Archive for the ‘The next city: introduction’ Category

Frtiz Lang’s “Metropolis”

We have tried here in the last months to describe how our cities, where more than half the world’s population now lives, (80% of all Americans live in cities) are obsolete, and are failing and will more acutely fail to operate as usable human communities in the years ahead. This obsolescence and failure is no longer subject to debate. We face increasingly serious shortages of water, energy, and food. We face changing climates coupled with rampant pollution. And in the US, these facts are combined with unacceptably high levels of resource consumption. All these certainties suggest that we urgently rethink and reimagine our cities. The way we live in our cities must change, we must make these changes now, and at the speed of light. 

What revisions do we need to consider as we imagine the next city? If we can talk about what needs to be done, perhaps it will be easier to envision some of the changes we must make in order to shape a usable urban future. Maybe some kind of plan or approach can begin to emerge, with lists of options and sequences. And if we begin to make suggestions, perhaps our readers can naysay, rebut, fill in the blanks, and show us all better ways to make our urban futures.

And so I have been making lists, creating outlines, drawing doodles, and doing research to try and find some means by which to understand, and then articulate in words and images, some of our needs. To begin sketching out the next city, here are ten objectives we can say that the next city should achieve:

Paris, and a Smart Car. Image from flickr.

1. First, and perhaps foremost, the next city must be for people, and not cars. We have to get rid of cars. A geometric increase in transit options is absolutely required, scaled from the very local to the national and international. Build no more roads, or parking – we will need this land for other things. We must cure ourselves of the notion that an emerging technology will suddenly pop up to allow us to continue to drive cars – cars are obsolete. Even hybrids. Buy a Segway, and a new raincoat.

Las Ramblas, Barcelona. Image from flickr.

2. The next city must be very dense, with mixtures of uses, where we can easily walk or bike to work, to shop, or to sustain our social and cultural lives. The density comes with the walkability. We advocate the 1 mile walking circle – for most folks, that’s 20 minutes – as a good measure of an urban neighborhood. What makes the center of a neighborhood? Transit, markets, other shops, library, churches, food spots and cafes, some office spaces for the local health care folks, and perhaps one or two city-wide attractions or institutions.

3. Anything that is old stays. When we build, we embody our buildings with the energy and materials it takes to create them. Energy is precious. If it’s there already, we need to alter it perhaps, change its use or modify its configuration. But let’s not throw anything away. And it should go without saying that anything new must be built to the highest levels of sustainability. Beyond LEED platinum – all the way to zero. If the new can’t measure up, don’t build it.

The Straus Building (r.) and the McCormick Building, Chicago. Both built as offices, both now residences.

4. We will need to understand that with increased density will likely come scale shifts to smaller homes, in perhaps unexpected places. Most of us will work in our homes, instead of in the office buildings that fill our cities. We will need to convert most of those buildings to live/work residences, a process that is already underway in most US urban centers. And strip malls?

Danish wind farm, near Copenhagen.

5. The next city must generate its energy in a sustainable fashion. Perhaps this will mean some form of distributed generation, where energy is created on a much more localized scale. Using a combination of sustainable techniques, in concert with one another, we can take best advantage of local and regional characteristics: sun, wind, tides, seasons, even perhaps our own walking could be turned into energy assets. We could combine, say, solid oxide fuel cells, thin film solar panels, wind if we have it, and other techniques, and we could do so in polygenerational ways: a single local plant could generate our power, heat, and cooling. And perhaps this happens at the scale of a neighborhood instead of an entire region.

6. We must also quickly alter the ways we manage what is becoming our most precious resource – water. As with energy, perhaps we can do this at a local scale, using distributed water treatment systems. We must begin to imagine our water resources as existing in a closed – not an open – loop, where nearly all of our water is used, treated, and reused indefinitely, and we replenish the system for evaporation only. And we can disconnect our toilets from this open loop, and compost human waste, perhaps combined with table scraps and other compostable natural waste, and recapture the nutrients and organic matter and return them to the soil.

7. Food must come from very near the city. We cannot afford to ship food across the country, or the world. ‘Eat local’ is a trendy mantra, but for a variety of very good reasons, ranging from conserving energy to improving our health, we need to substantially increase the percentage of our sustenance that comes from each urban region. Food costs have risen 50% since last October, mostly due to rising petroleum costs.

Community garden, Boston. Image from flickr.

Community gardens can sprout up on unused parking lots. Increasing numbers of local markets can share locally grown fare. Community supported agriculture (local farms – known as CSAs) will increase exponentially. And we will all begin to relearn what it means to eat seasonally, regionally. In Hanoi, as Dr. Lester Brown of the Earth Watch Institute tells us, 80% of the fresh vegetables come from farms in or adjacent to the city, as well as 50% of the chicken and pork and fish, and 40% of the eggs.

