Cities don't create themselves. They are planned chaos. They are ongoing experiments that all urbanites take part in every day, experiments whose goal is to discover the magic alchemy that allows millions of people to live together safely, happily, and prosperously.
These experiments have yet to deliver gold, but over the last two decades, in particular, they have revealed deep insights into what separates poorly planned cities from truly world class cities. Using these insights, in addition to the latest technologies, modern city planners the world over are now embarking on the greatest urban transformation in centuries.
Increasing the IQ of our cities
Among the most exciting developments for the growth of our modern cities is the rise of smart cities. These are urban centers that rely on digital technology to monitor and manage municipal services—think traffic management and public transit, utilities, policing, healthcare and waste management—in real time to operate the city more efficiently, cost-effectively, with less waste and improved safety. At the city council level, smart city tech improves governance, urban planning, and resource management. And for the average citizen, smart city tech allows them to both maximize their economic productivity and improve their way of life.
These impressive outcomes are already well documented in a number of early adopter smart cities, such as Barcelona (Spain), Amsterdam (Netherlands), London (UK), Nice (France), New York (USA) and Singapore. However, smart cities would not be possible without the relatively recent growth of three innovations that are giant trends unto them themselves.
Internet infrastructure. As outlined in our Future of the Internet series, the Internet is over two decades old, and while we may feel like it's omnipresent, the reality is that it's far from being mainstream. Of the 7.4 billion people in the world (2016), 4.4 billion don’t have access to the Internet. That means a majority of the world’s population has never laid eyes on a Grumpy Cat meme.
As you’d expect, the majority of these unconnected people tend to be poor and live in rural regions that lack modern infrastructure, such as access to electricity. Developing nations tend to have the worst web connectivity; India, for example, has just over one billion people lacking Internet access, followed closely by China with 730 million.
However, by 2025, the vast majority of the developing world will become connected. This Internet access will come about through a variety of technologies, including aggressive fiber-optic expansion, novel Wi-Fi delivery, Internet drones, and new satellite networks. And while the world's poor gaining access to the web doesn't seem like a big deal at first glance, consider that in our modern world, access to the Internet drives economic growth:
- An extra 10 mobile phones per 100 people in developing countries increases the GDP growth rate per person by more than one percentage point.
- Web applications will enable 22 percent of China’s total GDP by 2025.
- By 2020, improved computer literacy and mobile data usage could grow India’s GDP by 5 percent.
- Should the Internet reach 90 percent of the world population, instead of the 32 percent today, global GDP will grow by $22 trillion by 2030—that’s a $17 gain for every $1 spent.
- Should developing countries reach Internet penetration equal to the developed world today, it will generate 120 million jobs and pull 160 million people out of poverty.
These connectivity benefits will accelerate the development of the Third World, but they will also magnify the already substantial head start cities of the West currently enjoy. You can see this with the concerted effort many American cities are investing to bring lightning-fast gigabit Internet speeds to their constituents—motivated in part by trendsetting initiatives like Google Fiber.
These cities are investing in free Wi-Fi in public spaces, laying fiber conduits every time construction workers break ground for unrelated projects, and some are even going so far as to launch city-owned Internet networks. These investments into connectivity not only improves the quality and brings down the cost of local Internet, it not only stimulates the local high-tech sector, it not only enhances the city's economic competitiveness compared to its urban neighbors, but it also enables another key technology that makes smart cities possible ….
Internet of Things. Whether you prefer to call it ubiquitous computing, the Internet of Everything, or the Internet of Things (IoT), they are all the same: IoT is a network designed to connect physical objects to the web. Put another way, IoT works by placing miniature-to-microscopic sensors onto or into every manufactured product, into the machines that make these manufactured products, and (in some cases) even into the raw materials that feed into the machines that make these manufactured products.
These sensors connect to the web wirelessly and ultimately “give life” to inanimate objects by allowing them to work together, adjust to changing environments, learn to work better and try to prevent problems.
For manufacturers, retailers, and product owners, these IoT sensors allow the once impossible ability to remotely monitor, repair, update, and upsell their products. For smart cities, a citywide network of these IoT sensors—inside buses, inside building utility monitors, inside sewage pipes, everywhere—allow them to more effectively measure human activities and allocate resources accordingly. According to Gartner, smart cities will use 1.1 billion connected "things" in 2015, rising to 9.7 billion by 2020.
