Ancient cities are closer to modern cities than you might think

The way that cities grow and develop is the same now as it was thousands of years ago, according to new research.

It has been known for a while that our modern cities exhibit something known as ‘urban scaling’; as their populations grow, so does the level of productivity and efficiency.

For example, if a city’s population grows at a faster rate than its infrastructure development, the production of goods and services will grow at a faster rate than the population does, thus maintaining an overall balance.

This is such a predictable feature of modern cities that it can be mathematically measured, and future changes can be predicted with a fair degree of accuracy.

Until now this phenomenon had only been demonstrated in modern, industrialised cities. However, researchers have found that ancient cities that existed thousands of years ago in the area now occupied by Mexico City were also subject to urban scaling, suggesting the concept is a basic concept of all urban human societies, and will continue to be so in the cities of the future.


The researchers, from the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) and the University of Colorado Boulder (CUB), undertook extensive archaeological research to analyse thousands of ancient structures in Mexico to determine everything from population size and density to construction rates and site use intensity.

They found that the bigger the settlement, the more productive it was, making these ancient pre-contact Mesoamerican cities subject to urban scaling in the same ways as modern cities.

“It was shocking and unbelievable,” said Scott Ortman, assistant professor at the CUB Department of Anthropology. “We were raised on a steady diet telling us that, thanks to capitalism, industrialization, and democracy, the modern world is radically different from worlds of the past.

“What we found here is that the fundamental drivers of robust socioeconomic patterns in modern cities precede all that.”


The findings indicate that human social networks have fundamental features that shape cities, no matter when in history they occur.

“Our results suggest that the general ingredients of productivity and population density in human societies run much deeper and have everything to do with the challenges and opportunities of organizing human social networks,” explained Professor Luis Bettencourt, lead investigator of SFI’s Cities, Scaling, and Sustainability research program.

The findings also prompt some interesting possibilities for the cities of the future. Many concepts for future cities have seen robots, AI and other technological developments result in a major skewing of city scale, however this research suggests that this will not be the case.

Images courtesy of Gabriel Garcia for the Santa Fe Institute.


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