The article is originally published in SCENARIO Magazine issue 60, 2021. Go visit cifs.dk/publications/magazine.
The world is facing a series of extreme challenges in the 21st century which will both influence and challenge urban living over the coming decades. First and foremost, the global population is expected to grow from the current 7.8 billion people to between 10 or 11 billion people (even more, in some scenarios), and this extra population will likely all be urban — the UN forecasts that the world’s urban population will grow faster than the overall population, with rural populations in decline.
The challenge lies not just in creating urban living spaces and infrastructure for these extra billions, but also to do so in a way that makes cities liveable, while also addressing climate change, which will heat up cities and increase the risk of flooding from extreme weather and rising sea levels. There are many ways that these challenges can be met — if they are met — and in this article, I will examine four possible urban futures, based on two uncertainties. The first uncertainty is whether urban development will be planned for the long term, or whether any challenges will be met as they arise without any long-term plan: planned or unplanned. While long-term city planning may seem to always be the best strategy, this is only true if the challenges a city will face and the means to deal with these challenges are well known ahead of time. Perhaps the most resilient strategy for a changeable future is to not have any strategy except taking things as they come. The second uncertainty is whether the current trend of massive urbanisation will continue, as the UN predicts, with more and more people living very close together, or whether populations will spread out more because of advances in mobility and communication: centralisation or decentralisation.
Sprawl of Sprawls
Urban sprawl is usually defined as the unrestricted growth of housing, commercial development and roads over large expanses of land, with little concern for urban planning. This has been the general pattern of urban development over the past couple of centuries: When more housing, industrial grounds and commercial districts have been needed, they have been located just outside the existing city (usually at the expense of farmland), and the cities have just grown and grown. Transport infrastructure, like railways and motorways, has been added as the need grew.
In this scenario, the pattern of unplanned growth has continued, and urban areas have melded together into giant sprawls of sprawls, especially along coastlines and rivers, where the old cities were established. However, in addition to just adding new districts to the edges of cities, old neighbourhoods are being refitted as needs change. Old harbour areas are turned into entertainment and dining districts, old factory grounds become residential areas, and old urban railway lines are transformed into pedestrian paths and bicycle lanes lined with trees. As greater resilience against flooding is desired, streams that were buried in underground ducts are uncovered, and park areas around lakes are extended to accommodate overflows during rainstorms. Apart from in the city centre, few really high buildings are erected, and most of the sprawl consists of a mix of five or six-storey apartment buildings, suburban villas and terraced houses, accommodating a great variety of life situations and income levels.
As the sprawls grow and merge, the distance to rural areas and unspoiled nature grows, and a visit to a farm or a picnic in a real forest becomes a whole-day excursion. Most people make do with urban farmers’ markets and well-groomed parks, and only a few have ever seen a live cow, sheep or pig outside of zoos, let alone real wildlife apart from birds, squirrels and the occasional fox. Still, that seems to be enough for most people. The Sprawl of Sprawls generally works because it solves problems as they arise. The solutions may not be perfect, but they are not terrible, either — and in the end, we are satisfied with that, even if we may grumble from time to time about traffic jams, overflowing garbage cans and the occasional power outage.
Planned, decentralised Back in 1947, Copenhagen city planners introduced a grandiose, long-term strategy called the “finger plan”. Rather than letting the city grow unrestricted into an urban sprawl, it was decided that all citizens should live close to forests and rural areas. To this end, the city and its suburbs would only be allowed to grow in ‘fingers’ along local train lines and motorways, while between the fingers, farmland and forests were preserved or even created. The fingers eventually joined up with other cities in the extended neighbourhood of Copenhagen, and these cities were in turn joined by traffic infrastructure that connected the fingertips.
In this scenario, similar plans are made for new or expanding urban areas in both developing and developed nations. Cities grow like cellular walls along fairly thin lines that surround forests, open farmland and the occasional golf course, wind farm or solar park — the interiors of the cells — with nodes that are urban centres of education, culture, industry, and entertainment. No matter where you live, you are close to both nature and bustling urban areas. Each node is a municipality with a high degree of self-governance as long as the overall plan is respected. Green ‘bridges’ are established where wildlife can cross from one cell to the next, undisturbed by human traffic. Rivers, lakes and coastal areas are preserved with uncultivated shores that double as parks and wildlife reserves — no houseowner or organisation is allowed to have a private lawn all the way down to the water.