Big data. Today, more than any time in history, the world is being consumed electronically with everything being monitored, tracked, and measured. But while IoT and other technologies may help smart cities collect oceans of data like never before, all of that data is useless without the ability to analyze that data to unearth actionable insights. Enter big data.
Big data is a technical buzzword that's recently grown quite popular—one you'll hear repeated to an annoying degree throughout the 2020s. It's a term that refers to the collection and storage of a giant horde of data, a horde so large that only supercomputers and cloud networks can chew through it. We're talking data at the petabyte scale (one million gigabytes).
In the past, all this data was impossible to sort through, but with each passing year better algorithms, coupled with increasingly powerful supercomputers, have allowed governments and corporations to connect the dots and find patterns in all this data. For smart cities, these patterns allow them to better execute three important functions: control increasingly complex systems, improve existing systems, and predict future trends.
Altogether, tomorrow’s innovations in city management are waiting to be discovered when these three technologies are creatively integrated into together. For example, imagine using weather data to automatically adjust traffic flows, or real-time flu reports to target specific neighborhoods with extra flu shot drives, or even using geo-targeted social media data to anticipate local crimes before they happen.
These insights and more will come largely by way of digital dashboards soon to become widely available to tomorrow's city planners and elected officials. These dashboards will provide officials with real-time details about their city's operations and trends, thereby allowing them to make better decisions about how to invest public money into infrastructure projects. And that's something to be thankful for, considering that world governments are forecasted to spend roughly $35 trillion in urban, public-works projects over the next two decades.
Better yet, the data that will feed these city councilor dashboards will also become widely available to the public. Smart cities are beginning to participate in an open-source data initiative that makes public data easily accessible to outside companies and individuals (through application programming interfaces or APIs) for use in building new applications and services. One of the most common examples of this are the independently built smartphone apps that use real-time city transit data to provide public transit arrival times. As a rule, the more city data is made transparent and accessible, the more these smart cities can benefit from their citizens' ingenuity to accelerate urban development.
Rethinking urban planning for the future
There is a fad going around these days that advocates for the subjective over the belief in the objective. For cities, these people say there is no objective measure of beauty when it comes to designing buildings, streets, and communities. For beauty is in the eye of the beholder after all.
These people are idiots.
Of course you can quantify beauty. Only the blind, lazy and pretentious say otherwise. And when it comes to cities, this can be proven with a simple measure: tourism statistics. There are certain cities in the world that attract far more visitors than others, consistently, over decades, even centuries.
Whether it’s New York or London, Paris or Barcelona, Hong Kong or Tokyo and many others, tourists flock to these cities because they are designed in an objectively (and dare I say universally) attractive manner. Urban planners the world over have studied the qualities of these top cities to discover the secrets of building attractive and liveable cities. And through the data made available from the smart city technologies described above, city planners are finding themselves in the middle of an urban renaissance where they now have the tools and knowledge to plan urban growth more sustainably and more beautifully than ever before.
Planning beauty into our buildings
Buildings, especially skyscrapers, they are the first image people associate with cities. Postcard photos tend to show a city's downtown core standing tall over the horizon and hugged by a clear blue sky. Buildings say a lot about the city's style and character, while the tallest and most visually striking buildings tell visitors about the values a city cares most about.
But as any traveler can tell you, some cities do buildings better than others. Why is that? Why do some cities feature iconic buildings and architecture, while others seem drab and haphazard?
Generally speaking, cities that feature a high percentage of “ugly” buildings tend to suffer from a few key illnesses:
- An underfunded or poorly supported city planning department;
- Poorly planned or poorly enforced city-wide guidelines for urban development; and
- A situation where the building guidelines that do exist are overridden by the interests and deep pockets of property developers (with the support of cash-strapped or corrupt city councils).
In this environment, cities develop in accordance to the will of the private market. Endless rows of faceless towers are built with little regard to how they fit in with their surroundings. Entertainment, shops, and public spaces are an afterthought. These are neighborhoods where people go to sleep instead of neighborhoods where people go to live.
Of course, there is a better way. And this better way involves very clear, defined rules for the urban development of high-rise buildings.
When it comes to the cities the world most admires, they all succeed because they found a sense of balance in their style. On one hand, people love visual order and symmetry, but too much of it can feel boring, depressing and alienating, similar to Norilsk, Russia. Alternatively, people love complexity in their surroundings, but too much can feel confusing, or worse, it can feel like one’s city doesn’t have an identity.
