Why New York City is average: Researchers want to improve how we determine urban exceptionality?

Nov 10, 2010

Think New York is an exceptional city? It's not. The Big Apple is just about average for a city of its size. However, San Francisco is exceptional. Its inhabitants are wealthier, more productive, more innovative, and subject to fewer crimes than you would expect, given its size.

Turns out many of the cities we typically think of as great ones probably wouldn't show up near the top of most rankings, if Luis Bettencourt of the Santa Fe Institute has his way. He and his colleagues believe traditional per-capita measures are not very useful for determining what makes one city better or worse than another because they don't treat separately the roles and local character play in making it so.

In their paper published today in PLoS ONE, they propose ditching per-capita comparisons for more scientific ones that take into account the natural advantages of larger cities. The research team includes Jose Lobo of Arizona State University, Deborah Strumsky of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Geoffrey West, and Bettencourt. West and Bettencourt are theoretical physicists affiliated with both the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) and Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Big cities naturally have a statistical advantage because the agglomeration of people, more intense social interactions, and better developed infrastructures naturally invoke efficiencies and speed up the pace at which things happen, Bettencourt says. The researchers have shown, in fact, that with each doubling of city population, each inhabitant is, on average, 15 percent wealthier, 15 percent more productive, 15 percent more innovative, and 15 percent more likely to be victimized by , regardless of the city's geography or the decade in which you pull the data.

Scientists call this phenomenon "superlinear scaling." Rather than metrics increasing proportionally with population – in a "linear," or one-for-one fashion – measures that scale superlinearly increase consistently at a nonlinear rate greater than one for one.

"Almost anything you can measure about a city scales nonlinearly," Bettencourt says. "This is the reason we have cities in the first place. But if you don't correct for these effects, you are not capturing the essence of particular places."

As part of their study, the researchers developed scale-adjusted metropolitan indicators (SAMIs) that allowed them to compare the socioeconomic performance of large, midsized, and smaller U.S. cities.

By their measures, they found that exceptionality, both over- and under-performance, tends to be persistent. That is, when a city is more or less wealthy or more or less crime-ridden than its size suggests, it tends to stay that way for decades.

They also found that some features tend to pair up, such as wealth and safety; a wealthy but dangerous town like Fairbanks, Alaska is rare, as is a poor but safe city like Provo, Utah.

And they found that highly exceptional cities tend to be smaller and more monocultural, such as Corvallis, Oregon, which boasts a high number of patents for its size as well as a large Hewlett-Packard lab.

"If we used per-capita comparisons, we would have seen different exceptions, with a bias towards many more large cities ranking closer to the top," Bettencourt says.

So what does a city's ranking matter? In and of itself, not much, he says. But when a city is under- or over-performing the expectations for its size, it is doing something uniquely right or wrong. Understanding what that is provides essential clues as to how a city can improve or further capitalize on its successes, he says.

"Our results reveal in a new, scientifically based way what is truly exceptional about a particular , including the influence of its history, its policy choices, the consequences of its local flavor, the outcome of which can now be measured quantitatively," he says. "Our hope is that this perspective and methodology can help us better understand cities and design more science-based and effective policy."

Explore further: Improved mental health in young children of higher income parents

More information: Bettencourt LMA, Lobo J, Strumsky D, West GB (2010) Urban Scaling and Its Deviations: Revealing the Structure of Wealth, Innovation and Crime across Cities. PLoS ONE 5(11): e13541. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0013541

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

U.S. cities rated for 'sustainability'

Jun 01, 2006

SustainLane has issued its 2006 ranking of U.S. cities across 12 major "sustainability" categories, with West Coast cities taking the top spots.

Study: Immigration can lower prices of consumer products

Aug 23, 2007

An important new study examines how immigration influences the prices of consumer goods. The study, forthcoming in the Journal of Political Economy, challenges the predictions of the perfectly competitive model – that a ...

Recommended for you

Residents of 'boom time' suburbs face unsustainable commutes

20 hours ago

People living in the 'boom time' suburbs of Dublin are more likely to endure unsustainable commutes to work than those living in older accommodation. Research shows that people living in newly constructed housing in the Greater ...

Male-biased tweeting

Apr 23, 2014

Today women take an active part in public life. Without a doubt, they also converse with other women. In fact, they even talk to each other about other things besides men. As banal as it sounds, this is far ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

moonshinemike
not rated yet Nov 12, 2010
You can't get a decent meal after 11pm in San Francisco, and in NY you can find them all over the city. NY Wins on that.

More news stories

Google+ boss leaving the company

The executive credited with bringing the Google+ social network to life is leaving the Internet colossus after playing a key role there for nearly eight years.