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Good Growth, Bad Growth

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

"The City as a Growth Machine" is a classic in urban studies, and remains influential to the analysis of urban politics and local economic development. The author, Harvey Molotch, argued that in any city, those who profit directly or indirectly from the increasing value of city land try to promote growth in order to increase the value of their land assets. For these economic elites, the city is a growth machine. To the extent that they are able to influence policy decisions to this end, growth takes precedence over other policies.

Although the nature and context of urban politics have changed considerably since the growth machine thesis was first proposed, old habits die hard. Too much opportunism remains as growth entrepreneurs treat places merely as commodities for their commercial gain. The politics of land monopolies and growth-oriented policies are justified by arguments that the city as a whole is the benefactor, whereas in truth the benefits are not so widely distributed and some of the unintended negative consequences are distributed more widely than people would like.

Physicist Geoffrey West believes that complex systems from organisms to cities are in many ways governed by the same, simple laws of growth. All of life is controlled by networks, from the intracellular to the multicellular to the ecosystem level. Since a city is fundamentally a manifestation of people’s interactions – the clustering and grouping of individuals and places – it is shaped by these ecosystem networks. Testing the universality of this thesis, Professor West et al. analysed a wide variety of biological and non-biological systems, and drew some startling conclusions about growth trends.

Biology is governed by ‘sub-linear’ scaling. The energy needed by different organisms increases with size at a rate that is less than one to one – an animal twice the size of us requires less than twice the energy. This economy of scale appears across the animal kingdom, with the pace of life systematically slowing with increasing size.

The growth of urban infrastructure demonstrates a similar economy of scale to biology. What is surprising is that this ‘sub-linear’ scaling of infrastructure occurs to the same degree in every city, and that it appears across a wide variety of infrastructure types from the lengths of roads to the density of electricity transmission lines. It appears that urban infrastructure is an integrated system that evolves in the same way, as urban planning everywhere converges on natural urban ecosystem needs.

More surprising are the results when you look at the growth of socio-economic factors that have no natural analog in biology, such as per capita number of creative people, intellectual property patents filed, number of colleges, crime rates, amount of waste generated. These factors grow by ‘super-linear’ scaling, increasing at a rate that is faster than the growth of the urban population itself – regardless of the city. Doubling the size of a city systematically more than doubles the socio-economic factors (by a power scaling of approximately 15%). The pace of social life increases with size of urban population, in contrast to the pace of biological life that slows down with increasing size.

It turns out that the city is a natural growth machine for civic life, and that civic life grows unnaturally fast in cities. However, pollution and crime rates scale just as fast as creativity and innovation. Our attention should turn away from forcing growth for economic gain to managing the good growth from the bad.

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