Economics The Law of Cities

Tyanna of Pentos

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Or "Ancient and modern cities aren't so different"

Despite notable differences in appearance and governance, ancient human settlements function in much the same way as modern cities, according to new findings by researchers at the Santa Fe Institute and the University of Colorado Boulder.

Previous research has shown that as modern cities grow in population, so do their efficiencies and productivity. A city's population outpaces its development of urban infrastructure, for example, and its production of goods and services outpaces its population. What's more, these patterns exhibit a surprising degree of mathematical regularity and predictability, a phenomenon called "urban scaling."

But has this always been the case?

SFI Professor Luis Bettencourt researches urban dynamics as a lead investigator of SFI's Cities, Scaling, and Sustainability research program. When he gave a talk in 2013 on urban scaling theory, Scott Ortman, now an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at CU Boulder and a former Institute Omidyar Fellow, noted that the trends Bettencourt described were not particular to modern times. Their discussion prompted a research project on the effects of city size through history.

To test their ideas, the team examined archaeological data from the Basin of Mexico (what is now Mexico City and nearby regions). In the 1960s—before Mexico City's population exploded—surveyors examined all its ancient settlements, spanning 2000 years and four cultural eras in pre-contact Mesoamerica.

Using this data, the research team analyzed the dimensions of hundreds of ancient temples and thousands of ancient houses to estimate populations and densities, size and construction rates of monuments and buildings, and intensity of site use.

Their results, published in the new open-access journal Science Advances this month, indicate that the bigger the ancient settlement, the more productive it was.

"It was shocking and unbelievable," says Ortman. "We were raised on a steady diet telling us that, thanks to capitalism, industrialization, and democracy, the modern world is radically different from worlds of the past. What we found here is that the fundamental drivers of robust socioeconomic patterns in modern cities precede all that."

Bettencourt adds: "Our results suggest that the general ingredients of productivity and population density in human societies run much deeper and have everything to do with the challenges and opportunities of organizing human social networks."

Though excited by the results, the researchers see the discovery as just one step in a long process. The team plans to examine settlement patterns from ancient sites in Peru, China, and Europe and study the factors that lead urban systems to emerge, grow, or collapse.

Here is the detailed article on the Law of Cities.

And:
The Pre-History of Urban Scaling

The law, which I propose based on this work, is this: The Intensity of Human Interaction in Time and Space is the sole relative Determinator of the Economic Productivity of a City.

What this is does is essentially demolish the entire science of Urban Planning and place it back to first principles after almost two centuries of leftist angst over the subject.
 

JagerIV

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I'm not sure how exactly this demolishes Urban planning, rather than simply adding to it? Any urban area is going to have some degree of planning. Roads, police stations, and electric lines don't spontaneously come into existence: someone has to make a decision on their placement and ordering.
 

Scottty

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I'm not sure how exactly this demolishes Urban planning, rather than simply adding to it? Any urban area is going to have some degree of planning. Roads, police stations, and electric lines don't spontaneously come into existence: someone has to make a decision on their placement and ordering.
Also, many ancient cities had to have that stuff installed when it was developed, while they had already been there for centuries.
What future tech would today's urban planners completely fail to anticipate?
 

Sol Zagato

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What this is does is essentially demolish the entire science of Urban Planning and place it back to first principles after almost two centuries of leftist angst over the subject.
I too, am detecting a hole in my knowledge. What big idea does this study conflict with?
 

