The Frontal Cortex

The Living City

I’ve got an article in the latest Seed on some research that applies metabolic theory to the metropolis:

Cities have always been compared to organisms – Plato talked about the city as a corporeal body – but being underneath the street makes the metaphor literal. These are the guts of the city, the metal intestines that allow the suburbs to sprawl and the skyscrapers to rise. The fiber optic cables are nerves, and the subway tunnels are thick jugular veins. Energy is being distributed and waste is being digested. All this work generates a sort of carnal heat, which escapes from the grates in the gutters. The foul steam is exhaled breath.

But how true is this metaphor? Are cities really like living things? A team of physicists and economists led by Geoffrey West of the Santa Fe Institute recently set out to answer these questions. It turns out that, in many respects, cities act just like animals. They obey the same metabolic laws that govern every organism. Their infrastructure follows a distinctly biological design. According to the data from their April 2007 PNAS paper, the urban spaces we’ve created have come to resemble their creators. A city is just a body writ large.

And yet, the researchers also found that cities are an unprecedented phenomenon. When it comes to the growth of social variables⎯things like economic activity that don’t have any clear biological analogue⎯cities break every rule. They are free from the constraints of ordinary living things, and are instead subject to an entirely new set of requirements. “Once men and women started to form themselves into stable communities,” West says, “they introduced a completely new dynamic to this planet, perhaps even the universe.”

The article also includes digressions into the nature of heartbeats, the walking pace of pedestrians, the future of innovation and the urban theory of Jane Jacobs. Now that more than half of humanity is living in cities, it’s even more essential to understand how, exactly, cities work.

This issue of Seed also includes Chris Mooney on science writers in the developing world, PZ on vertebrae, Carl Zimmer on the meaning of life and Maggie Wittlin on dark matter. It’s a solid issue. Check it out.


  1. #1 Nate
    July 1, 2007

    I am so glad that there are all those economists and physicists to teach us about life.

  2. #2 Johanna Reed
    July 2, 2007

    I read your article over the weekend, and was very intrigued. City functions are an interest of mine; your piece reminded me a bit of Stephen Johnson’s latest book, The Ghost Map, which investigates cities in a similar way. I had a question for you (well, maybe more than one) about how you classify the size of the cities that provided the data for your piece. In one part of the article, you talk about the difference between the energy consumption of those who live in large cities, versus those who live in small ones, or towns. (For those who haven’t read it yet: it states that big-city dwellers consume less energy than those who live in small towns, because of the inherent efficiency in metropolises.) Also, you talk about people who live “outside” of cities. Do you have an actual comparison of the numbers here, in terms of energy consumption rates and the populations of the places? What does it mean to live in a small city, outside of one, or in a small town? And: what do the numbers that imply different consumption rates look like? Are there geographical implications, or is it industrial? For example, do small farming towns, coal mining towns, or fishing ports of the same population size have different consumption rates, from each other? And what are they in comparison to a big city, say New York (pop: 10 mil), or Seattle (pop: 600,000)? Also: what about a city of under 500,000 people? Is that considered “small”? How far “outside” of a city do you need to go before you start consuming more energy than those who live downtown? I ask because I live in a “city” of 100,000, though we are a quite close to the megapolis Los Angeles. Are we, according to your findings, higher consumers than our LA counterparts, but lower than our neighboring ranch towns half hour to the north? Thanks! (Also – I’m addicted to The Superficial, now, no thanks to your link.)

  3. #3 Derek Lomas
    July 3, 2007

    Fascinating. Recognizing that we live within a ‘super-organism’ may be one of the major conceptual shifts of our times.

    I’ve recently started living in Mumbai, India–the largest city in the world. This place triggers a whole new perspective on self-organization within urban environments. 40% of the population here live in densely connected slums–these people live not in total destitution, but participate in a multitude of (self)organized industries. Furthermore, the road traffic in Mumbai is radically different, often disregarding any formal rules governing the right-of-way through intersections; rather, the thousands of cars and autorickshaws resemble people walking through a crowded subway station. A car horn is critical, for cars need to communicate their intentions to their neighbors. The negotiation of traffic becomes a social engagement! The largest and most dense city in the world is truly wild: a feral city.

    You might be interested in a project I’m working on at the California Institute of Telecommunication and Information Technology (Calit2). Called ‘Transparent City’, it seeks to represent the city as an organism by displaying the collective movement of its inhabitants:

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