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The New Urban Century

The New Urban Century

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Published by Jonathan D. Hammond
An essay inquiring into the fundamental role of urban fabric in making developed and emerging cities more sustainable, particularly in terms of energy and land use.
An essay inquiring into the fundamental role of urban fabric in making developed and emerging cities more sustainable, particularly in terms of energy and land use.

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Published by: Jonathan D. Hammond on Dec 02, 2010
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The New Urban Century: Dealing With the Future of Cities

Jonathan D. Hammond

The world is settling into its first “urban century”. Just over 50% of the world’s population now lives in cities; that amount is likely to increase geometrically with time, and most of that growing urban population is in the developing economies of the “global South”. Most of those people are going to live in “megacities” or “maximum cities” such as Lagos, Manila, and Mumbai/Bombay, where the flow of capital is often scarce to begin with and the demand for services is only likely to grow as these regions develop. Nowhere is this truer than in the energy sector. OPEC predicts that demand for oil will increase by at least 50% by 2030, given current growth rates, even as supply remains questionably stagnant and fuel prices skyrocket. And given a lack of rural development, growing urban populations in rapidly developing countries such as China use far greater energy resources than their country-dwelling counterparts. (This is in contrast to many developing countries – particularly the United States and Canada, where standards of living are relatively high and equitable, farming and other rural activities have become highly industrialized, and energy use in city centers is considerably more efficient in terms of land area than it is in the sprawling countryside and suburban areas.) To make matters worse, the poorest people at the periphery of the new maximumcities often resort to whatever fuels they can get their hands on – usually dung, charcoal, and other biomass. These fuels pollute heavily in their own right but also result in massive deforestation, resulting in turn in further degradation of the environment for hundreds of miles around; forest turns to grassland, steppe to desert, and so forth. Thus the need for new and more efficient energy resources is immense, matched only perhaps by the need to improve the quality of these resources and develop these new regions in a sustainable and equitable fashion. Thankfully, new technologies and building techniques are improving the efficiency of urban energy use worldwide. Energy programs in developing countries such as South Africa have created energy savings of at least 50% in some areas; meanwhile, LEED certification and other “green building” programs have grown not only in developed countries but also in regions such as China and Brazil. Energy is not only being saved but is also now produced using more efficient, ecologically responsible methods around the world. Co-generation, geothermal heating, and waste-to-energy programs have done much to improve the efficiency of production and reduce noxious emissions. However, interest has also grown immensely in renewable energy sources – first hydro and wind, now solar, as new technologies drive down the cost of photovoltaics while the price of fossil fuels continues to rise and governments promote the development of new solar facilities large and small in sun-drenched regions from Spain to California. Even in the Gulf oil state of Abu Dhabi and famously polluting China, entirely new cities are being planned to take advantage of their unique renewable resouorces – the immense winds and sunlight of the Empty Quarter and the Gobi desert. There is immense promise in a bright-green future that harnesses emerging technologies to provide sustainable power that satisfies the needs of a rapidly growing

urban world. However, much more can be done than is even being considered now: given that current solar technologies can provide up to a quarter of U.S. energy needs, Federal landholders cannot afford to continue to stonewall millions of acres of solar projects. Nor can we afford not to carefully re-examine alternative sources such as nuclear technology. As the world grows and threats to our climate and ecosystem loom larger, we must adapt and grow with it, finding new ways to build our future on the groundwork of nature itself.

If its course so far has been any indication, the 21st century will be a transmodern, post-national, multi-polar rush to urbanization and globalization. But this globalizing rush does not affect everyone equally or equitably; there have been and continue to be winners and losers. As has been examined before, we are entering the first “urban century”, and it is the cities – in particular, those cities afforded the most technological, intellectual, and cultural capital – that will benefit most from the next wave of economic globalization, and it is the responsibility of the developed world to foster the sustainable growth of new cities in a manner that benefits all of their inhabitants. Needless to say, this is not currently the case. As it happens, almost a billion citydwellers live in makeshift shantytowns and squatter settlements on the most marginal land, the only land that is affordable to them and where they are least likely to be forcibly evicted by the owners-in-right. Meanwhile, the most essential “world cities” have created their own islands of the superrich: they may be the relatively emergent, open financial campuses found within or without the city, such as La Defense or Roppongi; or they may be gated arcological enclaves isolated from the chaos of the central city, such as exist so often in developing cities such as Hyderabad or Sao Paulo. Despite the ever-increasing mobility of both groups, these two worlds of global rich and global poor almost never intersect: in the developing world, the “informal” disadvantaged are effectively “written out” of formal education, work and financial opportunities, which continue to spiral outward spatially into the periphery of the urban regions, inaccessible to the poor; in the industrial world, however, the poor are somewhat more formally included but shunted to the periphery, while still more exist all but invisibly on the other side of the world. Ironically, however (and perhaps paradoxically), it is this immigration that largely fuels the continuing growth of successful cities such as New York and London. Almost all new growth there has come as a result of immigration, and these cities must adjust to this valuable influx by finding new ways to accommodate them – both literally in terms of a dwindling supply of affordable housing, and also in terms of public services, such as a transportation system that is doubly taxed by rising energy prices and congestion. Thus affordability – of housing, transport, etc. – becomes the driving issue. While no one idea will fix these challenges, there are solutions that approach these complex issues deftly. The modernist program that sought to resolve urban issues was in some ways very effective; the recent UNESCO award given to Berlin’s Weimarera public housing serves testament to that. But planning and architecture, having more in common with industrial design than with pure art forms, eventually reached a breaking point of abstraction that atomized world cities, tearing them apart with freeways and

