Future Cities

A recent post responding to The Futurist magazine’s “Outlook 2010” asks the question ‘What’s Next for 21st Century Cities?.’ While some points are strong, and the importance of raising and continuing debate and discussion can not be overstated, there are some remarks that are over-simplified and somewhat narrow-minded. Take, for example, the opening claim that “Cities are simply more complicated now.” I presume that the inhabitants of Ancient Rome or Ancient Greece might take umbrage with such a thought. All is relative, and living in and through any contemporary society most certainly has its complications. After all, a world full of ATMs, telephones, and indoor plumbing might be looked at by past generations as simplified.

The Futurist makes ten forecasts that “will shape cities,” separating them in to Environmental, Government, and Information Society sections. Under the Environmental heading are Colorful Solar Energy and Flooded Coastal Cities. Citing MIT’s thin solar film that can “do double-duty as tinted windows” is an interesting technological innovation, but it does little to address the core issues behind alternative energy, those being the need for increased reliability, greater efficiency, and reduced costs to make this a credible large-scale alternative. Further, placing solar film on vertical surfaces limits the daily exposure to sun, especially on cavernous city streets, much less creating a clear conflict with more standard and passive measures such as eaves and overhangs that help prevent solar heat gain. So, while the technology is interesting, the promises of reshaping cities based on that technology is flawed.

Secondly, under Environmental, is the notion that a fourteen degree centigrade warming would raise the oceans by seventy-five meters and put every coastal city at risk of flooding. These are certainly scary numbers, but the global warming debate rages on with difficulty in pinning down precisely where the planet is going in terms of actual warming and subsequent sea level rise. Although some warming and subsequent sea level rise seems legitimate, judgment is withheld here based on lack of confidence in hard data.

Continuing with forecasts for Government is the identification of local fragmentation, whereby local governments “will exert more influence than national governments.” Although difficult to make a sweeping generalization such as this – would you prefer countless numbers of local armies or a centralized United States Army? – there is merit in calling for city-building measures to be handled on a more local scale. But, I would ratchet it up from localism, and call for increased regionalism. With the ever-growing reliance on transportation, technology, and commerce networks, it would be irresponsible to promote localism at the expense of regionalism.

Also as part of the Government heading is Sensors and Nano-technology, whereby health monitoring, diagnosis, and procedures will increasingly be done virtually. I personally loathe the day that medical care is dispensed by a robot or computer, rather than the human presence of a doctor or nurse. Like with global warming, the health care debate rages on. I can not begin to predict where it will end, but I surely hope the human touch is still part of medicine, as I imagine it always will be.

Finally, The Futurist identifies Augmented Reality and Telecommuting as items that will reshape cities in our “Information Society.” Telecommuting is expected to increase (if only there are more jobs to telecommute to), but the resulting reduction in road infrastructure is questionable. Roadways and transportation are still driven by where we choose to live, and there will always be some people who choose an urban lifestyle, a suburban lifestyle, a rural lifestyle, and everything in between. While vehicle miles traveled (VMT) may decrease for some people as a result of telecommuting, people still crave social interaction, whether at the office water cooler or the neighborhood Starbucks. Perhaps VMT goes down and time spent in cars goes down, but the roadways will still be necessary to get the growing population to its destinations. And, further, what does an increase in telecommuting mean for transit? If taken to its extreme, fewer commuters may equal fewer drivers, but also fewer transit riders. And, if the roads appear less congested, some transit riders may be compelled to return to their cars. Fewer transit riders means reduced revenue, which then could mean cuts in service. And the downward spiral continues. Again, we return to the question of the true extent of telecommuting's reach, but the debate is an important one, nonetheless.

Next, Augmented Reality speaks to “sensors, digital maps, and real-time data to enrich our experience of cities.” As an urbanist and booster of cities, this bothers me the most. The beauty of cities, and one of the many attributes that make cities organic and exciting, is the joy of discovery, of chance encounters, and of diversity. What happens when discovery is taken away? Once expectations are set every step of the way, environments controlled, and like-minded people corralled into designated parts of a city, we truly have created a shopping mall out of our urban centers. True, this is taking the view to an extreme; and yes, some level of banality has crept into parts of our cities already; and, of course, some neighborhoods are clearly avoided by some people, but the notion of furthering this and promoting this should not be encouraged.

My disagreements on some of these topics are intended only to spur debate and conversation. The issues raised are important, as is the need for dialogue. Cities are incredibly complex and always have been. Changes, whether large or small, set off a series of events with implications far beyond what can reasonably be expected. As an urbanist, however, my premise is that cities are exciting and should be experienced en masse, and that social interaction propels the globally society forward. After all, isolation in one’s cocoon does little to improve self or society.