The Next City – An Inquiry Begins

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Lisbon, Portugal

In recent months we have had the extraordinary opportunity to visit many cities around the world, from Istanbul to Cairo, Lisbon to Rochester, New York to Portland. Some we have visited many times, some for only a fleeting moment. But we have tried to think about each place, tried to get to know a little of the story of each, and to witness how life in each city proceeds.


Istanbul, Turkey

We have seen these cities growing and changing, some very quickly, and we have wondered about what’s next. What is the next Barcelona, the next Houston? Every city, even an ancient one whose only traces are a few piles of stone, is made of many layers of different versions of itself. As wars are won or lost, new technologies arrive, rivers run dry, fires rage, cities change, adapting themselves to the forces exerted upon them.


Priene, near Kusadasi, Turkey

Thus one way to understand the next city is to understand the forces shaping it. These forces are extraordinarily diverse, of course. But today there are some common forces that will change every city, and will change every city soon. To meet these forces, and to adapt to them, our cities must change rapidly. The livability of cities, their basic sustainability as human communities, will be conditioned by how imaginatively, and how quickly, each city’s citizens can alter their metropolis.

What are these common forces? First, many of the world’s leading scientists agree that we have now seen oil production reach its peak. Even U.S. government analysts now agree that this is true. This means that while the population of the world continues to expand, and as development expands in places like Asia and Africa, the supply of oil will not increase, or may decline. It is easy to speculate about the impact of this circumstance on world politics, and on world events. And with half of the world’s population living in cities, about 3 billion people, it is easy as well to see that the cities we need are almost certainly not the cities we inhabit.


Giza, Egypt – the City Encircles the Pyramids

Questions come to mind quickly. If gasoline costs $7 a gallon, what is the next L.A., the American city with the worst traffic congestion, going to look like? Our food, now shipped great distances in trucks (current studies suggest that the average American foodstuff is shipped 1,500 miles) will quickly become too expensive. Will we still be able to get to our jobs? Can we still take the children to school? How will the next city need to change to meet these forces?


Rochester, NY, the Inner Loop

The second common force that the next city must address is our changing climate. Cities are now, many scientists agree, and will continue to become warmer, and wetter or drier, and increasingly subject to greater swings of extremes of climate. Examples are close at hand: Atlanta, Georgia is on the verge of running out of water. How should the next Atlanta be arranged to adapt to this force?

In the weeks ahead, we will examine the next city, trying to find clues to what the next urban layers will look like, feel like. How will our next cities hold our pasts, support our everyday life, and prepare to be home to future generations? Are we about to experience a very different world?


Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Effects of Good Government on the City, Siena, 1340

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