City Folk

If we insist on seeing everything on earth as a system, urbanization — the system of systems — will consume everything

Geoffrey West, a Stanford-educated theoretical physicist from England, has long sought to explain it all — a way to describe the universe that can account for how everything relates to everything else. Early in his career he investigated the still relatively new study of allometry, which compares the differing growth rates of body parts in different organisms and potential implications for society as whole. Later, he became a vociferous supporter of the Superconducting Super Collider, which, if built, would have given West and his colleagues an edge in the quest for a “Grand Unified Theory,” aligning quantum physics with the Newtonian worldview it had destabilized. When Congress declined to fund the SSC, West turned his pursuit for an all-encompassing theory away from the cosmic and toward something slightly more concrete: the city.

Extrapolating from Kleiber’s Law — a 1932 discovery that found animals’ energy requirements could be accurately predicted based on body weight, regardless of the animal in question — West developed a similar law of energy usage for collective structures like cities and the companies that flourished in them. For close to two decades, he and his colleagues assembled a vast array of information, knitting together census data, corporate earnings reports, government studies, city budgets, and hundreds of other disparate sources — what then passed for big data — hoping to find patterns that could be amalgamated into a unified theory. Of his assistants and associates, West said in 2011, “they’ve done all the work, and I’m the great bullshitter that tries to bring it all together.”

Cities have always seemed on the verge of catastrophe — not because of how they are made but because of what they were made to do

One of the things they found was that the growth rate for infrastructure and social structures was remarkably consistent across seemingly disparate phenomena: GDP, electrical grids, train lines, mice, gas stations, and mitochondria — all these grew at the same exponential rate over time. More alarming, however, was their discovery that some things in cities grew faster than others, and often it was negatives that outpaced the positives: Violent crime rates and AIDS cases, for instance, grew alongside wages and the number of schools to the power of 1.25 of the population, no matter how big or small the city. The application of allometry to civil and financial engineering mainly offers a riddle: Cities have inarguably driven civilization’s progress, but they have also introduced problems that always multiply faster than their solutions. The utopian bubble of the future seemed at the same time a blister on the cusp of bursting and spewing pus. Perhaps proportionality holds them in a dynamic equilibrium, ensuring the bursting point never arrives.

These ideas are laid out in West’s forthcoming pop-science book, Scale, whose subtitle conveys its distinctive air of impatience with conceptual limits, a wish to make something out of everything:The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life, in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies.” He thought that he had, in the words of a 2010 Jonah Lehrer profile, “cracked the code” of how cities flourish or fester. His series of mathematical ratios showed how elements of city life scale at predictable but asymmetrical rates relative to population. “What we found are the constants that describe every city,” he told Lehrer. “I can take these laws and make precise predictions about the number of violent crimes and the surface area of roads in a city in Japan with 200,000 people. I don’t know anything about this city or even where it is or its history, but I can tell you all about it. And the reason I can do that is because every city is really the same.”

This discovery seems at once revelatory and obvious. All cities are alike in the same way that all jumbo airliners are. For all their micro-level differences, both remain large complicated mechanisms that address an inherently risky proposition: For planes, it is the problem of flight. For cities, it is how to assemble a large enough body of laborers to produce a surplus from which another group might profit. Just as all airplanes are always a few loose screws away from disaster, so too cities have always seemed on the verge of catastrophe — not because of how they are made but because of what they were made to do.

Yet even catastrophic violence doesn’t seem capable of derailing the momentum of urbanization; it may well be a part of what hastens it. West marvels at how 30 years after the U.S. attempted to destroy Hiroshima with a nuclear attack, the city wound up with a population three times larger than it had been. In the 18th century, Thomas Malthus famously predicted that catastrophe would eventually catch up with the city structure and produce a series of interlocking disasters from which there would be no return, at least for humans. He saw a precarious asymmetry between population growth (which was exponential) and food production (which he believed grew linearly), and believed it would lead to a starvation crisis, pandemics, and wars over dwindling resources. Rather than letting any of these disasters come to pass, he proposed population controls on the poor, whose procreative habits he saw as the main threat to human sustainability.