Balancing these extremes is difficult, but the most attractive cities have learned to do it well through an urban plan of organized complexity. Take Amsterdam for example: The buildings along its famous canals have a uniform height and width, but they vary greatly in their color, decoration, and roof design. Other cities can follow this approach by enforcing bylaws, codes, and guidelines upon building developers that tell them exactly what qualities of their new buildings need to remain consistent with neighboring buildings, and what qualities they are encouraged to be creative with.
On a similar note, researchers found that scale matters in cities. Specifically, the ideal height for buildings is around five stories (think Paris or Barcelona). Tall buildings are fine in moderation, but too many tall buildings can make people feel small and insignificant; in some cities, they block out the sun, limiting people's healthy daily exposure to daylight.
Generally speaking, tall buildings should ideally be limited in number and to buildings that best exemplify the city's values and aspirations. These great buildings should be iconically designed structures that double as tourist attractions, the kind of building or buildings that a city can be visually recognized for, like the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, the CN Tower in Toronto or the Burj Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
But all of these guidelines are what’s possible today. By the mid-2020s, two new technological innovations will emerge that will change how we’ll build and how we’ll design our future buildings. These are innovations that will shift building development into sci-fi territory. Learn more in chapter three of this Future of Cities series.
Reintroducing the human element to our street design
Connecting all these buildings are streets, the circulatory system of our cities. Since the 1960s, a consideration for vehicles over pedestrians has dominated the design of streets in modern cities. In turn, this consideration grew the footprint of these ever-widening streets and parking spaces have in our cities at large.
Unfortunately, the downside of a focus on vehicles over pedestrians is that the quality of life in our cities suffers. Air pollution rises. Public spaces shrink or become non-existent because streets crowd them out. The ease travel by foot degrades as streets and city blocks need to be large enough to accommodate vehicles. The ability of children, seniors and people with disabilities to navigate the city independently becomes eroded as intersections become difficult and dangerous to cross for this demographic. Visible life on streets disappears as people are incentivized to drive to places instead of walk to them.
Now, what would happen if you inverted this paradigm to design our streets with a pedestrian-first mindset? As you'd expect, the quality of life improves. You'd find cities that feel more like European cities that were built before the advent of the automobile.
There still remains wide NS and EW boulevards that help establish a sense of direction or orientation and make it easy to drive across town. But connecting these boulevards, these older cities also possess an intricate lattice of short, narrow, uneven, and (occasionally) diagonally directed alleys and backstreets that add a sense of variety to their urban environment. These narrower streets are regularly used by pedestrians as they are much easier for everyone to cross, thereby attracting increased foot traffic. This increased foot traffic attracts local business owners to set up shop and city planners to build public parks and squares alongside these streets, altogether creating an even greater incentive for people to use these streets.
These days, the benefits outlined above are well understood, but the hands of many city planners around the world remain tied to building more and wider streets. The reason for this has to do with the trends discussed in the first chapter of this series: The number of people moving into cities is exploding faster than these cities can adapt. And while funding for public transit initiatives are larger today than they have ever been, the reality remains that car traffic into most of the world’s cities is growing year-on-year.
Luckily, there’s a game-changing innovation in the works that will fundamentally reduce the cost of transportation, traffic, and even the total number of vehicles on the road. How this innovation will revolutionize the way we build our cities, we’ll learn more about in chapter four of this Future of Cities series.
Intensifying density into our urban cores
The density of cities is another major characteristic that differentiates them from smaller, rural communities. And given the projected growth of our cities over the next two decades, this density will only intensify with each passing year. However, the reasons behind growing our cities more densely (i.e. developing upwards with new condo developments) instead of growing the city’s footprint over a wider kilometer radius has a lot to do with the points discussed above.
If the city opted to accommodate its growing population by growing wider with more housing and low-rise building units, then it would have to invest in expanding its infrastructure outwards, while also building ever more roads and highways that will funnel ever more traffic to the city's inner core. These expenditures are permanent, added maintenance costs that city taxpayers will have to bear indefinitely.
Instead, many modern cities are opting to place artificial limits on their city’s outward expansion and aggressively directing private developers to build residential condominiums closer to the city’s core. The benefits of this approach are many. People who live and work closer to the city core no longer need to own a car and are incentivized to use public transit, thereby removing a significant number of cars from the road (and their associated pollution). Far less public infrastructure development needs to be invested into a single high-rise that houses 1,000, than 500 houses that house 1,000. A greater concentration of people also attracts a greater concentration of shops and businesses to open in the city core, creating new jobs, further decreasing car ownership, and improving the city’s overall quality of life.
