Over the past decade, the importance of urban space has returned to the forefront of the collective mind. Magazines, documentaries, books and public debates increasingly revolve around the use and misuse of our built environment whilst university courses and consultancies focusing on urban development spring up every day. As a result of this attention, studies are frequently carried out on the social and economic impact of our built space. Never has the knowledge of our urban environment been so great, yet never have the inequality of its citizens been so apparent. Stakeholders are given a conflicting message of a “global north” turned towards sustainability, the abandonment of the car as the first urban design prerogative and the pursuit of a ‘human scale’ for the privileged few while the ‘global south’ has less ambitious aims, centring around resilience, a pursuit of affordability and the provision of basic public services for all. In this race to the top, must the ‘global south’ truly forsake its sense of place and identity in the pursuit of emulating a vulnerable, flawed and often frail ‘global north’? Is sustainability achievable or must they settle for resilience instead? Should we achieve our utopian desires, is humankind destined to live in a globally uniform and sceptic urban environment as Hollywood would have us believe?

We live today in a world which has gone from only 10% of its population living in cities in 1900 to 50% in 2007 and a predicted 75% in 2050. This rural-to-urban growth is staggering in scale but even more so in its inequality. While a majority of the global urban population today does have access to the basic needs – a marked improvement over the Victorian age of industrial revolution – it affords fewer opportunities than may be apparent. Inequality is not only measured in access to shelter, clean water or food but also in access to information and the ability to make informed decisions. While the world applauds the fast growth of the interconnected world where seemingly each and every person has the world of information at their fingertips, the ability to use that information to upgrade one’s life is still very limited and restricted to a few who benefit from education, knowledge and access. The world of big data and its associated problems both allow for greater advances than ever before while bogging down those who may depend on it the most. Big data gives an unequal voice to those who may neither deserve it nor fully understand its power. Peer reviews and fact checking is too slow a process for an ‘always-on’ digital society. The substantial number of people left behind in this information asymmetry will rarely have the opportunity to partake in this new world order and may seek to create a newer world, better adapted to their ignorance and feelings of rejection, as is currently the case of european jihadists fighting for ISIS.

How does this impact our urban lives? 

With greater access to information and with the advent of a globalised world, increased human mobility has become the defining phenomenon of our century. The poor and destitute increasingly seek refuge and improved living conditions in the perceived richer nations, thereby often creating a disequilibrium as those wealthy enough to relocate elsewhere do so, leaving the rest to fend for themselves. The days of the easy categorisation of the north-south divide, as outlined by Willie Brandt in the 1980s, no longer holds true. There are no longer two economic hemispheres nor three worlds. We now live in a single, complex and interconnected world of fragile political states and interdependent economies and are witnessing the gradual disappearance of formal borders. We now live in a world where climate change is a reality that impacts all, a world of millions of refugees, a world where our cities are ill adapted to our needs.

With a rapidly increasing pace of change, comes limited room to make mistakes and greater consequences when they do occur. Emerging economies are keen to catch up to the concepts of what a modern metropolis must be and in doing so forsake their unique urban fabric to conform to one which is no longer relevant. Are the rise of ‘starchitects’ and their disciples to blame for the increased uniformity of urban design globally? Does a city truly need a Norman Foster designed building to be considered a global city?

Inequality is not a preserve of developing countries, for instance the USA who prides itself on the diverse make up of its population now publicly battles this phenomenon every day. The country has failed to design its city to foster inclusivity by focusing instead on top-down planning with the car at its heart. Today, the expensive private transport infrastructure built in the 50’s as post-war economic stimulus must now be maintained and adapted for new uses at great cost. The urban sprawl of suburbia is no longer desirable or sustainable, the car is no longer an object of desire but a financial weight. Despite extraordinary investments in urban planning, populations are still segregated, not given equal opportunities and the scale of the problem is poorly understood. As the Charleston shootings (amongst many others) have demonstrated, racial tensions are still very much a part of everyday american urban life. The cities of the U.S. are gradually entrenching its white middle and upper class neighbourhoods away from the poorer immigrant populated areas. The wealthy few benefit from exciting urban planning and community engagement initiatives while the most needy continue to go unnoticed and unprioritised. Very real and physical urban barriers are being erected between those communities. Decision makers seem to think that if the problem is ignored sufficiently long, it will simply resolve itself.

