The Challenge of Future Cities

As human population rises around the world, experts predict that much of that increase will be concentrated in cities. The World Bank has called urbanization the “defining phenomenon” of the 21st century. Unfortunately, the cities that exist today are ill equipped to handle such an influx of residents. They lack the housing, the transportation, the food supply chains, even the physical space. Unplanned, unauthorized development happens all the time:  such areas are called slums and are notoriously unsafe, unhealthy places to live. Yet, how is a city government supposed to anticipate future problems when it can hardly handle the problems it faces already?

What should the planning of future cities look like? Do we tear down and start from scratch? Do we adapt old structures to new uses? What about the building of new cities — for example, in China, where the number of people living in cities will hit one billion by the year 2030, and where it is said a city the size of New York will need to be built every 10 years for the next 40 years in order to keep up with this trend of urbanization?

In reviewing some of what is being said on-line in blogs, forums and articles, we can begin our own conversation here with a few observations:

1) Research is needed in order to understand what cities need, what benefits people most and how to make it all come together. However, we cannot get so bogged down in research that we lose sight of the fact that changes are happening right now and the need is urgent. 2030 is not so far away.

2)  The best solutions will come not from governments and planners imposing grand schemes from above, nor will they appear as if by magic by allowing random growth to proliferate. Instead, the best solutions will arise from cooperative planning between the people who live and work in the cities (and, importantly, in the individual neighborhoods that make up cities) and those who govern and plan. The individuals who live and work in the communities have unique insights into the challenges and benefits of their particular locales, while those in authority have the power and funding to move ideas forward and put structures in place which will continue the work into the future.

3)  Each city is a unique place — geographically, socially, culturally, economically, and more — but that doesn’t mean that we, as participants in the development process, should throw up our hands and say that no general principles can be stated. In fact, the disparate experiences of various cities can be helpful to one another as they grow and change. The World Bank is seeking to capitalize on this idea by making New York City a kind of “living lab,” creating a forum for cities as far-flung as Mumbai, Addis Ababa, Mexico City, and Kathmandu to look at urbanization issues, to propose potential solutions based upon their own experiences and to learn from the experiences of other cities.

4) We often approach the problem of crowded cities with the idea that people need to adapt to the limitations of the city, which results in more frustration and more difficulty. Instead, as Rand Hindi proposes, we can require the city to adapt to its people. Through research, we can learn when and how people utilize services — transportation, parking, trash, energy, water, even emergency services. Armed with this information, services’ schedules can be adapted so as to be available when and where they are most needed.

This is just the beginning of our discussion. We’d like to know:  what are your thoughts on the future of cities?

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