Fascinating online column (well, I think so) in the New York Times today on Math in the City by Steve Strogatz.  A few samples:

Zipf’s Law: if you tabulate the biggest cities in a given country and rank them according to their populations, the largest city is always about twice as big as the second largest, and three times as big as the third largest, and so on….

The number of gas stations grows only in proportion to the 0.77 power of population. The crucial thing is that 0.77 is less than 1. This implies that the bigger a city is, the fewer gas stations it has per person. Put simply, bigger cities enjoy economies of scale. In this sense, bigger is greener….

The same law is true for living things. That is, if you mentally replace cities by organisms and city size by body weight, the mathematical pattern remains the same…

It appears that Aristotle’s metaphor of a city as a living thing is more than merely poetic. There may be deep laws of collective organization at work here, the same laws for aggregates of people and cells.


  1. “The largest city is always about twice as big as the second largest… (and so on)”

    This immediately struck me as questionable. And when I mentally ran through some countries about which I had some knowledge of the sizes of cities, it wasn’t true for any of them. Canada? No (but not that far off). USA? No (not if you look at metropolitan areas). England? No. Mexico? No.

    But (I did some research) it does seem to be true in many European countries.

    And when I looked, there was lots more like that in the comments on the column.

  2. Looks like Kunstler prediction of cities collapsing and us going back to small towns is dead. < This was byfar my biggest issue with him, he seems not to realize anything about economies of scale and convenience.

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