Let Us Build Us a City, Part II

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Shenzen, China.

When I decried a dozen generations of dead-end urbanism recently, what exactly did I mean? Let me explain.

A dozen generations is about how long it has taken us to move from the pre-industrial city of the 18th century to the post industrial city we find ourselves inhabiting today. And about how long it has taken us to conclude that we have ended up in a cul de sac.

Backtracking is now clearly required. The post-industrial city, now to be found in every corner of the globe, is obsolete. An antidote is required. Quickly.

Do city makers and city dwellers across the planet finally agree that their home places are obsolete? That infinite rapid growth based on access to infinitely available resources is still possible? That these places which spew out an endless toxic stream, that require more capital, more water, more energy, more food, and more resources than the planet has to offer are viable? That urban centers based on contemporary levels of consumption can actually continue to offer shelter to surging new populations?

Hard to tell. In the developed world, it’s difficult to tell if city dwellers really see how much trouble lies ahead. We in the west are so wealthy, even now, and so comfortable with our patterns of urban life, that it’s hard to tell what it will take to induce changes in our urban intentions.

In the developing world, with its much more stark contrasts between wealth and poverty, it would seem easier to perceive a need for radical change. But interestingly it is precisely these places that are expanding most rapidly, and expanding based on obsolete patterns and intentions. 

It takes time to make a city, even a city that has grown at laser speed like Shenzen. Now we face a doubly difficult challenge.

First, we have to find ways to convince ourselves that we need to alter our course. Our cities have to be pointed at other patterns, other purposes.

And then we must actually alter our course, and remake our urban future.

As James Thurber once said, “Progress was all right. Only it went on too long.”

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