Explaining the Prevalence, Scaling and Variance of Urban Phenomena

CID Faculty Working Paper No. 329

Andres Gomez-Lievano, Oscar Patterson-Lomba, and Ricardo Hausmann
December 2016


The prevalence of many urban phenomena changes systematically with population size1. We propose a theory that unifies models of economic complexity2, 3 and cultural evolution4 to derive urban scaling. The theory accounts for the difference in scaling exponents and average prevalence across phenomena, as well as the difference in the variance within phenomena across cities of similar size. The central ideas are that a number of necessary complementary factors must be simultaneously present for a phenomenon to occur, and that the diversity of factors is logarithmically related to population size. The model reveals that phenomena that require more factors will be less prevalent, scale more superlinearly and show larger variance across cities of similar size. The theory applies to data on education, employment, innovation, disease and crime, and it entails the ability to predict the prevalence of a phenomenon across cities, given information about the prevalence in a single city.

This paper is published in the journal, Nature: Human Behavior.

Affiliated Research Program: Growth Lab