The Equations of Cities

After months in preparation for DCFR’s second Series “D” program, the panel on “Prospects for Cities” with Santa Fe Institute’s Geoffrey West and SMU Cox’s Maria Minniti concluded and left many realizing that this work on cities has only just begun. Essentially Dr. West’s quest is to develop a theory on cities — their structure, dynamics and growth. In a post-program interview, West commented that cities seem so individual but they have many universal fundamentals, as his research revealed. But at their core, ‘cities are the people, not the buildings, companies or roads,’ though they are often identified as such. Cities are also not arbitrary. Those planning for their growth or wishing for change need to understand the fundamentals which underly cities. This was what we attempted to decipher from the panel presentations.

Several ideas, to date, stand out:

• Innovation is moving much faster than in era’s past. With life moving at a faster pace than ever before, innovations come faster. But this cannot continue in perpetuity. Systems break down.

• Changing directions for a city requires decades, which is not the usual tenures of elected officials.

• Cities, as a socio-economic phenomenon, are a physical manifestation of the very networks which comprise human activity and interactions.

• Cities are facilitators of human interaction.

• West suggested we needed to be thinking about cities in a structured way about 75 years ago.

• Cities are a great lesson in economies of scale.

• Entrepreneurs are a vital part of economic growth, and the necessary conditions (and lack of obstructive policy) must exist for their activity to take-off.

• Urbanization on a global scale will present opportunities and problems. Well-run and well-planned cities can be a solution, but understand and plan for the dark side of growth, such as crime, pollution, and health issues.

West’s research can be seen as ground zero for the many institutes, think tanks, and government initiatives attempting to understand and harness the growth of cities. Slides from the panel are coming soon, as well as a Global Themes brief. Check on DCFR’s slideshare page.

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