Why are large cities faster? Universal scaling and self-similarity in urban organization and dynamics

L. M.A. Bettencourt, Jose Lobo, G. B. West

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

48 Scopus citations


Cities have existed since the beginning of civilization and have always been intimately connected with humanity's cultural and technological development. Much about the human and social dynamics that takes place is cities is intuitively recognizable across time, space and culture; yet we still do not have a clear cut answer as to why cities exist or to what factors are critical to make them thrive or collapse. Here, we construct an extensive quantitative characterization of the variation of many urban indicators with city size, using large data sets for American, European and Chinese cities. We show that social and economic quantities, characterizing the creation of wealth and new ideas, show increasing returns to population scale, which appear quantitatively as a power law of city size with an exponent β≃1.15 > 1. Concurrently, quantities characterizing material infrastructure typically show economies of scale, namely β≃0.8 < 1. The existence of pervasive scaling relations across city size suggests a universal social dynamics common to all cities within an urban system. We sketch some of their general ingredients, which include the acceleration of social life and a restructuring of individual social networks as cities grow larger. We also build simple dynamical models to show that increasing returns in wealth and innovation can fuel faster than exponential growth, which inexorably lead to crises of urban organization. To avoid them we show that growth may proceed in cycles, separated by major urban adaptations, with the unintended consequence that the duration of such cycles decreases with larger urban population size and is now estimated to be shorter than a human lifetime.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)285-293
Number of pages9
JournalEuropean Physical Journal B
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 1 2008

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Electronic, Optical and Magnetic Materials
  • Condensed Matter Physics


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