Though many of Malthus’s dire predictions have come to pass, repeatedly — wars are fought, populations are ravaged by disease, famines persisted in the face of productivity gains — they have had no great effect on slowing or reversing the pace of urbanization. Some experts estimate that more than three-quarters of all people will live in cities by 2050. Urbanization’s dysfunctional structures have channeled more than half the world’s population into cities that occupy only three percent of the planet’s landmass — an ever intensifying concentration of human lives that mirrors the exponential growth and centralization of data collection.

West told Scientific American in 2013 that “‘Big data’ without a ‘big theory’ to go with it loses much of its potency and usefulness, potentially generating new unintended consequences.” This calls to mind those data-hoarding platforms that have been preemptively acquiring enormous volumes of information without declaring any particular theory, any specific purpose beyond ad hoc monetization. But there is always a theory to be invented that can rationalize the data collection, that can make all consequences explainable, and thereby, in a sense, intended. Rather than the “end of theory,” big data (or the concentrations of city life) triggers the birth of theories that assimilate all phenomena approvingly.

Part of the gusty optimism that drives work like West’s and the growing body of “everything theorists” like Stephen Hawking, Robert Oerter, and John H. Miller is the ability to view life from a remove — as patterns taking form without recourse to the limited subjective point of view. This transcendent overview makes it possible to oversee the linear implementation of our egos’ desires — a wish for order, for control, for causality — without having to bother with the painful particularities of where that implementation fails or succeeds at someone else’s expense. One person’s freeway is another person’s farmland or hunting grounds ruined, one population’s pipeline risks contaminating another population’s water source. In instances of conflict, from West’s lofty point of view, scale decided, not politics or power. In theory, more people always benefit from systemic expansion than those who are put out by it. Size beats acuity, and the few who stand to lose the most are given no right to impede those who stand to gain what amounts to a marginal convenience.

The normalization of suffering is a consequence of all systematization, implicit in all data collection. It has the air of a natural law, like entropy, which West describes as guaranteeing that every attempt to produce order and structure also produces disorder, and that progress in any given area must produce regression in another. It frontloads any system-wide view of life with a haunted anxiety about that system being unviable, something that will become self-evident when angry mobs start to form or corpses begin piling up where they weren’t expected. At some point, the two orders of magnitude — the individual and the urban — must collide.

Urbanization’s dysfunctional structures have created an ever intensifying concentration of human lives that mirrors the exponential growth and centralization of data collection

One of the data gatherers that draws West’s attention is transportation engineer Yacov Zahavi, who had his own grand theory: a “Unified Mechanism of Travel Model” based on statistics he had collected while working for the U.S. Department of Transportation and, later, the World Bank. He found that the average amount of time a person spends commuting every day remains constant no matter the city size: about an hour. Whether it’s a mile walk to the office, a three-mile bicycle ride, a seven-mile crosstown drive, or a 15-mile train ride from an exurb, the times all average out to about an hour. (This finding was later elaborated by Italian physicist Cesare Marchetti, for whom this constant was ultimately named.)

West claims this data has been used to help reshape city design, with many downtown areas limiting car traffic to accommodate a larger pedestrian population. But this data also obfuscates how different commuters bear disproportionate burdens, regardless of the time spent. The cost of a monthly train pass from a distant exurb, plus a subway or bus pass to move between day job, night job, or gigs across the city has a much bigger impact on an individual’s overall budget and purchasing power than it would for someone higher on the class curve. They are trapped in a self-perpetuating loop, working harder to afford the commute to the city where the work is. As the city grows, its centripetal pull becomes a source of depletion and destabilization for many of those who become more dependent on it to survive. From their perspective, the city’s efficient symmetries don’t feel like growth; they feel like threats.

In the early 20th century, Vladimir Vernadsky, a Russian geochemist, lamented  — as West would more than 100 years later — the lack of a larger question that unified scientific research. In a letter to his wife, he wrote in frustration: “To collect facts for their own sake, as many now gather facts, without a program, without a question to answer or a purpose, is not interesting.” He too wanted a big theory to go with big data.

