Cities: Complexity, theory and history

Scott G. Ortman, José Lobo, Michael E. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


In recent decades researchers in a variety of disciplines have developed a new “urban science,” the central goal of which is to build general theory regarding the social processes underlying urbanization. Much work in urban science is animated by the notion that cities are complex systems. What does it mean to make this claim? Here we adopt the view that complex systems entail both variation and structure, and that their properties vary with system size and with respect to where and how they are measured. Given this, a general framework regarding the social processes behind urbanization needs to account for empirical regularities that are common to both contemporary cities and past settlements known through archaeology and history. Only by adopting an explicitly historical perspective can such fundamental structure be revealed. The identification of shared properties in past and present systems has been facilitated by research traditions that define cities (and settlements more broadly) as networks of social interaction embedded in physical space. Settlement Scaling Theory (SST) builds from these insights to generate predictions regarding how measurable properties of cities and settlements are related to their population size. Here, we focus on relationships between population and area across past settlement systems and present-day world cities. We show that both patterns and variations in these measures are explicable in terms of SST, and that the framework identifies baseline infrastructural area as an important system-level property of urban systems that warrants further study. We also show that predictive theory is helpful even in cases where the data do not conform to model predictions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0243621
JournalPloS one
Issue number12 December
StatePublished - Dec 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • General


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