Getting to an international airport or train station may take a while, but that is all to the good, since unnecessary travel is discouraged, for the sake of the climate. Why travel abroad on your holiday when there are perfect getaway spots within an hour’s ride of where you live? If you do need to go far away, you can relax and enjoy being transported by high-quality trains and buses that allow you to lean back and rest or sit and work, if that is what you want to do. Time spent travelling is not time wasted.
The old, large cities are slowly transformed with more areas set aside for parks or other green spaces. Tall buildings are discouraged unless they incorporate ‘vertical parks’ that make the cities greener and improve air quality. Many new and old buildings are green-roofed, with the result that the cities blend seamlessly into the green cells between them.
Rise of the Towers
Planned, centralised It has long been known that the more closely people live together, the smaller is their individual energy use. Apartments require less energy for climate control than individual houses, and when everything you need is nearby, you don’t spend a lot of energy on transport. In general, urban people also require less living space because many functions are shared, such as laundry facilities, while others are commercialised outside homes. Rather than inviting friends home for lunch or dinner, you meet at cafes and restaurants. Some urban homes don’t even have a real kitchen.
In this scenario, this knowledge is taken to the extreme in urban planning, especially in developing countries where megacities are shooting up to house the growing populations. High-rises grow taller and closer, with high-speed elevators connecting directly to underground metro systems or parking spaces for taxis and shared cars and bicycles — or just to ground-level malls that cater to all needs. You barely need to go outside, and in any case, the outside is mostly shadowy streets. Instead, there are small indoor parks in the malls and in cosy corners on the residential levels. Your apartment may be small, but its walls are windows that open onto virtual forests or lakes where you can see trees and wildlife. Your climate control adds scents that support the illusion, and with virtual-reality technology, you can even step into the forest or take a swim in the lake.
A city housing tens of millions produces a lot of waste, making recycling a must. Waste is sorted by machines, and used shower water is filtered and used in toilets, which in turn supply raw materials for biogas units, the waste material of which is used as fertiliser on the fields surrounding the cities.
The megacities are connected in a vast, global network by high-speed railways that can cross a country in an hour and a major continent in a day. All the megacities look pretty much the same — but in return, the rural areas surrounding the towering cities are popular sites for vacation homes, rural estates and tourist destinations, with each destination offering a unique blend of nature and architecture. However, nobody likes overrun tourist spots, so vacations to these bucolic areas are limited to the wealthy and the lucky few who win a contest or find work there. For the masses, virtual vacations are the thing, allowing you to visit perfect replicas of natural wonders and recreated historic sites. You can even take a trip hiking in the great canyons on Mars or soar above the clouds of Jupiter.
End of Urbanisation
Unplanned, decentralised If we have learned one thing from the coronavirus pandemic, it is that it is perfectly possible for a lot of people to work from their homes rather than in an office. Many families retreated to summer houses in the countryside, far from the badly infected cities, working via the internet during the day and enjoying walks in the forest or along the beach in the afternoons and evenings. When you can have everything delivered to your door, you don’t need to live near good shopping streets, and when you are living in a beautiful spot, you don’t need to fly away on vacation.
In this scenario, COVID-19 triggers a desire to escape from the big cities, with many people moving to the countryside or outer suburbs. This trend was additionally fuelled by the advent of truly automated cars, which allowed people to commute or travel long distances in the privacy of their cars without having to concentrate on driving. The larger cities stop growing or even go into decline, while formerly declining rural towns attract new citizens. It turns out that a country can house a lot more people than typically imagined without the need for major cities. After all, the Netherlands, one of the densest populated countries in the world, has no city approaching a million residents, and even the densely populated Randstad region has plenty of space for farmland and forests. What drove people together in cities was not a lack of space, but rather the desire to be close to work, cultural attractions and airports. With steadily advancing communication technology and new transport options — even flying drone cars for those who could afford them — this desire was lessened, and the desire to live near nature took over. Much to the surprise of city planners, people declined to live in the new, expensive, and dense residential quarters in the major cities, preferring to get more living space and more nature for the same money far from the city.
In developing countries, other factors contribute to halting urbanisation — not least cheap and ubiquitous satellite internet, which gives rural citizens access to free online education and a global market for knowledge work. Farmers can access satellite weather and crop data and share best practices and research on both low-tech and high-tech farming, making farming a viable career, especially with the larger number of people that need to be fed.
It isn’t all bucolic idyll, though. Energy needs for housing and transport of goods and people are rising. The big cities are falling into decline as the more resourceful citizens move out, leading to poorly maintained infrastructure and rising crime levels — until growing rural living costs rise above declining urban living costs, and a balance is reached between urban and rural areas.