Vernadsky pursued a degree in mineralogy, hoping to find evidence of “some general laws of celestial mechanics” in the earth. In 1926, he published The Biosphere, which proposed that life had not spontaneously appeared on Earth from the improbable arrangement of hospitable elements and conditions but had coalesced to support life, the existence of which was not an anomaly but a constant principle of the universe. That is, Earth’s composition and development was made possible by the molecular activity of life. It wasn’t just dead matter waiting for life to happen by accident.

Vernadsky posited “transformers,” basic agents of living matter that could “convert cosmic radiation into active energy in electrical, chemical, mechanical, thermal and other forms.” As energy is absorbed and dissipated across a planet, more complex forms of life begin to develop, driven like a cloud of gas drifting toward pools of free energy, and varying in structure and complexity in relation to how much it finds. The order of the living depends on — even preys on — the disarray of everything that surrounds it. Life requires something to act on, something to prove its presence, making entropy a cyclical by-product of life asserting itself. Vernadsky used the word biosphere to describe the portion of Earth that life had created. In the biosphere, he claimed, “we perceive not simply a planetary or terrestrial phenomenon, but a manifestation of the structure, distribution, and evolution of atoms throughout cosmic history,” he wrote.

From this perspective then, the ghost cities of China signal the presence of life, its essential possibility, rather than its absence. In Ordos, in the northern province of Inner Mongolia, residents eventually began to gather, drawn by the mystery of the structure built in anticipation of its own purpose, a place that has become a destination because it offers its few residents a platform to wait for the future to arrive.

The end of the future, too, is always most visible in cities, which are haunted by an anxiety about the present’s inability to stay put. In Tokyo, William Gibson once wrote, you can see stacks of old futures, “chronological strata … successive layers of Tomorrowlands, older ones showing through when the newer ones start to peel.” New York, which has never stopped growing, has always seemed to be on the verge of catastrophe. E.B. White’s lovelorn 1949 essay “Here Is New York” ends with a premonition that the city might be as vulnerable as its inhabitants. “For the first time in its long history,” he writes, New York “is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now; in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.”

Even before 9/11 made that vision even more prescient, there was a post-lapsarian quality to the grime that would cover New York in the 1970s. This became one of the city’s uncanny charms for those who like to contemplate the present collapsing under its own weight. “I was enthralled by decay and eager for more,” Luc Sante wrote in “Lost City.” He celebrated what he took to be the irreversible decline of the once and future Manhattan: “ailantus trees growing through cracks in the asphalt, ponds and streams forming in leveled blocks and slowly making their way to the shoreline, wild animals returning from centuries of exile.” The “jungle growth” on the many abandoned buildings he would pass walking east on Houston Street from Bowery “gave a foretaste of the impending wilderness, when lianas would engird the skyscrapers and mushrooms would cover Times Square.” Yet even these foreboding signs have been reclaimed by systemic productivity. Urban gardens in Bushwick, Detroit, and Santa Monica have become symbols of the unfailing ubiquity of the city structure, its relentless capacity to adapt to changing conditions and internalize markers of its own demise as proof of the city’s immortality.

Surrounding the accreted leftovers of once-desired futures is a superstitious gloom, a hunch that optimism itself drives all matter toward untenable progress and inevitable implosion. The nervous energy that seeks progress never gives time to its older works to die a natural death. Instead each is overwritten unevenly with a new regime, whose plan always is haphazard and whose ability to remake the landscape is always incomplete. Remnants of those old orders leak into the present, reminding us how mistaken the last attempt to formulate a perfect human social mechanism was. These miscalculations may play out as a series of forgotten failures, off ramps to nowhere or dead malls of empty storefronts. At worst, they are catastrophes, like Pripyat, an futurist dream city built around a faulty nuclear facility. And like Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1,800 in and around New Orleans and displaced more than half of the city’s residents and damaged over 70 percent of the city’s homes. There are also those disasters yet to come, waited on like keynote speakers at an apocalypse conference, the “big one” earthquake that may devastate San Francisco, or the anticipated Cascadia earthquake, what Kathryn Schulz described as “the really big one,” that FEMA estimates could kill 13,000 people and displace over a million in the urban centers from Portland to Seattle. 