forms alien to normal human use and interaction, creating in their wake sprawling suburban subdivisions, banlieues and ghettoes that are just now being re-knitted.

Much of the new way forward depends on context. Cities must be given freedom not only to mend themselves, but to adapt. It is vital that the developing world be offered the tools to grow healthily – but at the same time, they must reform so that the “informal” poor can become part of a fully participatory economy. Meanwhile, the industrial world must open themselves up to new people and ideas that will help build not only their own fortunes but increase the well-being of all inhabitants of this new urban future. It is vital that philanthropists, governments and those with the means to do so put forth a new way forward to an affordable, sustainable vision of the world city. One of the first hurdles to making the city sustainable in the developed world is sprawl. This is often considered a gestalt – one of those ineffable, know-it-when-you-seeit phenomena. But in fact, sprawl can be almost embarrassingly easy to classify: it is characterized not by its density or lack thereof, but by its configuration. Sprawl consists mainly of five “easy” pieces: suburban housing (perhaps apartments, but usually singlefamily homes); shopping malls and other retail areas; civic institutions, such as schools; business parks and other commercial office space; and most importantly, the parking, highways, roads and other automotive transportation infrastructure that connects all of these elements with one another. And the automobile is essential; given its privilege in this environment, all spaces seem outsized, immense, and even hostile without it. Even with the ostensible simplicity (or more accurately, the inertia) of design afforded by this program, sprawl seems highly disjointed and discontinuous. Again, this is by design: the strict separation of uses that characterizes sprawl vis-à-vis more classical neighborhoods is built into a rigid Euclidian zoning code which mandates such. Beyond this, even adjacent uses refuse to connect, instead putting forward intimidating barriers to pedestrian entry and cross-traffic. (In fact, given the piecemeal private nature of sprawl development, even adjacent neighborhoods with similar land uses refuse otherwise natural street connections, terminating the road in two culs-de-sac divided by a berm.) Needless to say, this order of development is highly alienating to pedestrians. But it even alienates its own residents: much of the open space sprawl was designed for is offlimits, unusable (psychologically or otherwise) to the people that own it, live around it or are otherwise expected to use it. As a result of this, private developments are designed to be self-contained, as it is obvious that very little of value exists outside the office, home or shopping mall. However, in many cases, they are decidedly not. Some of this was unintentional. However, much of this was exists as a result of law, philosophy, and policy, both public and private. These policies of the United States and many of its largest corporations from the 1930s forward were intended to dismantle the “slum” conditions then perceived to exist in the city and replace them with an urban domain whose basis was the automobile. This was in its time seen as a utopian vision: the 1939 “Futurama” World’s Fair pavilion was massively popular in its depiction of what

we would now recognize as a conventional suburban development. (As a corollary, it was much cheaper to provide the massive quantities of housing expected in time for the postwar Baby Boom beyond the legal reach of the city. These new homes were necessarily only accessible by car, shutting out those dependent on transit systems, which were ultimately systematically dismantled by automotive interests.) At the time, U.S. housing policy was increasingly focused on homeownership, particularly among married whites and veterans. Unfortunately, these same policies (in addition to zoning regulations) shut out many others from attaining this new “American Dream”. Also important were the basic modernist ideas behind suburbia, taken to their most abstract by Le Corbusier and his followers, whose intention was to increase the quantity of valuable public space and personal privacy, but who broke from the original modernist convention by developing an aesthetic program of disconnected architectural forms that have very little relationship to each other, much less to the user, whose consideration should be paramount in any work of planning. It will take a significant effort in the 21st century to undo these mistakes, however well-intended, of the 20th.

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