About: This section looks at the interconnections between cities and humanity in a world where cities are getting bigger. Are cities our hope for survival as hubs for innovation and services for people? There are three movements on-going: vertical expansion, horizontal sprawl (formal suburbs and informal slums) and simply leaving. We look at each three movements, and explore interactions, options and impacts. (Photo credit: Jorge Vasconez, Unsplash)
Most people think cities will grow
66% of the 200 people who participated in the Future2043 survey, believe cities will grow over future years. 16% believe they will get smaller. The other survey participants fall in the middle range.
Responses vary by age. For example the age group from 45 to 55 years leans toward the smaller belief: only 58% believe cities will get bigger and 22% believe they will get smaller. The younger group, those under 35 years old lean strongly towards bigger: 81% say bigger and 15% say smaller. I’m giving these numbers, fully aware that 200 survey participants is a small number and cannot be considered to be statistically meaningful. Nonetheless, I find the differences striking.
Looking at it from a country viewpoint, we see these figures showing expectations of growth: Nigeria over 90%, the UK 70%, Australia 70%, India 65%, the Netherlands 56% and the US where growth expectations were the lowest at 45%. Again, caution with these figures because of sample size. LINK countries chart.
Official demographics predict a major boom
Both the World Bank and UN-Habitat, among others, say that today over half the world’s population lives in cities and that in 2050 just one generation from now, this will rise to 70% . Seven out of 10 people will be living in cities.
Cities are here to stay, and the future of humanity is undoubtedly urban. (UN-Habitat)
Migration to cities largest in history
Stewart Brand explains how cities, growing rapidly, represent our hope for survival in the future. In The Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto in chapter “City Planet” he describes people migrating to cities for a better level of living and a better future, as the largest movement of people in history.
He quotes from a UN-Habitat report:
“Cities make countries rich. Countries that are highly urbanized have higher incomes, more stable economies, stronger institutions. They are better able to withstand the volatility of the global economy than those with less urbanized populations.”
The report continues: “They are often the first places where the social urban transformation of families and individuals occurs; by offering economic linkages between rural and urban environments, they can provide a ‘first step’ out of poverty for impoverished rural populations and a gateway to opportunities in larger cities.” We’ll see more about the importance of slums and squatter cities a little later.
The “City Planet” chapter in The Whole Earth Discipline and the following chapter “Urban Promise” are excellent overviews of work by researchers around the world and Brand’s own observations about how cities and humanity are interconnected.
Are bigger cities better?
Innovation is stimulated by interactions among people who are different from each other. Large metropolitan areas tend to have more innovation for this reason. They also attract companies that seek proximity with other companies. Hubs for businesses and startups such as Silicon Valley in California, Bengaluru in India, Singapore, and Shenzhen in China result from this proximity and high degrees of interaction.
These areas, because there are more people, tend to have better health care solutions, educational and job opportunities, and a higher standard of living.
A trend to watch is hybrid working (working from home or away from the office) resulting in people leaving cities. In 2023, as hybrid working has increased in certain professions, some urban areas are feeling the hit. San Francisco office buildings are emptying, and there is less commerce in and around the city because there are fewer people in general for shopping, dining and entertainment. The cycle of growth has been disrupted.
An excellent website to explore is The World Cities Report 2022: Envisaging the Future of Cities. You can go through chapter by chapter, seeing key highlights and recommendations, then download a pdf of each chapter or, alternatively, download the full report from the home page.
There has been much research on the pattern of growth that can be applied to the life cycle of organisms (including humans), civilizations, cities and businesses.
From birth, to growth and maturity, then to death, the cycle can however be transformed through innovation and unexpected events such as a climate change disaster, economic failure, war or other events. Researchers differ on the specifics of the cycle and how it impacts groups. They disagree on the signs of different phases and the solutions to problems along the way.
One thing for sure is that, from what I’ve seen so far, no one promotes a single “model” way for cities or businesses to grow and survive. There is an overall agreement that cases are different within the macro pattern from birth to maturity to death. Most agree that expanding to become bigger brings many advantages along with prolonged, productive life. The question is “how long can you continue to expand?
The situation is different in developing countries, but many developed cities started as disjointed informal settlements and evolved to what they are today over time. Social structures, roles of municipal entities, services for people are all necessary. Even though there are many cities that do not yet have these essential amenities, urbanization is seen by many as the most sustainable way of humanity to continue to live.
High-rises and quality of life, mental and physical
J.G. Ballard’s science fiction novel High-Rise deals with quality of life, especially the psychological aspect although physical safety is also part of the high-rise scene. His overall work relates to closed environments we choose to live in or spend time in: malls, gated communities, indoor leisure and exercise facilities. He is quoted as having said ““people aren’t moving into gated communities simply to avoid muggers and housebreakers – they’re moving in … to get away from other people. Even people like themselves.” He takes this to a new limits in High-Rise.
