Space–time correlations in urban sprawl | Complexity & Systems |

Understanding demographic and migrational patterns constitutes a great challenge. Millions of individual decisions, motivated by economic, political, demographic, rational and/or emotional reasons underlie the high complexity of demographic dynamics. Significant advances in quantitatively understanding such complexity have been registered in recent years, as those involving the growth of cities but many fundamental issues still defy comprehension. We present here compelling empirical evidence of a high level of regularity regarding time and spatial correlations in urban sprawl, unravelling patterns about the inertia in the growth of cities and their interaction with each other. By using one of the world's most exhaustive extant demographic data basis—that of the Spanish Government's Institute INE, with records covering 111 years and (in 2011) 45 million people, distributed among more than 8000 population nuclei—we show that the inertia of city growth has a characteristic time of 15 years, and its interaction with the growth of other cities has a characteristic distance of 80 km. Distance is shown to be the main factor that entangles two cities (60% of total correlations). The power of our current social theories is thereby enhanced.