The nervous energy that seeks progress never lets older works die a natural death. Instead each is overwritten unevenly with a new regime, whose plan always is haphazard

But as West sees it, these disasters provide “huge impetus and opportunity in stimulating innovation, new ideas, and inventions, whether in science, engineering, finance, politics, or one’s personal life.” The past is legible as the past because someone had to suffer through it, and the future is desirable because it seems to promise we won’t suffer again in the same way. 

In Delirious New York Rem Koolhaas describes Manhattan as a “mountain range of evidence without manifesto.” It is big data ever in search of its big theory. But if a city can be said to have a purpose, it may be to absorb and then discharge the energy of its inhabitants, each of whom orbit and wobble around its organelles in fear of their own personal catastrophes — a cancer diagnosis, a layoff, an unexpected death in the family, a car crash in a crosswalk, a cop with a case to close. To live in a city is to accept being transformed into a something that needs discharge, a peculiar disposition that seems to feed on whatever grand unified theories its residents may have developed for their own lives’ meanings — a better career, a better social life, a bigger paycheck, refuge from social castigation. A theory to house all these smaller ones would ensure the city could accommodate all comers and guarantee that, as West argues, the city is the problem that solves itself simply by persisting.

There is the paradox in the search for new scientific laws: They must describe something that remains constant and is inescapable, yet it must also be something no one ever noticed before — perhaps because it seemed too obvious to bother to articulate. Worse still, a law may become a curse that accelerates its own application once discovered.

Even if there is an overarching law that explains it all — that sets the structure of all living systems in the universe to an incontestable set of ratios — there is still potential conflict in the stories we tell ourselves about this law. Who is responsible for enforcing it? Who gets away with violating it on a local scale? It’s a sequence that begins with scapegoats and ends with administrators, whose neutral dispositions make it seem as if there are meaningful choices still to be made within the logic of cities, and their demand for accelerating the accumulation and discharge of energy. Like Vernadsky’s conception of transformers, living matter driven toward advancing complexity to repeat the same essential task of converting radiation from the sun into energy, a process which goes on regardless of human attempts to master it.

In Changes in the Land, historian William Cronon shows how the 16th century colonial version of the American city depended on incremental claims of space, coming at the expense of other, nonurban ways of life. The colonial settlers’ dense population centers and exhaustive agricultural approach interrupted the no less human-made system of life of many Indian tribes in what we now call Maine and Massachusetts, who migrated with the seasons. “Just as a fox’s summer diet of fruit and insects shifts to rodents and birds during the winter,” Cronon writes, “so too did the New England Indians seek to obtain their food wherever it was seasonally most concentrated in the New England ecosystem.”

Coming from a feudal economy in the midst of a prolonged shortage of firewood caused by heavy deforestation, the colonists saw the bounties of the American landscape as an untapped source of wealth waiting to be commoditized. They assumed the Indians were too undeveloped and ignorant to exploit these resources. But what seemed like serendipity to the colonists — a bountiful land ready to support their expansive plans — was the direct result of work Indians had done to prepare the area so that it could accommodate human life. (During the waning years of the Holocene, 12,000 years earlier, it had been only sparsely populated by humans.) They used brush fires to clear the forest floor so that smaller shrubs and berry bushes could proliferate; these drew the deer, bear, foxes, mice, squirrels, on which the Indians could later rely for food and clothing. For these Indian groups, the land’s bounties stemmed from their precariously balanced system of life built up over generations. It was sustained by carefully and deliberately avoiding commoditization of the land. Pursuing growth as a civilizational aim would have seemed redundant to them.

“Whereas Indian villages moved from habitat to habitat to find maximum abundance through minimal work, and so reduce their impact on the land, the English believed in and required permanent settlements,” Cronon writes. “Once a village was established, its improvements — cleared fields, pastures, buildings, fences, and so on — were regarded as more or less fixed features of the landscape. English fixity sought to replace Indian mobility; here was the central conflict in the ways Indians and colonists interacted with their environments.” Rather than adapt to and become absorbed into the technological imprint of Indian culture, the colonists overwrote it with their own feudal social structure — a way of life they loathed but nonetheless thought could be made tolerable, not by reengineering it but by switching their own subject positions within it. To them, the promise of America was not an escape from feudal relations but a compromise with them, built on the idea of there being enough unclaimed territory to turn every vassal into a lord.