High-rise residences are not natural for humans. We cannot walk to our homes on the upper level floors. If the elevator is broken, many people cannot go up or down. They are trapped in their homes because of lack of a mechanical device – the elevator.
We have seen structural risks over the years in many countries around the world. I looked at the “List of structural failures and collapses” in the Wikipedia. It includes examples of bridges, dams and other disasters as well as buildings.
It made me stop and think that in fact we too often ignore these disasters unless they happen close to us, near people we know or they make the headlines for days running.
An example that made headlines around the world was the explosion in Beirut caused by explosives that had been stored in proximity of homes and businesses.
You may have heard of the Millennium Tower in San Francisco, tilting even more now after recovery operations. Another example, less known in the developing world, is the collapse in the wealthy neighborhood of Ikoyi in Nigeria’s biggest city of Lagos, which caused multiple deaths.
These disasters happened because of lack of respect for construction standards, lack of or ignoring safety warnings, usually with financial incentives in the background. They happened in cities, not in the countryside. Hundreds of people were killed or injured. The question is: if cities were not so over-crowded, would events occur less often, or affect fewer people? What will it take to make authorities ensure
Formal and informal
About: Expansion of cities can be in two apparently opposing directions: suburbs or slums. Although suburbs are usually considered to be preferable, they have disadvantages as do slums. Slums are often dangerous places to live, avoided by nearby residents. Suburbs where you need a car to get around can result in individual isolation. Cities are also being deserted voluntarily by nomad workers who can find more agreeable places to live.
Do cities get bigger when people spread beyond the borders? Or does that mean cities are getting smaller? It depends on official definitions, how governments and municipalities define their cities.
Is the spread considered to be suburbs, where individual houses and neighborhoods, are seen as part of the overall city? Or is the spread a question of sprawl, informal expansion, resulting in groups of people living in poverty and unhealthy conditions?
And how will each evolve, suburbs and sprawl?
Formal suburb settlements – space or isolation?
People leave cities and move to suburban areas where individual homes and plots of land exist side by side and are connected to the city by roads. People own their own homes and have more space than in cities. Kids can play outdoors in the yards.
A car-and-road dependent culture develops as the only way for people to get to work, do their shopping, take kids to school, go to places of worship and entertainment.
This is likely one of the reasons working-from-home, online shopping and digital entertainment have increased. This leads to isolation. People who are neighbors live in their personal work and home bubbles, rarely seeing each other for lack of time and energy.
Gated communities also result in isolation, this time “group isolation” where like-minded people live and socialize in their limited circles. The lack of interaction with different types of people can lead to entropy. The Merriam-Webster dictionary entropy as “the degradation of the matter and energy in the universe to an ultimate state of inert uniformity”. This sound like housing areas where everyone has to follow the “laws” for the appearance of lawns, car parking rules, visible gardening, and so on. Little individuality.
Lack of human flow. The guidelines for “human cities” such as being able to walk to the center of the city or children being able to walk to school do not exist in suburbs. In American cities school buses are less frequent today than when I was growing up. Most of the suburbs and even parts of cities are now automobile-dependent. If you don’t drive, you’re stuck–kids need parents to get to school, old people who no longer drive need other people to take them shopping or bring them food, workers who do drive to work spend several hours a day in their cars.
Informal slum/squatter settlements – substandard or inspiring?
Slums with informal housing areas may develop inside or outside cities. People without the means to live elsewhere live there in poverty and unhealthy conditions. They lack sanitation, access to water, access to services we take for granted.
The UN-Habitat reports that in 2007, the majority of the world’s people lived in cities. One out of every three city residents lives in sub standard housing lacking basic services.
These people may be displaced internally, or have migrated from other countries, and unable to find better living conditions. If there are no community advocates, nor local government support, the informal settlements will remain unrecognized as areas with a highly negative public perception where crime and drugs destroy lives and create fear in adjacent neighborhoods.
The NIMBY (not-in-my-back-yard) attitude is wide-spread, for understandable reasons. But there needs to be a way of improving conditions in informal settlements.
The surprising side of slums
Stewart Brand in The Whole Earth Discipline, focuses a lot of time talking about squatter cities. Squatters or slum dwellers represent roughly one out of four people in the world, based on information from the World Bank. This is compatible with the UN-Habitat report saying as of 2007, one out of three city inhabitants lived in informal settlements.
