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The Future of Urbanization

March 24, 2008


In a recent post about what Paul Polak has been doing in developing countries [Work versus Welfare], I mentioned the fact that he is expanding the scope of his work to include helping the poor in urban areas as well as rural areas. Urbanization, I noted, is one of the demographic trends that appears to be continuing. In fact, last year was the tipping point for urbanization. More of the global population now lives in urban areas than in rural areas. Matt Vella, in his review of a new book, The Endless City, for BusinessWeek, makes that point to underscore the importance of the book [“The City of the Future,” 7 March 2008].

“The steady, centuries-long migration of people into cities passed a crucial milestone last year. More than half of humanity now lives in cities—and that figure will likely reach 75% by 2050. This urban shift is already visibly transforming newly sprawling giants such as Shanghai and Mexico City, as well as highly developed cities such as New York and London. This growth is also bringing titanic problems. Now, The Endless City, a new book edited by the London School of Economics’ Ricky Burdett and design curator Deyan Sudjic, aims to put urban expansion into perspective. The growth of cities, they argue, is not just a problem for local government agents or urban planners. Instead, urban growth is inseparable from major political and economic forces including globalization, immigration, employment, social exclusion, and sustainability (themes that track closely with the issues currently being debated in the runup to the U.S. Presidential election.)”

In my discussions of Development-in-a-Box™, I have stressed time and again that a holistic approach to development is essential to fostering success. Piecemeal or siloed approaches simply don’t work because the good they do is often undermined by shortcomings in areas not receiving attention. The fact the Burdett and Sudjic have put together a book that offers a holistic view of urbanization is encouraging. According to Vella:

“The book’s encyclopedic scope and the way it connects urban problems to economic and social issues make it a useful resource for urban planners and architects, as well as a broader range of designers and business people hoping to orient their products and services to consumers living in the world’s fast-growing cities.”

As Vella notes, The Endless City is an edited volume, which means that Burdett and Sudjic were not alone in this endeavor. According the article, over three dozen individuals from numerous fields were involved in the project. Long-time readers of this blog, know that I favor such approaches. They create what Frans Johansson calls The Medici Effect. As Johansson writes in the book named after this effect:

“When you step into an intersection of fields, disciplines, or cultures, you can combine existing concepts into a large number of extraordinary ideas.”

That is exactly what the group hoped would happen when they began collaborating on the book. They didn’t want to put together a bunch of esoteric essays that would satisfy some academic need to publish or perish. They wanted to put together a book that could serve as a practical guide to for dealing with the unique challenges presented by urbanization.

“The 500-page tome is the culmination of four years of meetings, conferences, and collaborations among the members of an informal working group of nearly 40 architects, planners, designers, and academics, dubbed the Urban Age Project. Spearheaded by Burdett and Sudjic, both based in London, the project has hosted conferences in cities from Berlin to Mumbai. In this, the group’s first major book, the team seeks a vision of cities as places where ‘urban life becomes a source of mutual strength rather than a source of mutual estrangement and civic bitterness,’ according to group member Richard Sennett, a sociologist. The book is intended as a practical resource for those looking at rapid urban growth as an opportunity despite the looming challenges and often stark inequalities. (Case in point: 1.4 billion people will be living in city slums by 2020.)”

That the book contains contributions from a number of professionals in different fields is great. Just as important is the fact that the book contains contributions written by politicians — the kind of policymakers who must enact laws that guide, regulate, and enforce how cities develop.

“Rather than overwhelm the reader with an amorphous mass of essays, The Endless City is neatly divided into six chapters, each with a distinct agenda, including an introduction and a combined glossary-index. The first of these sections is an in-depth examination of six very different cities and the challenges facing each. Berlin, its economy stagnant, is still reeling as the mass influx of citizens anticipated after the city’s reunification nearly 20 years ago failed to materialize. In contrast, Mexico City’s uncontrolled expansion over the past 20 years sees 60% of its nearly 20 million inhabitants living in illegal and informal housing, creating vast, unplanned, and sometimes dangerous communities. And just as New York is managing its post-September 11 growth, Johannesburg is searching for a cohesive identity as it has been transformed from an all-white city of about 250,000 in 1994 to a post-apartheid, multi-ethnic conglomeration of some 3.25 million inhabitants today. These four cities, along with Shanghai and London, are emblematic of the many challenges facing the rest of the world’s metropolises.”

The fact that the book examines old mega-cities (like London) as well as new mega-cities (like Mexico City) should make the book much more useful for those interested in tackling urban challenges. In edition to describing challenges, the book also examines some innovative theories and approaches for dealing with them.

“A subsequent chapter, titled ‘Issues,’ is more theoretical, packed with essays on subjects from the politics and policy of urban reform to a look at how the historical DNA of cities informs their ongoing architectural development. ‘Interventions,’ meanwhile, is a curated set of 20 innovative projects that give practical responses to many of the challenges introduced earlier in the book. Particularly compelling examples include New York’s Hearst Tower, a successful environmentally conscious building; and Mexico City’s Metrobus project, a bold attempt to implement a system of public buses catering to the entire metropolis to begin easing the city’s infamous traffic congestion.”

Vella’s major criticism of the book (and it’s really a minor one), is that a few of the contributors remain atop their high horses and use pompous and pretentious language in hopes of giving their particular contributions an unjustified air of superiority. He concludes:

“Still, the book’s many essays are underscored by a comprehensive set of graphics, charts, and diagrams that are one of its chief strengths. Full-page photographs and richly detailed maps make the book instantly accessible, even if it didn’t have its more thorough arguments and analyses. The book’s final section, ‘Positions,’ puts forward an agenda of smarter urban planning. The authors suggest endeavors like their own Urban Age Project (they’re already putting together the next conference) can help executives avoid the planning and development mistakes of the past. Managing the coming surge in urban populations, they argue, will require the worldwide collaboration of designers, architects, and politicians. That this is the book’s thinnest section suggests the majority of the endless city’s story has yet to be told.”

Anyone who has traveled extensively knows that cities around the world each have a distinct flavor about them. Yet, as this book appears to underscore, they also have a number of challenges in common. I’m in favor of projects that encourage collaboration and take a holistic view of development. In the end, such projects have a much better chance of creating resilient and sustainable solutions. I agree with Vella that much of the story has yet to be told, because the real future of cities has yet to unfold.

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