Living in the City The Old, the New and what’s Next?

When we reason about the city of the future, we generally tend to be confronted by two contending and opposite principles: the old and the new.

I would sum up my fear about the future in one word: boring. And that’s my one fear: that everything has happened; nothing exciting or new or interesting is ever going to happen again…the future is just going to be a vast, conforming suburb of the soul. — J. G. Ballard

Florence, capital of Italy’s Tuscany region and birthplace of the Renaissance. Rooftops and its iconic Cathedral, with its terra-cotta-tiled dome engineered by Brunelleschi and bell tower designed by Giotto.

When we reason about the city of the future, we generally tend to be confronted by two contending and opposite principles: the old and the new. Beyond all the differentiated theoretical considerations, this contention dominates the current social and political reality, very specifically in Europe. Firstly, there is the model that still believes in the continuity of the 19th Century European city.

This model has retained its validity as we still use cities in this form. In fact, we care for them because they still provide us with familiar orientation. It is the urban space of the citizen, who knowingly plays their role in society, embedded in the social network of power.[1] The old European city, in some ways, has proven to be robust enough to assimilate the weighty new technological and communication tools. However, this model tends, in a threateningly way, to deny the contemporary reality, for the social and spatial excess of the agglomeration of a city. The urban landscape flood of the periphery, is in expansion. The American development of this historical model of urban space led to the village life of the quarter, ending in the New Urbanism of the harmony-addicted middle-classes, who build the facades they are familiar with as strongholds against the stream of outcasts.[2]

It is only logical that the counter-model to the European city has claimed its space. It is the model of the Sprawl being offensively countered by the new urban reality. This is based on the fact that today the majority of Europeans no longer live in the old city but spend their daily lives in the new agglomerations.[3] Outside the city, where the petrol stations and shopping centers, industrial parks and residential areas, garbage depositories and farming land mix pleasantly. Where urban forms can no longer be perceived or named, they require identification, re-evaluation and definition.

Suburban sprawl in Phoenix, Maricopa County, Arizona USA. Phoenix is the most populous state capital in the US. Settled in 1867 as an agricultural community near the confluence of the Salt and Gila Rivers, Phoenix incorporated as a city in 1881.
Shweeb pedal powered-bike monorail created by Geoffrey Barnett

This is why the central issue for the urban development of the future city is how this apparently irreconcilable the ideology of the old and the reality of the new city can be overcome. It has become inadequate to maintain the old dream of the compact city with its strong border to the surrounding countryside. It would be equally pretense to give up values of the old city in favor of an artificially sentimentality for the periphery altogether.

As compared to the specialized American city, where the territory is functionally fragmented, the city of the future will have to be capable of accommodating all the functions of a city. They will have to have housing, social amenities, workplaces, places for leisure and shopping, urban infrastructures and open spaces. Each city will have to behave in such a manner that it is able to recycle its own waste, purify its own water, generate its own energy, and permit a high-speed connection with the exterior. In addition, the workplaces must allow people to engage in the digital economy, carry out clean manufacturing or to participate in the physical work of the countryside. With this in mind, the journey time between the place of work and the necessary services linked to the housing should be as short as possible.

We have entered the urban millennium. At their best, cities are engines of growth and incubators of civilization. They are crossroads of ideas, places of great intellectual ferment and innovation… cities can also be places of exploitation, disease, violent crime, unemployment, and extreme poverty… we must do more to make our cities safe and livable places for all. — Kofi Annan, 2000

Rome: Ancient Supercity Infographic

We take big cities for granted today, but they are a relatively recent phenomenon. Most of human history concerns rural people making a living from the land.[4] The world’s first cities grew up in what is now Iraq, on the plains of Mesopotamia near the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The first city in the world to have more than one million people was Rome at the height of its Empire in 5 A.D. At that time, world population was only 170 million.[5] But Rome was something new in the world. It had developed its own sophisticated sanitation and traffic management systems, as well as aqueducts, multi-story low-income housing and even suburbs, but after it fell in 410 A.D. it would be 17 centuries before any metropolitan area had that many people.

The first large city in the modern era was Beijing, which surpassed one million population around 1800, followed soon after by New York and London. But at that time city life was the exception; only three percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas in 1800.[6] The rise of manufacturing spurred relocation to urban centres from the 19th through the early 20th century. The cities had the jobs, and new arrivals from the countryside provided the factories with cheap, plentiful labor. But the cities were also unhealthy places to live because of crowded conditions, poor sanitation and the rapid transmission of infectious disease. Populations grew, then, by continuing waves of migration from the countryside and from abroad.

