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Norman Mailer’s Lego City of the Future


So, this is sort of crazy. Apparently, Norman Mailer built a giant city out of Legos, and it remained in his living room for decades:

If you had to name one American, for instance, who clubbed together with a couple of friends in 1965 and spent more than three weeks building a futuristic seven-foot vertical city out of Lego, you might not immediately think of Norman Mailer. Thirty-three years later, however, the city still stands in Mailer’s living room in Brooklyn Heights, and its creator remains enthusiastic about his project. “It was very much opposed to Le Corbusier. I kept thinking of Mont-Saint-Michel,” he explains. “Each Lego brick represents an apartment. There’d be something like twelve thousand apartments. The philosophers would live at the top. The call girls would live in the white bricks, and the corporate executives would live in the black.” The cloud-level towers, apparently, would be linked by looping wires. “Once it was cabled up, those who were adventurous could slide down. It would be great fun to start the day off. Put Starbucks out of business.”

More here.

Personalized Subways

In the September issue of Scientific American, the editors asked a number of people about an innovation that would make cities more livable. My answer? Personalized subways:

Transportation innovation is one of the keys to creating a more livable city. And one innovation that has the potential to greatly impact life through transportation is personal rapid transit. Personal rapid transit is essentially a personalized subway system for a city. These systems use pods that can hold a handful of people, carrying them directly from point to point, with no stops and no waiting at stations. Creating an easier way to navigate a city promotes interactions among its inhabitants and, in turn, a more livable, and potentially more productive, city.

Here’s more about personal rapid transit. And the rest of the answers are here.

Cities of Excellent Research

Over on the arXiv there’s a paper–complete with interactive visualization–that determines those cities that produce more highly-cited research than would be expected. The aptly, albeit lengthily, named Which cities produce worldwide more excellent papers than can be expected? A new mapping approach–using Google Maps–based on statistical significance testing uses a fairly straightforward procedure of finding these cities. The authors, Lutz Bornmann and Loet Leydesdorff, control for size to see which cities have higher impact research than would be expected based on their total output in papers. And doing this, they find that many cities in the United States and Europe are better at producing good research than expected by the null hypothesis, and a number of cities in the former Soviet Union that perform less well than expected:

Go here for further information and visualizations.

Timeline of the World’s Largest City

With Niall Ferguson’s recent book discussing the possible end of the West’s exceptionalism, I thought putting this into a historical perspective would be useful. And I decided to do that using the single value of the world’s most populous city over time.

It turns out that this Largest City has changed quite a bit over time, changing locations over thirty times, with a few repeat performers, such as Constantinople and Beijing. It has also been in a number of different regions. So I decided to make a timeline of the world’s largest city, colored by continent over time, with the Middle East colored separately (note that Africa’s brief appearance on the timeline is only visible on the full-size version). A small version with some cities highlighted is below, and a much larger version that is about ten feet tall is downloadable here:

While, the ebb and flow of civilization is more than just a single city, this provides good perspective on the long sweep of history. Any ideas on how to visualize this better?

(thanks to Paul Kedrosky for a pointer to Niall Ferguson’s new book, which inspired me to perform this little visualization)

The City-States of America

We do not really think much about city-states anymore. With the exceptions of such places as Singapore and Hong Kong, the term “city-state” often conjures up the image of Athens or Sparta.

However, through a bit of number-crunching of data from the United States Census, I have found a new way to think of city-states when it comes the United States: those states where the majority of their populations lie within a single metropolitan area. For example, the state of Illinois is a city-state because, despite its large physical area, two-thirds of its population lies within the counties that make up the Chicago metropolitan area.

With that, I present The City-States of America:

downloadable as a high-resolution PDF

These are the fourteen states (plus the District of Columbia) where over the half the population of that individual state lies within a single metropolitan area (the state-by-state population fractions in largest metropolitan area at the end of the post). And there’s not much of a pattern to this. For example, New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island all grew out of single large population centers that were colonized early on, and this might appear to be a reason for being a city-state. However, Georgia does not have a similar history and is a city-state. On the other hand, Utah was also primarily colonized in a single city, yet is not a city-state.

More generally, these city-states don’t fit a single category in my mind: they are on both coasts as well as being landlocked, and encompass the non-contiguous states of Alaska and Hawaii.

However, there may be a great explanation for the distribution of city-states. Please put any theories for what is going on in the comments.

Scientific Background

This concept, The City-States of America, is similar to that of the primate city, a term coined by Mark Jefferson in 1939. A primate city refers to a city that is disproportionately larger than the other cities in that country or region. This idea is related to the Zipf distribution, a scale-free or power law distribution that often describes the ranks of the city sizes within a single country. In these distributions there many small cities dominated by a small number of extremely large cities, whose sizes are described by the exponent of the fit of the power law.