Development and motion are wedded to the mounting probability of collapse. This gives that sensation of freefall in both directions that characterizes the romance of city life

“In New England, most colonists anticipated that they would be able to live much as they had done in England,” Cronon writes, “in an artisanal and farming community with work rhythms, class relations, and a social order similar to the one they had left behind — the only difference being their own improved stature in society.” The claims they made on the land — their fences, farms, permanent settlements — quickly made the social organization of the Indians impossible. The city pattern the settlers brought had a design of life built in and delimited the possible human behavior. The territory in which alternate behaviors were possible were assimilated into the colonists’ matrix, a miniaturized mechanism of human order interrupting what Vernadsky described as “a harmonious cosmic mechanism, in which it is known that fixed laws apply and chance does not exist.” 

The city appears as a simulative extension of Vernadsky’s cosmic harmony, the law of all laws, the system of all human systems, the thing that is visible now even from space as a vascular congregation of lights brightening the dark side of the planet. But it is also an artifact of the human desire to contravene that harmony, to extend the chain of title in all directions, up into the cosmos and down into subatomic quanta.

This is not how West, in his pursuit of universal laws of urban development, sees cities. In Scale, he describes the city as “the ingenious mechanism we have evolved for facilitating and enhancing social interaction and collaboration, two necessary components of successful innovation and wealth creation. Population and urban growth are, of course, very closely interrelated, each feeding on the other, resulting in our extraordinary dominance of the planet.”

It is tempting to see the primacy of one mode of life as progress for all. The slippery math of scale can make it seem like anyone could traipse across the metaphysical tripwire and end up a planetary juggernaut, not by any conscious planning but because everything has the capacity to be drawn into the upper magnitudes, whether it be warm-blooded quadrupeds, lobbying firms, or a city grid, as navigable and car-swarmed in China as in the south of France.

But there is a conundrum to cities, common in all things that scale. In building forms of greater complexity, the lives lived within those forms become stunted, simplified. Nonhuman life is shuttled to the margins to permit a superficial diversity of things and people, locked within a canvas of concrete, power lines, and surveillance cameras. Cities inscribe their people into a relatively fixed and small perimeter, an environment whose legibility depends on the depletion of viable alternatives. As the benefits of living in urban spaces compounds, so do the horrors. Development and motion are wedded to the mounting probability of destruction and collapse. This gives that sensation of freefall in both directions that characterizes the romance of city life.

Progress is always defined as an exclusively human pursuit, something that separates us from other life and isolates us within the one-way corridors of urban planning, which seem like miraculous organisms from above, a poetically functional whole whose individual offerings to each inhabitant start to seem like sacrifices — of free time, of community, of living space, of purchasing power — in order to take part in an effort whose primary benefits are felt by those higher on the food chain, who keep wondering whether they’ll ever reach a ceiling.

If there is a common structure, or at least proportionality to all complex organizations of matter, why should one form of complexity take precedent over any other? Why would a company’s metabolism matter more than an elephant’s? West is transfixed by the vertiginous symmetry in everything, mechanizing the living and giving a touch of the organic to the machinic. He posits a potential balancing point, at which positive growth becomes sustainable, the growth in negative phenomena stays manageable. But he has merely restated the apocalypse with math.

In Scale, West carefully and poetically walks readers through the number of bacterial generations it takes to go from one, to trillions, to all dead again: 1,072. Growth, it seems, is always apocalyptic. Innovations — like vaccines, electricity, flight, the microprocessor — always almost saving us from it, seeming to veer away worst case scenarios at the last second, but this merely masks the way city life remains a series of generational suicide runs. How many more times will collapse be so easily escapable? Is the solution really just a problem of administration and balance? When administrative balance is finally attained, will the city still be a city. Can a city sustain itself without imbalance?

We are always caught in overlapping cycles of growth and decay, migration and settlement, starvation and surplus. The city doesn’t shield us from any of these, but it seems to have frozen the proportions in place, forcing their inhabitants to over-identify, to attach their egos to the artificial excesses that begin to seem like permanent truths we slowly forget how to live without. Cities are where the unsustainable becomes inescapable. The crash is always imminent. As Galileo discovered, everything falls at the same speed, even the future.

Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York and the author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men.