Tyanna of Pentos

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@Sol Zagato , @Scottty , the simple answer is that you are thinking about urban planning as a functional exercise in terms of "x number of people need x number of sewer lines, 13.2kV, etc". Were it only so. Urban planning is actually one of the most comprehensive and problematic things in the entire modern western world. It purports to be able to solve fundamental social, not physical, issues. Basically, from the 15th century forward, an idea began to develop that the actual structure of a town or city could influence social policy. The city of Palmanova is an example of the beginning of this process. It was laid out in the configuration of a fortress, with the position of each building being planned. The objective was to realise humanist goals by creating a self-sustaining fortress as a healthy location for human endeavour, which would fund its maintenance as a frontier fortress:

Edward Wallace Muir said:
The humanist theorists of the ideal city designed numerous planned cities that look intriguing on paper but were not especially successful as livable spaces. Along the northeastern frontier of their mainland empire, the Venetians began to build in 1593 the best example of a Renaissance planned town: Palmanova, a fortress city designed to defend against attacks from the Ottomans in Bosnia. Built ex nihilo according to humanist and military specifications, Palmanova was supposed to be inhabited by self-sustaining merchants, craftsmen, and farmers. However, despite the pristine conditions and elegant layout of the new city, no one chose to move there, and by 1622 Venice was forced to pardon criminals and offer them free building lots and materials if they would agree to settle the town.
So the Humanists' urban theories failed miserably. What followed was a period of two centuries in which theoretical thought would be fixated on the idea of creating utopia by engineering and changing the conditions in which humans lived. In the mid-19th century, the great capital reconstructions of Europe were dictated by social considerations of the prevention of revolution, take for example Baron Haussmann's rebuilding of Paris for Napoleon III; the city's shape was supposed to, in military terms, actively deter the ability of a Commune to form and to seize and hold the city in insurrection against Napoleon the Third. Well, the Commune still rose anyway, though Napoleon III had already been despatched by the Prussians. In Britain the movement really came to the fore as the "Sanitary Movement" of 1800 - 1890 which thought that it could achieve moral sanitation for the working class as well as physical sanitation by centralised, top-down urban planning.

By 1900, the idea that an urban planning could alleviate the social problems of factories and industrialisation was widespread in society, and in fact one can argue that it drove the growth of the "new liberalism" which became our modern moderate left. In 1899 Sir Ebenezer Howard founded the Town and Country Planning Association to promote his "Garden City", the idea that greenbelts combined with proportional arrangement of agriculture, residences and industry would promote the health of the workers by giving them access to fresh air and other vital qualities. Instead, it isolated the residences into complicated approach roads, made it difficult for people to enter and leave, and ultimately culminated in its mid-20th century application in, to quote an urban planner who later regretted it, "everything that could go wrong in a society went wrong [...] [it] became the centre of drugs, it became the centre of violence and, eventually, the police refused to go into it. It was hell." Unfortunately many American Urban Housing Developments followed the Garden City principles in miniature, isolating poor residents and making it harder for them to get ahead and making the areas impossible to police.

By 1900, in short, the idea was fixed into the head of urban planners, decision makers, and intellectuals, that centrally planned cities could actually yield positive improvements--reduction in crime, improved employment, improved health for people, elimination of racial tensions. Indeed, the arrogance of the movement culminated in the idea that proper central planning of cities might even effectively bring about world social peace. What instead happened each time central planning was actually used on cities was that all of these metrics got worse. The Urban Planning process remains the most profound indict of this kind of process. What actually happened was that rigidly formalised urban planning led to impoverished people being relegated to unplanned slums in much of the world, and constricted into isolated, crime-ridden massive projects from which they could not leave to get jobs in countries that had enough money to build them.

By the interwar period this led to the rise of Le Corbusier, Moses, and even Frank Lloyd Wright, whose architecture was acceptable but whose idea that the automobile would revolutionize human life by planning cities around them as deeply flawed. All of this culminated in the sheer megalomaniacal arrogance of Housing and Urban Development through the Johnson years--a combination of massive freeway construction shattering neighbourhoods and the construction of huge urban housing projects which would lift people out of poverty, while in fact it merely trapped and concentrated them. This era of Modernism in urban planning marched hand in hand into brutalist architecture to produce vast central-government planned and executed projects, even in relatively free countries like the United States, that culminated in this kind of insane, Ozymandias-like collapse best typified by the immense Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project in St. Louis which began to disintegrate the moment it had been completed in the mid-1950s and by the late 60s had become legendary for its crime, poverty, and profound racial segregation. This was the objective when it was built:

"We must rebuild, open up and clean up the hearts of our cities. The fact that slums were created with all the intrinsic evils was everybody's fault. Now it is everybody's responsibility to repair the damage. "


That was the result. Likewise, the great car-based cities like Brasilia disintegrated horribly, but also, mass transit projects rammed through for the sake of mass transit are frequently completely useless to the inhabitants of a city and do nothing except gentrify areas and further isolate the poor--the latest theories, in short, are just as bad and useless as those before.

