Science Fiction vs. Reality on the Streets of Tomorrow's New Cities
Beijing, China. Photo by Stuck in Customs.

Beijing, China moving toward the future. Photo by Stuck in Customs.

In Guy Montag’s city, it is illegal to be a pedestrian. The main character in Ray Bradbury’s 1953 dystopian American classic, Fahrenheit 451, commutes by subway. He thinks little of the circumstances and of the culture which gave rise to such laws forbidding walking, until he is nearly hit by a speeding automobile and realizes the teenagers behind the wheel are ambivalent to, and even more disconcertingly, desensitized from the possibility of causing a fatal traffic accident.

Far away in George Orwell’s futuristic state of Oceania (Nineteen Eighty Four), bureaucrat Winston Smith, recalls the evolution of transportation and public consciousness during his own lifetime:

In his own schooldays, Winston remembered, in the late fifties, it was only the helicopter that the Party claimed to have invented; a dozen years later, when Julia was at school, it was already claiming the aeroplane; one generation more, and it would be claiming the steam engine (336)

Although these examples come from the work of mid-20th century writers, the reality of the question, “What will the future city look like?” seldom loses its relevance. To gain some insight into the sustainability aspect of the future of the cities, I enlisted a group of experts at the recent Transforming Transportation 2013 conference, so that their work and expertise might inform us and advance our imagination.

Planning for the future

Cities, to borrow from the Roman example, are not built in a day. And Andre Dzikus, Coordinator of the Urban Basic Services Branch of UN-HABITAT in Kenya, points out that, as far as tomorrow’s civilizations are concerned, most cities have yet to be built. In 1800, only 3% of the world’s population lived in cities. That number rose to 40% by 1990, and since 2011 we live in a world where more than half the world’s population lives in urban areas, and the statistic continues to rise. The World Health Organization estimates that by 2050, 70% of the world’s population will reside in urban areas. Asia’s population alone, according to an estimate (United States Population Reference Bureau, 2012), is expected to increase by a billion people by 2050. The current world population is hovering around the 7.1 billion mark, and 97% of future growth is projected to occur in the developing nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Addressing the challenges of fast urbanization, Billy Cobbett, Program Manager for the World Bank Cities Alliance, argued that we need to fundamentally rethink and re-conceptualize cities in their entirety, pointing to the 1811 grid pattern of New York City as an example of thinking for the future, not planning after the fact. He adds that often times too many cities plan against people and try to stop individuals and families from moving and finding new opportunities.

Moving forward by skipping the car phase

Dr. Eric Dumbaugh, associate professor and interim director at the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Florida Atlantic University, believes the key to future success in responsible urban development lies in persuading countries and cities to skip the intermediate car-focused phase and move directly to a post-industrial model. This historic concept is already propelling cities like Curitiba, Brazil; Mexico City; and others to the frontiers of tomorrow’s cleaner, healthier, safer, more economically competitive, and more sustainable cities. Michael Kodransky from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) argues that parking is an important place to start. He outlined eight principles for a Transit-Oriented Development standard, half focused on transport and half on land use. These are: Compact, Densify, Transit, Connect, Mix, Cycle, Shift, Walk, and they are currently promoted through the Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) Award from the Urban Land Institute. However, without a transparent and functioning land market, it is very hard to achieve TOD.

Andre Dzikus argued that we must focus on how to expand new approaches to empower countries and cities. He pointed out that we should build our future cities with principles in mind such as mixed land use, connectivity, and streets as public space. UN-HABITAT, the United Nations agency promoting socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities, where Dzikus works, is currently drafting guidelines recommending that public space, including streets, should account for 30-40% of total land, unlike Kenya’s Nairobi at 11%, and Nairobi’s neighboring Kibera at 7%. Connectivity would mean 18 kilometers of streets per square kilometer of urban area, population density at 15,000 inhabitants per square kilometer, mixed-used development (an integration of multiple functions, containing, for example, both residential and commercial space) accounting for 40%, and specialized land-use at only 10%. These are ambitious numbers, but Dzikus added that mayors can decide what kind of cities they want to lead. He calls for a new paradigm for the city, in anticipation of the Habitat III Conference in 2016, at which will be drafted a new manifesto for cities.

Dzikus says examples we always talk about are band-aids, and that we must focus on how to scale and how to expand new approaches to empower countries and cities.  For more information on research from UN-HABITAT, check out: The State of the World’s Cities 2012/2013: The Prosperity of Cities.

Living at the crossroads of tomorrow’s urban landscape

We live at an exciting crossroads in the study of future urban development and the character of tomorrow’s urban landscape. Recent works in the field discuss a myriad of topics, from ways to quantify and measure investment in sustainability and resilience (Eco2 Cities: Ecological Cities as Economic Cities, Hiroaki Suzuki, et. al., World Bank Publications, 2010) to how cities — as opposed to suburbs and rural areas — bring out the best in human nature and concern for health. In a departure from the dystopian Cold War-era vision of Orwell and Bradbury, Dutch architect Jan Gehl’s groundbreaking 1971 classic on the importance of people-centric urban design (Life Between Buildings, Island Press, 2011) to Edward L. Glaeser’s historical argument that the city is humankind’s greatest invention (Triumph of the City, Penguin, 2011), there is much to look forward to for the metropolises of the future.

The author welcomes thoughts, reviews, and comments on the above works.


Benoit Colin and Elise Zevitz also contributed to this piece.

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