Discrete Dynamics in Nature and Society
Volume 2012 (2012), Article ID 480196, 21 pages
Research Article

Zipf's Law, Hierarchical Structure, and Cards-Shuffling Model for Urban Development

Department of Geography, College of Urban and Environmental Science, Peking University, Beijing 100871, China

Received 21 March 2011; Revised 18 January 2012; Accepted 11 February 2012

Academic Editor: B. Sagar

Copyright © 2012 Yanguang Chen. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Hierarchy of cities reflects the ubiquitous structure frequently observed in the natural world and social institutions. Where there is a hierarchy with cascade structure, there is a Zipf's rank-size distribution, and vice versa. However, we have no theory to explain the spatial dynamics associated with Zipf's law of cities. In this paper, a new angle of view is proposed to find the simple rules dominating complex systems and regular patterns behind random distribution of cities. The hierarchical structure can be described with a set of exponential functions that are identical in form to Horton-Strahler's laws on rivers and Gutenberg-Richter's laws on earthquake energy. From the exponential models, we can derive four power laws including Zipf's law indicative of fractals and scaling symmetry. A card-shuffling model is built to interpret the relation between Zipf's law and hierarchy of cities. This model can be expanded to illuminate the general empirical power-law distributions across the individual physical and social sciences, which are hard to be comprehended within the specific scientific domains. This research is useful for us to understand how complex systems such as networks of cities are self-organized.