What the Law of Cities does is reveal the spectacular intellectual bankruptcy behind this entire movement. It was all for nothing. Cities are human reactors, vast, terrifying engines of creativity and moral degeneracy, a fundamental testament of the human condition, places which increase human economic productivity by orders of magnitude and always threaten broad-based social collapse of the type seen in the Stanford mouse experiments due to the psychological breakdown of organisms in profound concentration--and yet for all of that, the more that you concentrate humans, the Law provides that their productivity just grows and grows and grows. Truly, cities are chaotic, living organisms of creativity, genius, economy, and also degeneracy and destruction. And you cannot plan them, you cannot have one and not the other. A city grows according to a single fundamental law, whether it is Mesoamerican two thousand years ago, or extant in the modern day. Cities should grow organically from free-market processes which best reflect their reality as human reactors of creativity.

That is a profound indictment of the arrogance and folly of a movement which tried to dictate the very psychology, souls, and bodies of countless hundreds of millions of human beings by the structure, shape and disposition of cold poured concrete, and in doing so created folly after folly around the globe.
 

TimothyC

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@Captain-General I think one thing that got ignored in modern city planning, is the need to make spaces accessible to everyone.
Jarrett Walker talks about this with respect to transportation and relating Transit freedom to Human freedom. This isn't the most in-depth of his talks, but it is a good jumping off-point:

 

Tyanna of Pentos

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Well, one critical lesson of the density law is that the denser a city is, the more productive it is. This suggests that the right wing idea of simply continuing car culture is wrong, but also the principle of the law means that centrally planned and funded dense development results in zero advantage and considerably greater implementation costs to private sector dense development. So the only solution is to legalize private sector dense development by making it easy for private companies to build at super high density.
 

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Well, one critical lesson of the density law is that the denser a city is, the more productive it is. This suggests that the right wing idea of simply continuing car culture is wrong, but also the principle of the law means that centrally planned and funded dense development results in zero advantage and considerably greater implementation costs to private sector dense development. So the only solution is to legalize private sector dense development by making it easy for private companies to build at super high density.
As a rural dweller, I would contest this. Without car culture we'd be at a severe disadvantage, we cannot take advantage of any of those things you'd mention. Plus, there are many localties that cannot afford mass transit and the private sector wouldn't invest in them. So cars are all they have.
 

Tyanna of Pentos

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As a rural dweller, I would contest this. Without car culture we'd be at a severe disadvantage, we cannot take advantage of any of those things you'd mention. Plus, there are many localties that cannot afford mass transit and the private sector wouldn't invest in them. So cars are all they have.
As a member of an extremely rural household with four adults and six cars, let me assure you, I appreciate their importance to rural areas. But the dynamics of rural areas are completely different from Urban areas, and I was making my critique strictly in terms of the topic of Urban Planing.
 

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As a member of an extremely rural household with four adults and six cars, let me assure you, I appreciate their importance to rural areas. But the dynamics of rural areas are completely different from Urban areas, and I was making my critique strictly in terms of the topic of Urban Planing.
Then maybe, we should iterate on car culture and try to improve upon it, and then try to foster other cultures to work alongside it. Maybe, have walkable downtown cores, that you can reach by car or public transit and then mill about it. Though a hybrid system of any sort would need many parking garage.

And I can understand that, but I also have experience with areas that are urban or not rural that cannot support public transit or at least robust transit. And thus the need for cars in them. Though for those cities, and settlements you can always try to combine cars, with bikes, with pedestrians, and maybe limited public transit.
 