While large corporations have often had a hand in shaping our towns and cities, never has their role been as prominent as today. Our market-driven cities are now at the mercy of the whims of large conglomerates. The lessons of Detroit have not been heeded and we continue to bend to the whims of those that control our commercial lives. Advertising is omnipresent in our urban landscape – for example, British high streets are now uniform with the same shops nationwide. Tax breaks and special incentives or allowances are continually made for large scale employers. Out-of-town shopping centres, which helped depopulated the urban cores of the US are now themselves under threat from Amazon and other online retailers. City planners have for too long allowed those entities with financial capital free reign to design and influence our urban spaces. This power must return to those individuals that inhabit and use the space on a daily basis, even if to the short-term financial detriment of the city.

Gentrification is driving down the purchasing power of cities’ original inhabitants and driving out communities to ever farther peri-urban zones where fewer opportunities exist. While efforts by Mayors to increase uses of bikes lanes and the pedestrianisation of city centre are a step in the right direction, they tend to benefit middle class individuals that already live in those areas while they penalise those that live on the outskirts and have limited access to public transport and are therefore forced to use their cars. A city can only be sustainable if it is truly mixed-use, mixed-income and mixed-density. London for instance is rapidly becoming resilient to change but also less sustainable as it is no longer affordable to those that must work within it.

It is clear that whatever our short-term urban future holds, without drastic action, greater equality of its citizens is unlikely.

How will our global urban environment evolve over the next 20 years? It will undoubtedly seek to emulate our lifestyles and become more flexible, multi-use, and short-term focused. The ‘flexibility’ revolution is barely starting, pushed through by the so called “millenium generation”. We are no longer tied up to a single urban space but rather operate across multiple environments. Our work can be achieved globally, our material needs are decreasing and being fulfilled by increasingly efficient technologies. Formal barriers are breaking down and allowing for greater peer-to-peer interactions through tools such as Uber, AirBnB, Kickstarter and Tinder. This is increasingly being reflected in our urban form with no-contract startup spaces and adult ‘dorm’ buildings increasingly popular. Our abundant opportunities and desire for more rewards leads to rejections of decisions that may anchor us to a life of routine. Marriages and birth rates are decreasing in the western world while an ageing population needs to be cared for. Urban space is adapting to the needs of a population that lives alone or in small nuclear family units for whom the ability to be mobile remains paramount.

With greater flexibility, come sacrifices in space requirements, this may in turn lead to the possession of space as possibly the greatest commodity of future generations. With the abandonment of rural activities, with farms being built in skyscrapers, and the continued spatial growth of our cities are we heading towards the endless city?

Urban planners may soon come to an understanding that the age of big designs and paternalistic projects are coming to an end. The ‘City Radieuse’ of Le Corbusier and the ‘Garden Cities’ of Ebenezer Howard cannot exist as the human element will not tolerate such rigidity. As urban activists point out, our cities are not living museums stuck in time or rigid buildings dedicated to a single use for now and evermore. As with everything worth investigating, cities are living, breathing, evolving, complex organisms that adapt and respond to the needs and desires of its inhabitants. Cities cannot be tamed or controlled, they can be only coaxed into a particular direction, and only if the majority should allow it. Utopian cities cannot exist, they will continue to be flawed, imperfect and in need of order, but it is in the chaos and in the disorderly that a sense of place is created, that an identity is forged and that opportunities are created. For cities to survive in such a competitive environment, their unique sense of place is what will differentiate them and ultimately allow them to thrive.

The human – the key element for so long forgotten – may yet again regain its rightful place as the centre of urban design attention. Communities may yet be listened to instead of be told what is best for them. Donor agencies may put aside their conflicts of interest and political agendas to focus on smaller, more equitable and sustainable projects. Municipalities may yet come to the realisation that their greatest asset is not the tallest tower or the largest shopping centre in the world but rather its human capital. In the next 20 years, we may come to the realisation that we do not serve cities but that they exist to serve us.

With increased globalisation and the loss of urban heritage that this has created, there is a growing desire to return to our roots, to better understand our local cuisines, our origins and the social fabric of our neighbourhoods. Greater convenience and efficiency is no longer the end-all and be-all of human endeavours, rather a sense of belonging, exclusivity, identity and home is now demanded. We have gone from a highly localised and distinct urban fabric to a desire for global homogeneity which excludes those that do no conform but we may yet return to a more flexible, caring and human city. We must do so if we wish to live in a sustainable urban future.

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