Life in the City Is Essentially One Giant Math Problem

Smithsonian Magazine : “A new science—so new it doesn’t have its own journal, or even an agreed-upon name—is exploring these laws. We will call it “quantitative urbanism.” It’s an effort to reduce to mathematical formulas the chaotic, exuberant, extravagant nature of one of humanity’s oldest and most important inventions, the city.

The systematic study of cities dates back at least to the Greek historian Herodotus. In the early 20th century, scientific disciplines emerged around specific aspects of urban development: zoning theory, public health and sanitation, transit and traffic engineering. By the 1960s, the urban-planning writers Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte used New York as their laboratory to study the street life of neighborhoods, the walking patterns of Midtown pedestrians, the way people gathered and sat in open spaces. But their judgments were generally aesthetic and intuitive…

Only in the past decade has the ability to collect and analyze information about the movement of people begun to catch up to the size and complexity of the modern metropolis itself…

Deep mathematical principles underlie even such seemingly random and historically contingent facts as the distribution of the sizes of cities within a country. There is, typically, one largest city, whose population is twice that of the second-largest, and three times the third-largest, and increasing numbers of smaller cities whose sizes also fall into a predictable pattern. This principle is known as Zipf’s law, which applies across a wide range of phenomena…”

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