Tyanna of Pentos

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Then maybe, we should iterate on car culture and try to improve upon it, and then try to foster other cultures to work alongside it. Maybe, have walkable downtown cores, that you can reach by car or public transit and then mill about it. Though a hybrid system of any sort would need many parking garage.

And I can understand that, but I also have experience with areas that are urban or not rural that cannot support public transit or at least robust transit. And thus the need for cars in them. Though for those cities, and settlements you can always try to combine cars, with bikes, with pedestrians, and maybe limited public transit.
The problem is that parking spaces are an enormous anti-densification measure. In fact, planning boards often require a fixed number per business, of which only a small fraction are occupied at any time. Maximum density would be best served by eliminating parking in cities entirely and relying on mass transit -- a combination of more traditional rail (which is actually profitable, full stop, in highly dense Japanese cities, so it can be run for-profit by private companies) and systems like the Huntington People Mover in West Virginia. But then how do you bridge the gap between the two radical schema of movement, the one dominant in rural and exurban areas and the one dominant in urban areas, when parking itself is a regulatory abomination which constricts the most efficient configurations for cities?

I don't have a really good answer for that, except to suggest that if we eliminate regulations requiring parking, then the number of parking spots would drastically decline as valuable urban real estate in successful cities is converted to denser development. That would increase the cost of parking in the remaining spaces, which would price the poor and the middle class out of parking in cities. That, in turn, would drive up demand for ways to park your car cheaply and get into the centre of a city--which might create a profitable North American market for, for example, maglev or monorail services from ring roads around an urban area into the city centre where they could interface with walkable areas and people movers. Mass transit would come back due to private sector market forces.
 

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The problem is that parking spaces are an enormous anti-densification measure. In fact, planning boards often require a fixed number per business, of which only a small fraction are occupied at any time. Maximum density would be best served by eliminating parking in cities entirely and relying on mass transit -- a combination of more traditional rail (which is actually profitable, full stop, in highly dense Japanese cities, so it can be run for-profit by private companies) and systems like the Huntington People Mover in West Virginia. But then how do you bridge the gap between the two radical schema of movement, the one dominant in rural and exurban areas and the one dominant in urban areas, when parking itself is a regulatory abomination which constricts the most efficient configurations for cities?

I don't have a really good answer for that, except to suggest that if we eliminate regulations requiring parking, then the number of parking spots would drastically decline as valuable urban real estate in successful cities is converted to denser development. That would increase the cost of parking in the remaining spaces, which would price the poor and the middle class out of parking in cities. That, in turn, would drive up demand for ways to park your car cheaply and get into the centre of a city--which might create a profitable North American market for, for example, maglev or monorail services from ring roads around an urban area into the city centre where they could interface with walkable areas and people movers. Mass transit would come back due to private sector market forces.
Park and ride. And I was talking about massive parking garages or many of them, with above and below ground outside the city, or conveniently out of site where a transition is.

And cities, should not be built to be efficient. They should be built to be lived in, and really to be conducive to the good life. And you are the last person I'd expect to make such an argument.

And I think you have just proven why it is not going to work. Because it is going to require massively unpopular measures, and I'd say unfair measures to even work. If you require policy that essentially penalizes people for not being rich, there is something wrong with your plan. And also I think you still forget why North America has become dominated by cars, the massive distance between cities, and I can only see this working in the larger coastal metropoles and not in the smaller interior cities.
 

TimothyC

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I don't have a really good answer for that, except to suggest that if we eliminate regulations requiring parking, then the number of parking spots would drastically decline as valuable urban real estate in successful cities is converted to denser development. That would increase the cost of parking in the remaining spaces, which would price the poor and the middle class out of parking in cities. That, in turn, would drive up demand for ways to park your car cheaply and get into the centre of a city--which might create a profitable North American market for, for example, maglev or monorail services from ring roads around an urban area into the city centre where they could interface with walkable areas and people movers. Mass transit would come back due to private sector market forces.
This is one of the thing things that Walker talks about - pricing parking such that it opens up spaces for both mass transit, and for personal transit options like scooters & bikes.
 