An explanation for how such an even distribution can occur is that of Gibrat’s Law, which posits the idea of proportionate growth — larger cities grow proportionally faster — can lead to this long tail of city sizes. A recent scientific paper that explores cities and Gibrat’s law is found here.

How Did I Make This?

I downloaded the United States Census data for the metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas (MSA’s), using the 2009 estimated values. I calculated the populations for each of these areas within each state by county. For example, the New York City metropolitan area spans multiple states. I included a separate NYC MSA in each of these states, with populations made up of only those counties within the state. So the Connecticut NYC MSA only included Connecticut counties in the calculation of the population of that MSA.

Examining the largest MSA population for each state, I then compared that to the estimated population of the entire state, also as of 2009. Those states that had over 50% of their populations within a single MSA were classified as city-states.

State-by-State Population Fractions

Below are the percentages of the state populations (plus DC) that live within the largest metropolitan statistical areas, in decreasing order:

  1. District of Columbia: 100%
  2. Rhode Island: 100%
  3. New Jersey: 73.3%
  4. Nevada: 72.0%
  5. Hawaii: 70.1%
  6. Illinois: 67.5%
  7. Arizona: 66.2%
  8. New York: 64.6%
  9. Massachusetts: 63.2%
  10. Delaware: 60.4%
  11. Minnesota: 59.7%
  12. Georgia: 55.7%
  13. Alaska: 53.6%
  14. Washington: 51.1%
  15. Colorado: 50.8%
  16. Maryland: 47.2%
  17. Oregon: 47.0%
  18. Michigan: 44.2%
  19. New Mexico: 42.7%
  20. Utah: 40.6%
  21. Nebraska: 40.6%
  22. Idaho: 39.2%
  23. Maine: 39.2%
  24. Missouri: 35.6%
  25. California: 34.8%
  26. Connecticut: 34.0%
  27. Vermont: 33.5%
  28. Oklahoma: 33.3%
  29. Virginia: 32.5%
  30. New Hampshire: 31.9%
  31. Pennsylvania: 31.8%
  32. Florida: 29.9%
  33. Kansas: 29.8%
  34. South Dakota: 29.3%
  35. Wisconsin: 27.6%
  36. Indiana: 27.1%
  37. Louisiana: 26.5%
  38. Texas: 26.0%
  39. Tennessee: 25.1%
  40. Alabama: 24.0%
  41. Arkansas: 23.7%
  42. Kentucky: 23.4%
  43. North Dakota: 22.2%
  44. Iowa: 18.7%
  45. Mississippi: 18.3%
  46. Ohio: 18.1%
  47. West Virginia: 16.7%
  48. South Carolina: 16.3%
  49. Wyoming: 16.3%
  50. North Carolina: 16.2%
  51. Montana: 15.9%

Mega-Regions

Richard Florida, in this weekend’s WSJ, discusses the Rise of the Mega-Region. Florida argues that nation-states and cities are somewhat passé, and that the relevant quantity that should be considered is the mega-region. A mega-region is an area “that hosts business and economic activity on a massive scale, generating a large share of the world’s economic activity and an even larger share of its scientific discoveries and technological innovation.”

I think the most important part of this concept is that these mega-regions need not be in a single country, and that therefore freedom of movement and trade is vital (see Florida’s suggestions at the end of the piece). For long-time readers of this blog, you will remember that the Buffalo-Toronto region is one of Florida’s mega-regions, and can be significantly helped by these freedoms.

The People’s Bills

Update: as noted in the comments and elsewhere, it is currently in violation of NFL rules for a team to be shareholder-owned. However, this could be changing. A congressman from Buffalo is petitioning the head of the league to get it changed!

As frequent readers of this blog might know, I grew up in Buffalo. And one of the reasons I like Buffalo is the Buffalo Bills. Yes, they never fail to disappoint, but it’s my team and you’ve got to have city pride. With that said, it appears that the Bills might leave Buffalo in the near future. Ralph Wilson has stated that once he dies the team will go up for sale with the likely ending being that it will move to Toronto.

I don’t want the Bills to leave. However, it is difficult for a small-market city to sustain an NFL team. But there is a possible solution. Taking a page from Green Bay’s shareholder approach and the British MyFootballClub’s mass-ownership, one possibility is to sell the team to its fans. This would mean the fans own the team, but also, they get to vote on draft picks, starting lineups, and so forth.

A friend of mine, Joe Brownstein (a science journalist) and I have begun a website The People’s Bills, devoted to exploring this issue. While we think the Bills should be owned by the fans, there are many details that need to be worked out (how to vote, what can be voted on, how many shares each person can buy, and so forth). So, we need your help. If you have any ideas, please read the site’s blog, and contact us as well. Thanks for your help!