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2008 02 21
Is Toronto A Superlinear City?
image It turns out that city’s are not like organisms. Instead of slowing down as they get bigger, cities speed up—at least as far as their ability to create new wealth—not to mention their improved environmental efficiency. In this way they are not linear systems where a standard input of energy or capital results in a predicted output of productivity. They are superlinear entities. At least that’s what a group of researchers at Arizona’s State University suggest in a study released in 2007.

“It’s true that large cities have more problems, they are more congested, they create more pollution and they have more crime,” said Jose Lobo, and ASU economist in the School of Sustainability. “But also because of their size, cities are more innovative and create more wealth. Large cities are the source of their problems and they are the source of the solutions to their problems.”

With half the world’s population now living in cities, traditional urban design methodologies are being rendered as obsolete as, say, using a slide rule to calculate the dynamics of weather systems. There are too many critical, non-linear relationships taking place.

What was surprising to the team was when they measured creative output (jobs, wealth generated, innovation) as cities grew, the scaling of this output was not sublinear, but superlinear, meaning as the city grew its creative output grew faster and faster.

Most urban designers have no idea about the superlinear forces shaping modern cities. Their limited toolkits include poorly quantified ideas about densities, and zoning . . . principles that while useful in some ways no longer are reliably predictable in their contemporary applications.

Tomorrow’s “superlinear cities,” if I can call them that, will have to be designed using a mixture of quantitative and qualitative strategies that don’t exist today. Existing city design pedagogy is driven more by fashion than by information-driven research. That’s not surprising given the complexity involved. Still, we expect more from our urban design and architecture schools given the historically important changes facing the modern city. Where is the school that brings together information technology, macroeconomics, and design? If we are to create productive, sustainable cities of the future, urban designers will need all those skills and more.

[email this story] Posted by R Ouellette on 02/21 at 01:21 PM

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