The future of cities – Are we missing the point?
Keep off the pavement
Cities come and go. Pompeii, Thebes, Petra and Machu Picchu come to mind. Cities decline for many reasons including maladministration, natural disasters and an inability to adapt to increasingly volatile macro-environmental forces.
Human settlements first appeared 50,000 years ago. We were all nomadic hunter gatherers up until 12,000 years ago. Movement was our survival strategy. The agricultural revolution provided another less dynamic survival strategy and this is where city building gathered momentum.
Today, to some people, walking is a pursuit limited to fitness fanatics and those who have excessive free time.
The oldest cities still in play today include:
- Argos (Greece) – age 7k years.
- Byblos (Lebanon) – age 5k.
- Aleppo (Syria) – age 5K.
These cities make London and New York seem like new towns.
Some of the newest include:
- Putrajaya (Malaysia) – Opened 1995.
- Naypyidaw (Myanmar) – Opened 2006.
- Neom (Saudi Arabia) – Planned opening 2025.
So cities reamin in vogue. However, recent events might indicate that we have reached ‘peak city’.
A brief history
Cities were typically built at trade route intersections or at the heart of agricultural activity. Technological innovation gave rise to manufacturing and so proximity to raw materials was a driver. The industrial revolution initially required proximity to flowing water. Today access to flowing data is paramount. And today half the planet lives in cities.
As humans expended less time and energy on chasing food, their newly available cognitive bandwidth could be applied to engineering and art.
This led to technological and cultural advancement. Thus cities developed their own characters. The city-state was the primary political system up until relatively recent. The concept of the nation state emerged around 600 years ago, so a relatively new experiment. On reflection, cities appear to be more resilient to change than nations.
Not for the people
But possibly the early nomads saw cities as a bad move for humanity. Whilst survivability improved, the increasing focus on commerce and ownership created an economic hierarchy. Money follows money. Soon it became clear that there are those that do the work and there are those they do the work for, giving rise to social stratification.
Eventually all roads and canals led to the factories. Transportation infrastructure existed to convey raw materials in and goods out. These factories needed people and so they had to be housed somewhere relatively close by. These people needed to eat and be clothed and so retail outlets sprung up. Family stores provided social anchors for the community, but then department stores emerged.
Shops transitioned from a source for what one needed to the arbiter of what one should want.
Shoppers were perhaps now the victims in this new commercial model. Depersonalisation and thus dehumanisation appear to be two major side effects of urban growth.
As property prices shot up, young buyers could not afford to live near their family. Given that cities were built using social fabric, this was perhaps an early indicator that cities had lost their way.
Cities lend themselves to the spread of disease. One such disease includes urban loneliness. Social isolation has a cost on the individual and eventually society. Society also pays the price for economic inequality. But the clock-speed and demands of urban living causes even the most kind-hearted of us to turn a blind eye.
Harried commuters stepping over vagrants is indicative of something not being right.
That some people will see a person in distress as a social media opportunity and thus use their phone as a video camera, rather than a mechanism for alerting the emergency services, is saddening.
Covid to the rescue
The pandemic has given many people a taste for home working. The idea of spending hours each day travelling ‘sardine class’ with other wretched commuters has lost its appeal. The value proposition offered by urban property ownership doesn’t stack up. Living a little further afield offers you and your family more space and over time a better opportunity to live near your loved ones. You don’t need to be related to form a community, but families help. Communities need to be the priority of urban planners.
It is too early to say, but I think that despite the protestations of the major employers, hybrid work is here to stay. Technology cannot obviate the economic need for humans. Those people that adapt to the onslaught of digital will be able to determine the terms of engagement with their employer / clients. This will likely lead to regions being more important than cities. The city exodus will cause both a drop in urban property prices and an increase in regional pricing.
With this redistribution of wealth will come an improvement in extra-urban infrastructure. Retail, leisure and hospitality services will follow the money.
Urban planners need to factor in the possibility that the location of economic activity will increasingly be determined by the worker and not the employer.
Smart leaders would be wise to see their nation as a tapestry of communities, not one large economic unit. National leaders are decoupled from local reality and often their policies reflect that.
Cities are not intrinsically bad. It’s just that when they are architected to solely serve to advance the needs of a few, then they need reengineering. Cities done well are gatherings of collaborating communities. Cities will remain important focal points, but our leaders need to recognise that both community and regional attention need to be given appropriate prominence.
Communities provide diversity and diversity enables adaptability. Communities reduce anxiety and thus free up headspace for creativity. Cities done well become innovation powerhouses.
The future of cities is perhaps the wrong theme. The nations that will succeed will be those that recognise the importance of communities and regions. Creating a symbiotic relationship between cities, communities and regions must be any government’s priority.