Physicist has urban planning down to a science

Physicist has urban planning down to a science



A. Lee Graham

- FWBP Digital Partners -


To hear theoretical physicist Geoffrey West tell it, companies have a finite life span, but cities are more resilient.

“You can drop an atom bomb on a city … it has been done. But a company will die eventually,” West told those attending Downtown Fort Worth Inc.’s annual meeting at Worthington Renaissance Fort Worth Hotel.

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Describing cities’ characteristics as predictive, West summarized modern municipalities as challenged by disease, crime and other byproducts of soaring populations. At the same time, the population density creating those problems gives municipalities resilience.

“The bigger the city, from the data, the more successful it is,” West told the March 28 crowd.

By “data,” West referred to knowledge gleaned from years of studying cities and comparing them to living organisms and living systems in general. Comparing municipalities to animals, West found that larger creatures require less energy, a seemingly contrarian notion also applying to municipalities.

Simply put, the bigger a city, the less infrastructure is needed per capita. That principle, what he calls a fundamental law governing cities, resembles scaling laws in biology that categorize animals.

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Give West specific population numbers, and he says he can predict a city’s average income, among other characteristics, and make predictions about crime and other factors.

The need for efficient urban planning becomes apparent when reviewing world population trends. In 1800, 4 percent of the nation was urbanized, according to West. The world’s percentage reached 50 percent in 2006 and is expected to reach 75 percent by 2050.

Each week from now until that year, West said that more than 1 million people will be added to cities worldwide.

“This is an extraordinary challenge, an extraordinary opportunity,” West said.

That’s because predictive information allows cities to plan for population spurts and other challenges.

“We need to develop a science of cities, or at least ask ourselves, ‘Is there a science of cities?’” West said.

That “science” denotes a quantitative, predictive framework for forecasting future trends.

As the nation’s 16th largest city, Fort Worth plays a role on the urban map. With 757,810 residents this year compared to 400,000 in 1980, Fort Worth is the nation’s fastest-growing metropolitan area. It grew 38.6 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the latest U.S. Census figures.

Urban research is only the latest passion for West, who helped found the Elementary Participates and Field Theory group at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and worked on Texas’ superconducting supercollider before Congress scrapped the project in 1993. He is a distinguished professor and former president of the Santa Fe Institute, which studies the interdisciplinary nature of complex systems. And that includes cities.

“This is a huge challenge we’ve brought ourselves in our big cities,” said West, describing larger municipalities as requiring only 85 percent more in resources they double in size. So the bigger they grow, the fewer added resources are needed.

“The bigger the city, the better,” West said.

Also at the March 28 luncheon meeting, attendees learned that Fort Worth has embarked on its second phase of redevelopment, according to Andy Taft, president of Downtown Fort Worth Inc. Kicking off the first phase was the 1968 construction of the Fort Worth Convention Center, then known as Tarrant County Convention Center. The new phase includes Sundance Plaza.

“This phase will be defined by more,” Taft said.

That means more hotels and restaurants and functional green space as well as an expanded convention center, among other developments.