The Evolution of Cities

At the beginning of the 21st Century, smart cities, information, and big data are becoming increasingly critical for the success of urban development. Typically,  smart city initiatives focus on real-time information and future innovations. Three urban researchers took a different approach. They applied big data to the historic evolution of cities since the neolithic revolution 6,000 years ago.  Meredith Reba, Femke Reitsma, and Karen C. Seto, from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, and the Department of Geography at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, recorded, analyzed and visualized global, city level population data. The outstanding result is an improved understanding of long-term, historical, and contemporary urbanization trends and patterns.

This animated map illustrates the evolution of cities from the neolithic revolution to today. Source: Reba M, Reitsma F, Seto KC, 2016.  Spatializing 6,000 years of global urbanization from 3700 BC to AD 2000.

Unique Urban Development of the New West

The American West is renowned for its spectacular natural scenery. For decades it has continued to draw Americans and international visitors alike. One popular stereotype imagines the West as a vast expanse of almost empty land populated by cowboys, farmers, cattle, and horses. Yet today, this region of wide-open spaces is very much a place of cities. Westerners are far more likely to live in a city than not. The West is the most urbanized part of the United States. At the beginning of the 20th century, more than 50% of the western population was already concentrated in cities. By the beginning of the 21st century, the urbanized population approximated 95%.

This map shows the megaregions of the United States.   Source: National Geographic, 2016 . 

This map shows the megaregions of the United States. Source: National Geographic, 2016

The growth of western cities has, from the outset, been dependent on their proximity to natural resources, coaxing not only an intimate connection to nature, but an integration within it. Many western cities have continued to prosper in recent decades because of the increasing value their inhabitants place upon the quality of life that integrated access to nature provides.

The EcoWest initiative analyzes, visualizes, and shares data on environmental trends of the New West: "The West is as much a cultural invention as a geographical construct, so it’s a difficult place to define. Ranging from the driest of deserts to the wettest of rainforests, the lands of Western North America include an incredible diversity of ecosystems and people.

But in many ways, the eleven states of the American West do hang together as a region. The public domain dominates many states and the landscape tends to be much drier than the rest of the country. It is a land with limited water supplies, but vast tracts of open space, a region where extreme topography gives rise to an exceptionally rich array of species."

Five characteristics set the New West apart:

  • abundant public land
  • aridity
  • rollercoaster topography
  • diversity of species and ecosystems
  • growing population

This animation illustrates five ways in which the New West stands out geographically. Source: Mitch Tobin, ecowest.org, 2013.

The Principal Region of the New West

The principal region of the New West is Los Angeles County. It covers 4,752 square miles and contains nearly ten million residents (more than the individual populations of forty-two U.S. states). Despite its infamous reputation as a chaotic, unplanned accident, there is a deliberate structure to this metropolis's decentralized character.

The animated maps of  the Getty Research Institute illustrate the evolution of  four waves of technological innovation in the New West. They are part of Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A., a Getty initiative that brings together local cultural institutions for a wide-ranging look at the postwar built environment of Los Angeles, from its famous residential architecture to its vast freeway network, revealing the city's development and ongoing global impact in new ways.


Networks and Settlements of Los Angeles

This animated map illustrates the history of this region's transportation routes and evolving settlement patterns. Source: Getty Research Institute, Philip J. Ethington with Samuel Krueger and Adrian Almer, 2013.

Landscape Infrastructure of Los Angeles

This animated map illustrates the many factors that make up this region's diverse physical landscape. Source: Getty Research Institute and Mia Lehrer Landscape Architects, 2013.

Population, Economy, and Conflict of Los Angeles

This animated map illustrates the region's complex civic, social, and economic evolution. Source: Getty Research Institute, Philip J. Ethington with Samuel Krueger and Adrian Almer, 2013.