The future of cities – Batty

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In a recent editorial, Michael Batty states that “Suddenly, ‘cities’ have become the hottest topic on the planet.” (p.191). (The ‘Suddenly’ caught my eye – in surprise – but he qualifies this marker in terms of recent government activity.)

“Some of this interest [in the city] is undoubtedly due to the fact that we recently passed the point when, according to official statistics, more than 50% of the world’s population are now deemed to be living in some sort of city; in short, the point where more than 50% of global population is urbanised (UN, 2008), although it is arguable that this point was actually passed some time ago at the end of the last century. Definitional matters aside, it appears that by the end of this century most of the world’s population will be urbanised and, to all intents and purposes, will be living in ‘cities’ (Batty, 2011). But a stronger force for elevating cities to the point where they become the focus of interest is that the largest cities—world cities if you like—now appear to be acting more like city-states, driving economic development and  acting on a global stage that cuts across the nation-state in ways that are confusing, liberating,  and confounding.

Yet the most powerful force in this revival of interest in cities is undoubtedly the transition from a world based on energy to one based on information: from an industrial to a postindustrial world where the majority of pursuits are information based and where many previous occupations involving agriculture and manufacturing will be entirely automated. Most of our cities still reflect the built environment shells that were appropriate to a previous era, one wedded to the internal combustion engine, to an industrial base that in many places contained over half the workforce, and to patterns of living that tended to reinforce localities rather than more distant places. However, what takes place in our cities is now very different from the economic and social activities that defined them at the end of the 19th century. Most manufacturing employment has disappeared from more developed countries and, in any case, there has been a progressive loss of jobs due to automation in the manufacturing industries that have moved offshore in the last fifty years. Agriculture is now highly automated and it is very likely that it will be completely so by the end of this century; what will remain in terms of traditional farming lifestyles will be in small but persistent pockets of deep rural poverty amidst a much wider sea of cities where occupations will be essentially urban.” (p.191)

One of the major reasons why big cities have come back onto the agenda is because they are now regarded as the places where the future will be defined. In an increasingly competitive global world, cities are seen as the hot spots in terms of business, economic vibrancy, wealth and of course, as they have always been, the sources of economic and political power.” (p.192)

“…until quite recently, our love affair with the city was highly muted despite a longstanding recognition that cities were the keystones to the economy. In fact most of the 20th century was a reaction against the idea of the industrial city which was seen as an evil, polluted, sprawling place, out of control. Our planning then, and even now, was very much to contain the city by green belts, to disperse its functions to new towns, to regenerate activity at a regional rather than urban level.” (p.192)

“There is, however, one clear message in thinking about future cities: it is that such analysis and study should concentrate on the multiple repercussions over time and space that now characterise change in the contemporary city.” (p.194)

I can’t help wondering where urban fantasy fits in this picture.

Ref: (emphases in blue bold, mine) Michael Batty (2013) Editorial Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design, volume 40, pages 191 – 194

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