About: What direction will the evolution of cities take us? Options vary greatly! Large cities may be turning into networks of citified villages. A catastrophe could lead us to rebuilding cities (and our civilization) into new ways of living, even a return to the distant past. Or, we could develop our cities today in ways that make them more human and healthier. (Photo credit: Adrian Schwarz, Unsplash)
If you joined here, check out Part 1: Are cities key to human survival.
A citified world of villages
Cities may transform into villages large or small, but significantly smaller than cities. People know each other, they work together and play together. Kids go to the same school as their neighbors. A closely-knit village has a family-like feeling. It is sometimes hard for new-comers to integrate, especially if they come from other countries.
A risk: Will establishing closely-knit villages evolve into segregated communities of only people who are like each other, ethnically, religiously or politically?
A world-wide network of small collections of people living like in villages is a tempting vision, but raises the question of how would we manage the production and services provided today by global companies and multinationals on scales we ignore. Or do we not need these services? What alternatives do we have?
The 15-minute city
Like in a village or small town, the 15-minute city means you can walk to anywhere in 15 minutes. This includes school for kids and shopping and community events, and access to healthcare. You come into contact with other people every time you go out! The term comes from Carlos Moreno, an urbanist who worked with the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, in 2020.
A simpler, non-urban world with new rules for survival
Simplicity in Earth Abides
In Earth Abides, written by George R. Stewart in 1949, there is a global-wide fall of civilization from a deadly disease and the birth. A new culture develops with simpler tools and where highly skilled specialists will not survive. The novel reverses our thinking about how to survive if civilization is rebooted.
In the novel, a Isherwood Williams, a survivor of the earlier world leads us to discover new concepts of family, education and even civilization. The characters are well-developed, especially the children who have easily adapted to the new world of simpler tools and survival skills all of which which became a game, underlying which are superstitions that Isherwood cannot overcome.
Survival in World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
Along the same idea of a simpler world, we have World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks where a zombies plague has affected the world, destroying much of the way people live. The idea of zombies seems far-fetched, but as you get into the book, the obstacles, actions and results of people around the world fighting or protecting themselves from the zombies takes on a present-future time feeling.
Among the strong ideas in the book, we must avoid suicidal ignorance that comes from not knowing the basic survival skills. The section about life in the US after the zombies reverses common ideas about work. As people had to find ways to survive, many office workers discovered the emotional satisfaction of doing physical labor. The skills of newly-arrived immigrants were highly valued. In job retraining programs they were the instructors because they knew how to live with very little and improvise with what they had.
The book, taking us around the world, is a massive accomplishment and deals with fears and uncertainties in realistic ways we can easily imagine living today.
Today, as we enter summers of extreme heat, potential lack of electrical energy, increase in seal levels, people migrating to higher lands, we need to learn new ways of taking care of ourselves. Ask yourself how many survival skills do you have? If you end up outside your home in a natural environment, or if large groups of people force their way into your property to escape floods or fires, what can you do? Do you know how to build a fire? Navigate by a compass? Find and purify water? Make a meal from the herbs and plants around you? This may sound outlandish, but it is not impossible.
New urbanism is based on characteristics of cities in the past that were lost when urban sprawl and the automobile culture took over.
The concept of walkability is a key underlying goal especially in high density and crowded areas.
New Urbanism is in fact based on principles from the past, how cities have been built for centuries. People can talk, housing, shopping and public spaces are close together. The movement was created in the early 1980’s and in 1993 the key people founded the Congress for the New Urbanism.
New Urbanism is not without critics, some very strong. It has been accused of practicing social engineering, limiting free enterprise, centrally planned.
However, I believe the philosophy and practices of New Urbanism will continue to spread. There are multiple other movements around the world that work in the spirit of New Urbanism. The Wikipedia has a long list by location with details.
For me, the conclusion is that the energy created by New Urbanism is so strong that its impact will only increase, making urban life more livable.
More people in cities means fewer in the countryside, growing food. In addition, expansion of cities takes up land that was previously used for farming.
There will be fewer people in the country to grow and produce food and land that was previously agricultural will be replaced by housing, suburbs and roadways. Going to the local market to get fruit and vegetables will no longer be possible for most people, although in some large cities, Los Angeles for example, there are now quite a few local food markets. This evolution back to a village-like past, a sign that pure urban living is becoming more human.
Another sign is the rise of urban farming. Urban farming has pros and cons.
Urban farming can increase food security and help alleviate poverty. Urban farming can also help make cities greener. Urban farmers need to know and respect the guidelines for how pesticides and herbicides are used. Assuming there are agricultural standards for safe consumption, urban farming is part of a solution as it reduces the artificial barrier between rural and cities, between countryside and urban living. Some feel it returns agriculture to where it started: in cities where people lived.
Cities designed for medical wellness
Another risk that has come to our attention thanks to the Covid pandemic is the forced physical proximity in cities. Simply taking public transportation puts people face-to-face body-to-body in subways and buses during rush hours. As we learned belatedly during the Covid pandemic, people need to keep their distances.
Cities are crowded places with people too close together making it easy for viruses to spread.
How can cities be designed to keep people further apart, to prevent diseases from spreading? Geoff Manaugh in his well-known blog dedicated to architecture and design, BLDGBLOG, suggests that infectious diseases and sanitation problems can arise as people in cities come into close contact with other people who are ill, or have contracted a contagious disease. In this 2009 blog post Managaugh gives examples of swine flu and how it was a result of people living to close to animals. “Swine flu, we could say, is a spatial problem – an epiphenomenon of landscape.”
He links to the Salon del Mobile where in 2010 , over 10 years ago, the CDC released a new line of furniture designed to keep people from sitting too close together.
To borrow his words, how can we ensure that ”the modern city would thus not only be a place to live – it would also be a functioning medical instrument.”
The long Manaugh article shares examples of how people have tried or are trying to do this. It is well worth a thoughtful read.
He finishes with this:
“In 50 years will you be walking around the edges of the city with your grandkids when one of them asks: Why are these buildings out here, so far away from the rest?
“And you’ll say: They’re here because of swine flu. We redesigned the city and our diseases went away.”
Part 2 What direction are cities heading?