity, speed, and ingenuity.

However, the dark side of urban life manifests an analogous “superlinear” behavior. Doubling the size of a city increases wealth and innovation by about 15 percent, but it also increases the amount of crime, pollution, and disease by roughly the same amount. Apparently, the good and the ugly come hand in glove, an integrated, almost predictable, package. A person drawn to the city by innovation, a greater sense of “action,” and higher wages can also expect to confront an equivalent increase in smog, garbage, theft, stomach flu, and AIDS. 

Until the middle of the last century, this dual nature of cities as the origin of wealth and ideas and, at the same time, of pollution and disease was not perceived as a serious threat because cities were still subdominant in terms of population. As cities began to dominate, their entropy production inevitably led to degradation of the environment, severe stresses on resources and energy, and the beginnings of the multiple “sustainability” problems we face in the 21st century. Cities have emerged as the source of the biggest challenges the planet has met since humans became social, yet as reservoirs of creativity and ideas, they are also the source of the solution. 

The remarkable and seemingly inextricable linkage between the benefits and costs of community very likely has its origins in the “universal” network structure and group clustering of human interactions: When humans began serious interpersonal interactions about 10,000 years ago, forming sizeable communities, discovering economies of scale and the fruits of “wealth creation,” they brought a fundamentally new dynamic to the planet, a dynamic beyond biology. The resource and energy networks that have evolved to sustain biological organisms and ecosystems are primarily dominated by economies of scale (“sublinear scaling”). The dynamics of such networks constrain the pace of biological life to decrease systematically with increasing size. For example, in comparison with small mammals, big mammals live longer, take longer to mature, and have slower heart rates and cells that work less hard (think mouse versus elephant!).

In contrast, the social networks that underlie the “superlinear scaling” of wealth creation, innovation, crime, and pollution behave in exactly the opposite fashion: The bigger the organization, the faster the pace of life. In big cities, disease spreads more quickly, business is transacted more rapidly, and people walk faster  — all in approximately the same systematic, predictable way (the same ~15 percent rule).

Moreover, organisms like mammals stop growing, reaching a roughly fixed size at maturity. Over time scales that are enormous compared with human social time scales, biological systems are relatively stable and sustainable, with major changes taking place over thousands or millions of years. In contrast, in social organizations where growth is driven by superlinear scaling, growth is unbounded, never reaching an “asymptotic” stable state, and proceeding at a rate that is faster than exponential. To sustain such growth in the light of resource limitation requires continuous cycles of paradigm-shifting innovations such as the discovery of iron, steam, computation, and most recently, digital technology. Indeed, the litany of such breakthroughs is testament to the extraordinary ingenuity of the human social mind when it comes to overcoming resource limits. There is, however, a serious catch: Theory dictates that the time between successive innovations must get shorter and shorter. So if we insist on continuous growth driven by wealth creation, not only does the pace of life inevitably quicken, but we must also innovate at a faster and faster rate! 

Until recent times the interval between major innovations far exceeded the productive life span of a human being. But this is no longer true: The time between the most recent major shift from computers to IT was only about 20 years and is destined to get even shorter. This pace is surely not sustainable and, if nothing changes, we are heading for a major crash — a potential collapse of the entire socioeconomic fabric. Can we return to an analogue of the sublinear, “biological” phase whence we evolved and its attendant, natural, no-growth, asymptotically stable configuration? Is this even possible? Can we have the kind of vibrant, innovative, creative society driven by ideas and wealth creation as manifested by the best of our world’s cities, or are we destined for a planet of urban slums or the specter raised by McCarthy’s The Road? The challenge is clear: The key to long-term sustainability of the planet lies in applying a scientific lens to cities, with the goal of understanding their dynamic structure, growth, and evolution.  — Geoffrey West is a theoretical physicist and former president of the Santa Fe Institute.

Originally published February 2, 2009

Tags cities crime demographics development growth population

Share this Stumbleupon Reddit Email + More


  • Ideas

    I Tried Almost Everything Else

    John Rinn, snowboarder, skateboarder, and “genomic origamist,” on why we should dumpster-dive in our genomes and the inspiration of a middle-distance runner.

  • Ideas

    Going, Going, Gone

    The second most common element in the universe is increasingly rare on Earth—except, for now, in America.

  • Ideas

    Earth-like Planets Aren’t Rare

    Renowned planetary scientist James Kasting on the odds of finding another Earth-like planet and the power of science fiction.

The Seed Salon

Video: conversations with leading scientists and thinkers on fundamental issues and ideas at the edge of science and culture.

Are We Beyond the Two Cultures?

Video: Seed revisits the questions C.P. Snow raised about science and the humanities 50 years by asking six great thinkers, Where are we now?

Saved by Science

Audio slideshow: Justine Cooper's large-format photographs of the collections behind the walls of the American Museum of Natural History.

The Universe in 2009

In 2009, we are celebrating curiosity and creativity with a dynamic look at the very best ideas that give us reason for optimism.

Revolutionary Minds
The Interpreters

In this installment of Revolutionary Minds, five people who use the new tools of science to educate, illuminate, and engage.

The Seed Design Series

Leading scientists, designers, and architects on ideas like the personal genome, brain visualization, generative architecture, and collective design.

The Seed State of Science

Seed examines the radical changes within science itself by assessing the evolving role of scientists and the shifting dimensions of scientific practice.

A Place for Science

On the trail of the haunts, homes, and posts of knowledge, from the laboratory to the field.


Witness the science. Stunning photographic portfolios from the pages of Seed magazine.

SEEDMAGAZINE.COM by Seed Media Group. ©2005-2015 Seed Media Group LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Sites by Seed Media Group: Seed Media Group | ScienceBlogs | Research Blogging | SEEDMAGAZINE.COM