Informal settlements is a commonly accepted, non judgmental term for slums, squatter cities and homeless encampments. It is important to have vocabulary that reflects reality, and many slums and squatter cities are evolving away from the negative, off-putting images we have had of them for years.
They are improved steadily and gradually, increment by increment, by the people living there. Urban researchers say that squatters are now the predominant builders of cities in the world. Brand quotes Janice Perlman, author of The Myth of Marginality, Urban Poverty and Politics in Rio de Janeiro:
Favelas have the aspirations of the bourgeoisie, the perseverance of pioneers, and the values of patriots.
She wrote The Myth in 1976 and returned to the favelas for a visit in 2001. She discovered their rate of literacy in their children had gone from 5% to 94%.
There and in other places around the world, some informal settlements, slums or squatter cities, whichever term you use, show surprising conditions: neighborhood action communities, televisions, cell phones of course, but also businesses and dining places.
Informal and formal are interlinked
Stewart Brand, was asked in an interview with Wired what makes squatter cites so important? He replied “That’s where vast numbers of humans—slum dwellers—are doing urban stuff in new and amazing ways. And hell’s bells, there are a billion of them!…
…People are trying desperately to get out of poverty, so there’s a lot of creativity; they collaborate in ways that we’ve completely forgotten how to do in regular cities. And there’s a transition: People come in from the countryside, enter the rickshaw economy, and work for almost nothing. But after a while, they move uptown, into the formal economy.
He continues: “The United Nations did extensive field research and flipped from seeing squatter cities as the world’s great problem to realizing these slums are actually the world’s great solution to poverty.”
Inspiration from informal settlements
In some informal settlements internal communities develop new structures and practices that make living and working in the settlement realistic and profitable. An example are the favelas in Brazil. They have existed for decades and one in five Brazilians lives in a favela. A major change came when local people and Google worked together to map the favelas. This meant that people had addresses, for the first time. They can receive postal mail, open a business, prospect for customers. Many are now considered an official part of the Rio city.
Note: Another big development was the spread or portable phones, for favelas and people around the world in general. In some places, the phone number served as an address.
People in favelas do not live in isolation. They have relations with others in their favela, and the proximity brings interactions that are rare in suburban life in developed countries.
Working nomads, for better or for worse
Emptier cities, abandoned by working nomads
After the 2020-2022 global pandemic, our world woke up to the need to drastically change our ways of living and working. So far, the most striking result has been the increase in remote working. Workers may be working from home or from other parts of the world. This has led to a global culture of working nomads and even “global nomads” with cities losing much of their working population. This is not the only factor: downsizing by companies in addition to remote working by remaining personnel mean the downtown office economy is suffering big time. Not only are fiscal revenues smaller, but cities now have huge abandoned office buildings looking for a new life.
The spread of global nomads has had two results: bringing life and income to places that were off the map, or, triggering inflation making it hard for locals to live their previous lives comfortably, much like the arrival of Air BnB caused rents to sky rocket in popular places.
Remote work may be the way of the future, but it is not yet clear, as some people miss the intimacy of being in a workplace together, and some managers insist on employees come back in. Whichever prevails will depend on industries, company cultures, and the new lifestyle experiences of workers blending new ways of building careers with family and home life.
Technology is maturing to the extent of making virtual feel real. Think of the Apple Vision Pro headset as an example.
Whatever happens, in North America at least, it is clear that cities will no longer be an automatic hub for companies and workers. Municipal governments and businesses are looking for ways to revitalize the abandoned, anonymous office buildings. In our era of homelessness there should be numerous initiatives, but that require funding.
Cities around the world transformed by digital nomads
Digital nomads have moved into cities around the world and transformed cafés and co-working spaces into creative hubs. They live a mobile, independent lifestyle at an economic level that far exceeds that of their new temporary residence.
From “Rest of World” about digital nomads:
“The digital nomads’ visits are transitory, but they leave neighborhoods permanently transformed. Today, there are streets in Medellín, as in Mexico City or Canggu, that look more like Bushwick — where English is more common than the local language, and where the streets are dotted with brightly painted co-working hubs and prissy restaurants serving international cuisine. The more nomads arrive, the more these locations begin to resemble one another. Building exteriors retain their historic character, but interiors converge to a sterile homogeneity of hot-desking, free charging outlets, affordable coffee, and Wi-Fi with purchase.”
However, there are many places that are not enthusiastic about the arrival of digital nomads. Living costs increase, inflation of costs of restaurants and other services rise beyond what is possible for local inhabitants. Digital nomads do not permanently settle in one place. They move on, and are very likely replaced by new digital nomads, who will also live there temporarily..
Part 1 Are cities key to human survival?