Settlement Scaling in Pre-Modern Societies - Agenda

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Introduction and Preliminary Program Settlement Scaling Working Group Santa Fe Institute, June 10-12, 2015


Luis Bettencourt and Jose Lobo have been researching urban scaling in contemporary cities for a number of years, with various colleagues; e.g.: (Bettencourt 2013; Bettencourt et al. 2007; Bettencourt et al. 2010; Bettencourt and West 2010; Lobo et al. 2013). Scott Ortman was a Omidyar Postdoctoral Fellow at the Santa Fe Institute for three years, and part of that time was devoted to investigating scaling in precolumbian populations in the Basin of Mexico (Ortman et al. 2014, 2015) and northern New Mexico. In 2013 Mike Smith joined the others to form a research team to investigate the existence and nature of scaling relationships in ancient and nonwestern settlement systems. We convened a working group at the Santa Fe Institute in 2014, consisting mainly of archaeologists who expressed an interest in scaling research. Several datasets were assembled, including Tewa pueblo sites (Scott), Late Postclassic cities in Mesoamerica (Mike), and Mississippian sites in the southeastern U.S. (John Blitz). Marcus Hamilson, who has published on closely related scaling issues, was part of the group (Hamilton et al. 2007). We have written, or are in the process or writing, some case studies (Cesaretti et al. n.d.; Ossa et al. n.d.), and background or conceptual works for the general scaling approach (Smith 2014; Smith and Lobo n.d.). The 2015 Working Group meeting is funded by the ASU-SFI Center for Complex Biosocial Systems. The Center is also funding a Research Assistant, Rudy Cesaretti, who for the past academic year has been gathering historical data on medieval European settlements and other potential examples. Scott has applied for a grant to fund compilation and analysis of data on systems from the Roman Empire and the Southwest. Smith would like to gather data on Maya settlements (how do low-density cities compare to other kinds of cities?).


Our objectives for the June session are to contribute to research on human settlement systems and their quantitative and qualitative regularities. This includes presentations of datasets analyzed for scaling relationships; discussions of potential additional examples for which appropriate data can be gathered and analyzed in the future; discussion of Zipf’s law and rank-size settlement distributions; and discussion of related conceptual, methodological, and empirical issues.


We are hoping that the discussions will be free-flowing, probing, detailed, and rigorous. Everyone should come prepared to question and be questioned. However the organization of the workshop is being kept intentionally informal on account of the small number of participants and to be able to respond to the flow of the discussions and the identification of topics to consider. Some of the participants will present case studies or datasets they have examined (we will have a computer and projector available), but there is no requirement that every participant make a formal presentation. We will include time for discussion of these topics, as well as others that come up during the session. • Introduction to the theory and context of urban scaling • Presentation of examples, contemporary and historical • Urban scaling and economic geography • Discussion of potential examples and data requirements • Discussion of Zipf’s law (rank-size settlement distributions), about which several participants have published or done research on (Christian and Paolo; others?). What is the relationship between rank-sized distributions and scaling?

We ask each of you to share one article (not necessarily authored by you) that you strongly feel that, if read by everyone else, would enrich the workshop’s discussions. (Send the pdf file to Rudy and it will be placed in the workshop’s wikipage, where everyone can download the papers)


Bettencourt, Luís M. A. 2013 The Origins of Scaling in Cities. Science 340: 1438-1441.

Bettencourt, Luís M. A., José Lobo, Dirk Helbing, Christian Kühnert, and Geoffrey B. West 2007 Growth, Innovation, Scaling, and the Pace of Life in Cities. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104: 7301-7306.

Bettencourt, Luís M. A., José Lobo, Deborah Strumsky, and Geoffrey B. West 2010 Urban Scaling and its Deviations: Revealing the Structure of Wealth, Innovation and Crime Across Cities. PLoS One 5 (11): 1-9.

Bettencourt, Luís M. A. and Geoffrey B. West 2010 A Unified Theory of Urban Living. Nature 467: 912-913.

Cesaretti, Rudolf, Luís M. A. Bettencourt, Jose Lobo, Scott Ortman, and Michael E. Smith n.d. Area-Population Scaling Relationship in Historic European Cities (paper in preparation).

Hamilton, Marcus J., Bruce T. Milne, Robert S. Walker, and James H. Brown 2007 Nonlinear Scaling of Space Use in Human Hunter-Gatherers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104: 4765-4769.

Lobo, José, Luís M. A. Bettencourt, Deborah Strumsky, and Geoffrey B. West 2013 Urban Scaling and the Production Function for Cities. PLoS ONE 8 (3): e58407.

Ortman, Scott G., Andrew H.F. Cabaniss, Jennie O. Sturm, and Luís M. A. Bettencourt 2014 The Pre-History of Urban Scaling. PLOS-one 9 (2): e87902.

2015 Settlement Scaling and Increasing Returns in an Ancient Society. Science Advances 1 (1): e1400066.

Ossa, Alanna, Michael E. Smith, and Luis Bettencourt n.d. Regularities of Plaza Size in Mesoamerican Cities: Insights from Urban Scaling (paper in preparation).

Smith, Michael E. 2014 Peasant Mobility, Local Migration, and Premodern Urbanization. World Archaeology 46 (4): 516-533.

Smith, Michael E. and José Lobo n.d. Cities through the Ages: One Thing or Many? (Paper under review).