8. Non-organic solid waste must cease, or be substantially curbed. Not only because this uses enormous amounts of land, and takes enormous amounts of energy to create, but also because much of this waste ends up in the ocean, or takes such a long time to degrade that it represents a very serious long term pollution source. All packaging must be bio-degradable. No plastics. Only soy inks. You get the idea.

9. Expect, and consume, less. As Jared Diamond, Professor of Geography at UCLA, tells us: “If India as well as China were to catch up (to our rate of consumption) world consumption rates would triple. If the whole developing world were to catch up, world rates would increase elevenfold. It would be as if the world population ballooned to 72 billion.”  Feeling a bit crowded? How much of what we buy on a weekly basis is really required to sustain a decent life? Eschew Wal-Mart.

Pusan, Korea. image from flickr.

The new image of an idea – a CFL.

10. Change all the next city’s light bulbs. If the world replaced all incandescent bulbs with CFLs (compact fluorescent lights) we would reduce electricity consumption by 75%. Shocking but true. Said another way, if every American home acquired one CFL, the electricity saved would power a city of 1.5 million. Or said yet another way, installing one CFL is equal to removing 1.3 million cars from the road.

And while we’re at it, let’s replace all streetlights and traffic signals and outdoor lighting with LEDs (light emitting diodes) – this technology has had some remarkable breakthroughs, and LEDs consume 10% of a streetlight’s energy, while lasting 10 times longer. 

Ten objectives for the next city. What are we missing? Besides how to pay for all the changes, generate the national will to make these changes, and then accomplish them. Other than that?

These goals require a fundamental rethinking of our national infrastructure, our industry, our economy, what we spend and how we tax, and how we live and work. Ready? Go change your lightbulbs.

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A regular reader here asked me a question the other day. He said: “You talk about the challenges facing the next cities, but I am not sure I understand exactly what you mean.”

So to be as clear as I can, I invite you to read the text below. It is an edited version of an article from The Guardian, in the U.K. It was written by Decca Aitkenhead, and was published March 1st of this year. It is an interview with noted British scientist James Lovelock. Some say he is daft, and even a non-scientist like me can quibble with some of his beliefs and attitudes, but the picture he paints is unfortunately clear. 

While this excerpt sounds pretty hopeless, there are many scientific voices nearly echoing these predictions. Yesterday, in the releases of two separate scientific enquiries, both said that if we humans cannot get to zero carbon emissions by mid-century, global warming will be irreversible.

You can decide who you want to believe, but whomever you choose, the outlook ahead is very, very difficult. Already I am reading articles about Cligration – climate change migration, as researchers begin to search for higher ground.

The excerpted article (a link to the full article is below): 

Lovelock believes global warming is now irreversible, and that nothing can prevent large parts of the planet becoming too hot to inhabit, or sinking underwater, resulting in mass migration, famine and epidemics. Britain is going to become a lifeboat for refugees from mainland Europe, so instead of wasting our time on wind turbines we need to start planning how to survive. To Lovelock, the logic is clear. The sustainability brigade are insane to think we can save ourselves by going back to nature; our only chance of survival will come not from less technology, but more.

But he fears we won’t invent the necessary technologies in time, and expects “about 80%” of the world’s population to be wiped out by 2100. Prophets have been foretelling Armageddon since time began, he says. “But this is the real thing.”

Interviewers often remark upon the discrepancy between Lovelock’s predictions of doom, and his good humour. “Well I’m cheerful!” he says, smiling. “I’m an optimist. It’s going to happen.”

At moments I wonder about Lovelock’s credentials as a prophet. Sometimes he seems less clear-eyed with scientific vision than disposed to see the version of the future his prejudices are looking for. A socialist as a young man, he now favours market forces, and it’s not clear whether his politics are the child or the father of his science. His hostility to renewable energy, for example, gets expressed in strikingly Eurosceptic terms of irritation with subsidies and bureaucrats. But then, when he talks about the Earth – or Gaia – it is in the purest scientific terms all.

“There have been seven disasters since humans came on the earth, very similar to the one that’s just about to happen. I think these events keep separating the wheat from the chaff. And eventually we’ll have a human on the planet that really does understand it and can live with it properly. That’s the source of my optimism.”

What would Lovelock do now, I ask, if he were me? He smiles and says: “Enjoy life while you can. Because if you’re lucky it’s going to be 20 years before it hits the fan.

Whether you believe Lovelock a lot or a little, surely in the face of these issues alone, the state of most current architectural and urbanist thinking is ridiculously irrelevant. The real question: what kind of next cities do we make in the face of these kinds of predictions?


Upsala Glacier, Argentina, then and now.

The whole Lovelock article is at:


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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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