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This is one of the thing things that Walker talks about - pricing parking such that it opens up spaces for both mass transit, and for personal transit options like scooters & bikes.
So predatory pricing is a good thing now? Because, it sounds exactly like the sort of predatory pricing that many cities have, except jacked up intentionally.

To me all of this just sounds like the sort of social engineering that I oppose on principle.
 

Tyanna of Pentos

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So predatory pricing is a good thing now? Because, it sounds exactly like the sort of predatory pricing that many cities have, except jacked up intentionally.

To me all of this just sounds like the sort of social engineering that I oppose on principle.
It's not predatory if the market will bear it and it's come about due to an absence of regulation and/or regulation favourable to its evolution. It would only be predatory if there was a very large number of parking spaces, the city was configured to support driving, and then, say, a City-owned, government parking monopoly (which is certainly common) massively escalates the rates anyway. Now this actually does happen, but that's a symptom of the failure of planning.
 

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It's not predatory if the market will bear it and it's come about due to an absence of regulation and/or regulation favourable to its evolution. It would only be predatory if there was a very large number of parking spaces, the city was configured to support driving, and then, say, a City-owned, government parking monopoly (which is certainly common) massively escalates the rates anyway. Now this actually does happen, but that's a symptom of the failure of planning.
It isn't the market, it is obvious social engineering towards a particular goal. And since it is might to target a particular group of people, based on their weakness, I'd call it quite predatory. After all, it is designed to force people based on economic status to make a choice that you want them to make. And since cities are designed to support this already, and I am pretty sure many of the remaining spots would be the government ones we can concluded that this is the case. Why not instead of trying to push people from making a choice by making it difficult or impossible, you make another choice more palatable in a more natural way? And then everything can proceed from there, why do you have to price driving out to force people to make the choice you want them to?

And let me point this out. How are you going to even do this? When people realize what you are trying they are going to push back and push back hard. And really, what right does anyone have to push such things upon the public?

*And really, going to say that I oppose any sort of social engineering like this on principle. So this is going to be a topic I am going to get very passionate on. And may have to back off, since I oppose this full stop and there might not be productive debate due to entrenchment.
 

Tyanna of Pentos

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I am confused about how eliminating zoning requirements for parking spaces is forcing anyone to do anything. Perhaps you take my response as an endorsement of what Timothy said in its particulars, but it was more concurring with the observation’s reality that higher prices would change the configuration of cities, and I think he was just making the observation of that. Certainly I don’t support government monopolies or regulated prices trying to force density because that would just cause all the same problems the Modernists did. I am against central planning of anything by anyone, but that includes the distortion of subsidized and mandated parking.
 

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@Captain-General Because it is, you already mentioned how it would work, that the lower and middle classes would become priced out of parking. Since, they'd have no other option, they would then be forced to use public transit. Thus, it would be using policy change to force people to make other decisions. Though that is just the way I interpret things, and now that I have sat down for dinner and calmed down, I can more clearly think of this.

I am pretty sure we are arguing from very different standpoints, and maybe my own circumstances which are less rural than wildland-urban interface might make things even more different.
 

Tyanna of Pentos

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@Captain-General Because it is, you already mentioned how it would work, that the lower and middle classes would become priced out of parking. Since, they'd have no other option, they would then be forced to use public transit. Thus, it would be using policy change to force people to make other decisions. Though that is just the way I interpret things, and now that I have sat down for dinner and calmed down, I can more clearly think of this.

I am pretty sure we are arguing from very different standpoints, and maybe my own circumstances which are less rural than wildland-urban interface might make things even more different.
It would be using a policy change to reestablish a free market equilibrium after years of massive government distortion throughout the world by central planning and subsidies for highways and parking. Central planning has also introduced mass transit subsidies and distortions--my position is that both are bad and that readjusting to free market forces in cities would be painful to a lot of people, but yield a greater long term benefit by ending the wild distortions which at their worst can create things like Pruitt-Igoe.
 
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