On the set of Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang, 1927

In the first half of the 20th century, the fastest urban growth was in western cities. New York, London and other First World capitals were magnets for immigration and job opportunity. In 1950, New York, London, Tokyo and Paris boasted of having the world’s largest metropolitan populations. By then, New York had already become the first “mega-city,” with more than 10 million people.

In the postwar period, many large American cities lost population as manufacturing fled overseas and returning soldiers fueled the process of suburbanization. Crime was also a factor. Meanwhile, while many American cities shrank, population around the world was growing dramatically. In the 20th century, world population increased from 1.65 billion to six billion. The highest rate of growth was in the late 1960s, a colossal 80 million people were added every year.

Today, the most populous city is Tokyo (38 million people in 2012), followed by Jakarta, Indonesia (26 million), Seoul and Delhi (22 million), Shanghai, Manila, Karachi, New York, Sao Paulo (20 million), Mexico City (over 19 million), Osaka, Beijing, Cairo (over 17 million) and Mumbai (just under 17 million).[7]

There are now 33 mega-cities, 27 of them in the developing world. Although cities themselves occupy only two per cent of the world’s land, they have a major environmental impact on a much wider area.

Infrastructure for the City of the Future

By the end of the 19th century, cities throughout Europe faced a crisis: They were literally drowning in horse manure.[8] Thought leaders of the time knew it to be a forgone certainty that dealing with the waste of horses was going to be the critical concern for urban planners of the 20th century. Horses had dominated commerce and personal mobility for centuries, and as the population grew, it was logical to expect that solving this looming infrastructural problem would demand larger amounts of intellectual and financial capital. No doubt, cars have solved the horse manure problem.

Highwheeler /// “First automobile in Ketchikan, Governor Wildred B. Hoggatt driving, ca. 1908.”

The allegory of the horse illustrates an inherent tension of futures thinking. While we must build towards a better world based on current problems, the future is almost certain to be radically different from what we plan for. This is why successful solutions to the complex problems faced by cities need to strike a balance between addressing current needs and building in flexibility that can accommodate future behaviours.

Today, cities are again facing important dilemmas about infrastructure. From the efforts described in Robert Sullivan’s excellent New York Magazine piece on Bus Rapid Transport, which addressed the growing complexity of commuting patterns in New York, to plans for bringing bicycle superhighways to cities such as London, there is a growing realization that we have to reform our resource-depleting, socially-isolating reliance on single-occupancy car travel.[9]

How can we do this? Solving problems such as bus routes is extremely important, but within the coming decades these solutions may themselves become obsolete. While we are engineering solutions to current problems, we should also make sure that our cities are being designed for long-term resilience. Transportation is one area where the mismatch between planners’ assumptions and the uncertainly of future needs is growing alarmingly wide. One way to anticipate future needs of cities is to better understand the changing ways, and reasons why, people move around cities. This kind of understanding will allow us to start creating cities that are flexible enough to respond to the as-yet unknown future demands we will place on them.[10]

We can also imagine that the purpose of transportation will change in a world that blends the physical with information. We can start by re-envisioning how a highly mobile, highly connected individual might situate herself in such a city. What would change in the way that we design and implement changes to our urban infrastructure? Reinventing the city as a place where life, work, commuting and recreation will not be experienced as distinct activities, but will blend into one lifestyle, requires planners to reject long-held assumptions about where we do work, where we play, and what occupies the space between.

Jason Lamb /// Fracking City

To come to a conclusion, the future requires city planners who have learned from the parable of the horse. The future needs of cities will almost certainly look different than the needs we are planning for today, and so while we develop solutions for problems in the short term, we also need to make sure that we’re building cities that can adapt to the ways we will want to live.


Footnotes: [1] Vicent Gallard, Sociopolis Projects for the City, p.7 [2] Ibid. [3] Ibid. [4] Cities of the Future Today’s “Mega-cities” are Overcrowded and Environmentally Stressed by Divya Abhat, Shauna Dineen, Tamsyn Jones, Jim Motavalli, Rebecca Sanborn, and Kate Slomkowski. [5] Ibid. [6] Ibid. [7] Numbers shown include population within the recognized metro area of the city, and they also include people living in the immediate surrounding area outside of the established border of the city, (the immediate suburbs); some population numbers shown are accumulated at-best estimates, as consistent (2012 census) information. [8] Mathias Crawford is a research manager at The Institute for the Future. [9] Mathias Crawford, The Future of Cities and Transportation [10] ibid.

Limitlessness: Cities of the Near Future