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.