As a rule, this kind of mixed-use city, where people have nearby access to their homes, work, shopping amenities, and entertainment is just more efficient and convenient than the suburbia many millennials are now actively escaping. For this reason, some cities are considering a radical new approach to taxation in the hopes of promoting density even further. We'll discuss this further in chapter five of this Future of Cities series.
Engineering human communities
Smart and well-governed cities. Beautifully built buildings. Streets paved for people instead of cars. And encouraging density to produce convenient mixed-use cities. All these urban planning elements work together to create inclusive, liveable cities. But perhaps more important than all of these factors is the nurturing of local communities.
A community is a group or fellowship of people who live in the same place or share common characteristics. True communities can’t be artificially built. But with the right urban planning, it’s possible to build the supporting elements that allow a community to self-assemble.
Much of the theory behind community building within the urban planning discipline comes from famed journalist and urbanist, Jane Jacobs. She championed many of the urban planning principles discussed above—promoting shorter and narrower streets that attract more use from people that then attracts business and public development. However, when it comes to emergent communities, she also emphasized the need to develop two key qualities: diversity and safety.
To achieve these qualities in urban design, Jacobs encouraged planners to promote the following tactics:
Increase commercial space. Encourage all new developments on main or busy streets to reserve their first one to three floors for commercial use, whether it's a convenience store, dentist office, restaurant, etc. The more commercial space a city has, the lower the average rent for these spaces, which reduces the costs of opening new businesses. And as more businesses open on a street, said street attracts more foot traffic, and the more foot traffic, the more businesses open. Altogether, it's one of those virtuous cycle things.
Building mix. Related to the point above, Jacobs also encouraged city planners to protect a percentage of a city's older buildings from being replaced by newer housing or corporate towers. The reason being that newer buildings charge higher rents for their commercial space, thereby attracting only the wealthiest of businesses (like banks and high-end fashion outlets) and pushing out independent stores that can't afford their higher rents. By enforcing a mix of older and newer buildings, planners can protect the diversity of businesses each street has to offer.
Multiple functions. This diversity of businesses types on a street plays into Jacob’s ideal that encourages each neighborhood or district to have more than one primary function in order to attract foot traffic at all times of the day. For example, Bay Street in Toronto is the city’s (and Canada’s) financial epicenter. The buildings along this street are so heavily concentrated in the financial industry that by five or seven p.m. when all the financial workers go home, the entire area becomes a dead zone. However, if this street included a high concentration of businesses from another industry, such as bars or restaurants, then this area would remain active well into the evening.
Public surveillance. If the above three points are successful in encouraging a large mix of businesses to open along city streets (what Jacobs would refer to as an “economic pool of use”), then these streets will see foot traffic throughout the day and night. All these people create a natural layer of safety—a natural surveillance system of eyes on the street—as criminals shy away from engaging in illegal activity in public areas that attract a large number of pedestrian witnesses. And here again, safer streets attract more people that attract more businesses that attract yet more people.
Jacobs believed that in our hearts, we love lively streets full of people doing things and interacting in public spaces. And in the decades since publishing her seminal books, studies have shown that when city planners succeed in creating all the above conditions, a community will manifest naturally. And over the long term, some of these communities and neighborhoods can develop into attractions with their own character that's eventually known citywide, then internationally—think Broadway in New York or Harajuku street in Tokyo.
All this said, some argue that given the rise of the Internet, the creation of physical communities will eventually be overtaken by involvement with online communities. While this may become the case in the latter half of this century (see our Future of the Internet series), for the time being, online communities have become a tool to strengthen existing urban communities and to create entirely new ones. In fact, social media, local reviews, events and news websites, and a multitude of apps have allowed urbanites to build real communities oftentimes in spite of the poor urban planning exhibited in select cities.
New technologies set to transform our future cities
The cities of tomorrow will live or die by how well they encourage connections and relationships among its population. And it's those cities that achieve these ideals most effectively that will ultimately become global leaders over the next two decades. But good urban planning policy alone won't be enough to safely manage the growth of tomorrow's cities are forecasted to experience. Here is where the new technologies hinted at above will come into play. Learn more by clicking the links below to read the next chapters in our Future of Cities series.