Cities and the Future
By Brenda Cooper, October 9, 2006
“In terms of where and how we live, no trend is more dominant today than the shift to cities,” Glen Hiemstra, in Turning the Future into Revenue.
According to the Wikipedia, 75% of the US population lives in urban or suburban areas. At the 2006 World Science Fiction Convention in Los Angeles, California, I moderated two back to back panels about the future of cities. Both panels were well-attended. I’m CIO for a small city (Kirkland, Washington), and we discuss the future regularly in the context of economic development and planning decisions. When I write science fiction, I often have to think about or design cities of the far future. Since most of us live in cities, it’s an interesting topic.
Let’s explore the future of big cities. Begin with a term: agglomerations. This is applied to big cities and their surrounding suburbs, which are often themselves fairly large cities. The five largest agglomerations (also according to Wikipedia but double-checked for relative accuracy via other web sources) are not the same as the largest cities (population within municipal limits).
It’s an interesting list. The agglomerations are generally twice the size of the cities, and none of the biggest five cities are part of the top five agglomerations. The website www.citypopulation.de lists twenty-five agglomerations over ten million people.
At the risk of oversimplification, ten million people is a lot of people for essentially one space. And all of agglomerations above are more than twice that. There are predictions that suggest they will grow even larger, are in fact growing larger every day. A few questions immediately come to mind. Will so many people really prefer to keep living in cities? How will so many people in one economy affect the politics and economics of the future? What needs to change in infrastructure and design for places that are already so crowded to grow?
Although some large cities are essentially partially shantytown and quite poor, for the purpose of this article, I’m ignoring the very real and different problems they face, and looking at cities with bigger and more successful economies and more educated populations.
Will so many people really prefer to keep living in cities?
The trends seem to support it. Some of them are economic; in many parts of the world, there are simply more jobs and more opportunities in cities. Cities are a richer place for entertainment of almost all kinds. Even though rural areas are becoming more internet-connected, the best connectivity is still in cities, and new entertainment and education opportunities that utilize the internet usually begin there. It’s actually easier to telecommute from inside a city, where you can go in to the local office if you want to, than from a farm in Idaho. And should you need to travel, more transportation alternatives are readily available, even though actual driving for any distance seems tough in most major cities, and to be getting tougher. Anecdotally, I know an increasing number of people who telecommute casually for half-days and days or to finish their after-hours work from jobs they live fairly close to. Better health care also exists in cities today, particularly for those who can afford to pay cash or have very good insurance, or who need services set up to meet the needs of the uninsured.
How will so many people in one economy affect the politics and economics of the future?
First, many large cities have their own trade delegations, and receive trade delegations from either other large cities or from countries. In other words, they act, in some economic ways, like countries. In one of the panels at the World Science Fiction convention, Karl Schroeder, a successful science fiction writer and a futurist himself, mentioned some work he’s done with the Office of Technology Foresight under the Clerk of the Privy Council of Canada that implies agglomerations may soon span borders. Imagine a single urban area stretching from Vancouver, B.C., Canada through Seattle, Washington, or even further south to Tacoma. That might very well influence politics and trade in both British Columbia and Washington State. Currently, there are regular political divides between the Puget Sound area (the agglomeration that includes Seattle) and the rest of Washington State, which is largely rural. As more voters move to the city, chances are very good that the already shaky balance of power between rural and urban areas will shift even more to urban. In the United States, cities tend to be more liberal, particularly socially, than rural areas. It’s no accident that it was San Francisco and essentially Portland that first tentatively approved gay marriages (even though they were later annulled in both places), and Maine, which is dominated by Boston, that allows them legally. In short, cities are already powerful voices for change and economic development, and their power is likely to increase as their populations increase.
What needs to change in infrastructure and design for places that are already so crowded to grow?
Alternative energy programs and green building initiatives are becoming popular, and high gas and oil prices are already turning what was a moral choice into good business sense. Technology that transforms waste products into energy will help with the huge garbage streams generated by large cities. Because waste, water, waste-water, and runoff streams are all more concentrated in big cities, there are economies of scale in processing them that make bigger cities easier on the environment than that same population spread thinly across a rural landscape. Buildings are now being designed with garden rooftops and more careful attention to open space. China, which is perhaps undergoing the most dramatic urbanization to have ever occurred on Earth, is beginning to pay close attention to both building new eco-friendly cities and making it’s existing cities more eco-friendly.
Cities matter. The choices made by older cities and the design thought that goes into new ones could have a big impact on global climate change. Cities are likely to gain even more in economic and political power. If trends continue, they will remain attractive places to live, and may become much more attractive and “livable” in the future. These changes are not necessarily given, as cities and their inhabitants and builders have to deal with existing and sub-par infrastructure and transportation, fiscal challenges, and the general pressure of growth. Current trends and investment suggest that cities will continue to improve.
BBC article entitled Eco-designs on future cities, by Jo Twist
Futurist.com Article from 2002 on The Future of Cities, by Glen Hiemstra
Article at worldchanging.com about green city design efforts in China
MIT article on the new MIT Design Lab which is addressing large city issue