Ancient Mexico Used in Study of Urban Environments

By Ivan Arturo Ebergenyi Thorpe

Paper argues that people who live in cities consume less energy and produce more.

A recently published study authored by researchers from the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) of New Mexico seems to validate a long-standing hunch regarding cities and productivity.

“A key property of modern cities is increasing returns to scale,” reads an abstract from the study’s working paper, published in November 2014. “[T]he fact that many socio-economic outputs increase more rapidly than population.”

The full study was published in mid-February by Luis Bettencourt, Scott Ortman, J.O. Sturm and A. H. F. Cabaniss. It represents a multidisciplinary effort of academics from the fields of anthropology and physics to examine the nature of complex systems – which itself constitutes one of the main goals of SFI.

Essentially, the paper is grounded upon the widely acknowledged premise that people who live in urban populations are generally more productive and use less energy than those living in more sparsely populated areas, such as suburbs or the countryside. This is appears to be because the density of cities appear to foster social networks that make certain aspects of life, such as securing water, food, clothing or other products, much easier. Having less to worry about, in this regard, enables city dwellers to be more productive in other areas.

Hereby, the more a city grows, the more productive its citizens become and the more efficient their energy consumption becomes. This is normally measured by analyzing Gross Domestic Product.

Teotihuacan Sun Moon Pyramid

While this may seem quite plausible for modern day cities with access to increasingly novel forms of technology and greater inter-connectivity, the researchers believed that this dynamic can take place regardless of whether or not modern levels of technological development are available. Indeed, they believed that this premise was applicable even in ancient societies.

To demonstrate this, the team reviewed several pre-Colombian settlements which inhabited territories of what are now different parts of modern day Mexico, up until the 16th Century A.D., when the Aztec Empire ruled.

Seeing as how there is no archaeological record of pre-Colombian Gross Domestic Product per se, the researchers measured the volume of public works and monuments – from this point on defined as “public architecture” – built per year.

Remarkably, the researchers found that the volume of public architecture built per year appeared to outpace population growth in larger cities, much in the same way GDP outpaces population growth in modern-day cities. In other words of City Labs’ Eric Jaffe: “[l]arger groups of urban laborers built bigger monuments than smaller groups, and built them faster.”

While this parameter was used to measure social productivity, personal productivity – essentially wealth – was measured based on housing sizes. The results appear to be similar: the larger the city, the larger the individual housing on average.

Ancient Mexico

Based on this, the researchers concluded that the productivity and energy efficiency of urbanites appears not to be a recent phenomenon exclusive to modernity. It is rather, a benefit that is inherent to dense urban areas with developed social networks.

Though this pattern appears to increase as cities grow, the paper stops short of suggesting it applies to all cities or is perpetual. One notable Pre-Colombian example, is the city of Cantona which, with an estimated peak population of 80,000, at one point rivalled the mighty Teotihuacan in population, only to be abandoned 1000 years ago.

Though many mysteries remain, we know that Cantona’s population actually increased during a time of below average rainfall. The reasons for this are speculated to have been an influx of rural migrants seeking refuge from the hardships brought on by drought. Eventually, the lack of food from the countryside, plus the city’s inability to absorb higher rates of immigration may have led to internal conflict and the abandonment of the city itself.

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