Constructing cities, deconstructing scaling laws

Elsa Arcaute*, Erez Hatna, Peter Ferguson, Hyejin Youn, Anders Johansson, Michael Batty

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

184 Citations (Scopus)
329 Downloads (Pure)


Cities can be characterized and modelled through different urban measures. Consistency within these observables is crucial in order to advance towards a science of cities. Bettencourt et al. have proposed that many of these urban measures can be predicted through universal scaling laws. We develop a framework to consistently define cities, using commuting to work and population density thresholds, and construct thousands of realizations of systems of cities with different boundaries for England and Wales. These serve as a laboratory for the scaling analysis of a large set of urban indicators. The analysis shows that population size alone does not provide us enough information to describe or predict the state of a city as previously proposed, indicating that the expected scaling laws are not corroborated. We found that most urban indicators scale linearly with city size, regardless of the definition of the urban boundaries. However, when nonlinear correlations are present, the exponent fluctuates considerably.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20140745
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of the Royal Society Interface
Issue number102
Early online date16 Jan 2015
Publication statusPublished - 16 Jan 2015


  • City boundaries
  • Power-laws
  • Scaling laws
  • Urban indicators


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