Cities of the Future

23 December 2011, 15:00

Cities, and the way we make and manage them, have arguably never been more important in human history.  What is certain is that getting cities right is vital to man-kind’s future prosperity and well-being.  This article briefly explores the unique role of the city in our social and economic futures, and how we can make them fit our changing needs, rather than being dominated by our own creations. 

Where we live has profound consequences for every aspect of our physical, emotional and economic existence.  In the words of Winston Churchill, ‘first we shape our buildings, but thereafter, they shape us’, and the same is true of cities.  Cities are also the places that drive national and international economies.  Look at the economic ‘heat map’ of any developed country and you will see the majority of its economic output radiating form a small land mass of urban centres. Businesses locate and stay in cities because of the critical mass of assets, skills and infrastructure they offer, as well as access to other people and their ideas.  Highly skilled workers, particularly from knowledge and innovation based industries, do not want to locate in places that are dysfunctional or low quality.  Therefore a high quality urban fabric is fundamental to economic success.

50% of the world’s population now live in a city for the first time in human history and in 40 years it will be approaching 80%.   In the future city-to-city migration and internal city growth will mean that there will be winners and losers, some cities will grow and others shrink.  New ‘megacities’ will develop in many parts of the world, some with populations the size of countries (Tokyo’s population the same as Canada).  But these giant cities will not be the only game in town.  Some smaller, i.e. not capital, cities will still be very competitive and pleasant places to live.  Highly mobile knowledge-led business and the ‘creatives’ that drive them want to locate in places that offer a certain set of assets, but that also deliver a high quality of life and environment.  These quality factors will increasingly become decisive in this struggle for city supremacy, therefore culture and creativity are likely to occupy a central position in creating and maintaining the successful cities of the future.

There are two big opportunities for small to medium sized cities.  The first is to make themselves really liveable, pleasant places to be, going beyond the physical appearance and feel of a city.

The second is for national governments to pass more responsibility to city governments to enable these things to happen, to make best use of scarce resources and get solutions closer to the problem.  Where this has happened, the evidence suggests places have become more competitive, but there are other reasons for making this shift.  Economically, nations do of course compete, but in reality it is their cities that are on the front line of that competition, who stand to win or lose most directly.  It is time for national governments to see their cities as at least equal partners who are best incentivised through freedoms, rather than as chess pieces in a national economic game.

Culture, in its broadest sense as ‘way of life’ activities is essential to defining and delivering these changes. Richard Florida (2003) has demonstrated a direct correlation in cities between economic success and tolerance, diversity and openness.  Highly skilled creative workers are at the centre of wealth producing knowledge industries, and these people are very mobile, they can locate almost anywhere.  But they choose to locate in places that suit their values, beliefs and lifestyle, and also like access to a wide range of cultural facilities and experiences, to have a quality built environment; in short, a high quality of life and of place. 

The growth in knowledge-based industries in Europe and other developed countries has accelerated and outperformed other sectors.  Although not the sole foundation of future urban economic growth, it is a critical make or break factor for cities.

Culture, and putting creativity at the heart of the city’s development have become key factors in a global urban marketplace competing for high value industry.  The city, its identity and brand also has to be promoted and interpreted to the world and some of the best place marketing initiatives have been culturally focussed.

There is however a problem with the way in which creativity has sometimes been understood and applied in the urban context.  Iconic, grand projects have been seen as the solution, rather than the evolution of more natural and longer term creativity at every level within the city.  Iconic architecture and other projects certainly have their place, but are most successful when built upon a broader foundation of regeneration and creativity.  The Guggenheim gallery in Bilbao was based on a decade of solid regeneration activity, and Anthony Gormley’s ‘Angel of the North’ sculpture in Gateshead, UK, although meeting with controversy, reflected years of creatively focused activity.

Based on such early examples, culture has increasingly played a role in city development in both the UK and Europe, exemplified by the ‘Cities of Culture’ programmes.  Therefore although still regularly questioned by the media, investment in culture and creativity has become relatively mainstream, but it is essential to distinguish between superficial creative hype and properly embedded creativity which applies creative thinking as a commitment to the long term future and prosperity of a place.  Genuinely iconic projects should be the product of a city’s embedded creativity, rather than the odd creative spike on an otherwise level graph of urban monotony.

This happens best when we define creativity generously, helping many voices to be heard.  Too often, cities are still seen mechanistically, as broken machines, problems that need to be fixed, rather than viewed organically, as complex, adaptive, living cultural systems that can be nurtured and can themselves provide solutions.

This perspective can help in integrating urban policies and in putting people and their ways of living at the heart of urban improvement.  As well as enriching the urban experience directly with their products, culture and creativity are therefore crucially also a part of the processes of urban development.

One of the myths of creativity is that it is the preserve of mysteriously clever individuals working in splendid isolation.  Clever people are important, but they do best in a creative milieu, which is why people still want to live in cities in a digital age, to interact.  We should also nurture the creativity that is rooted in the daily grit and reality of our cities.  Building on strong roots, the ultimate success of cities depends perhaps not just on their ability to compete with each other, but on their appetite and skills to collaborate with their immediate hinterland, with adjacent towns and cities and in specialist networks across the globe. Such complex degrees of practical and political partnership require creative pragmatism and the capacity to think beyond short-term gain. It has to be kept in mind that creativity is not the preserve of any one sector or just those acknowledged as ‘creatives’. It is as present in local politics, community development, economics and business as it is anywhere else.

Cities are here to stay.  Our cities reflect us, their creators and inhabitants, and perhaps our own psychological make up, for better or worse. Is it conceivable that, as well as the city that we create consciously, alongside or beneath it we somehow unintentionally create an unconscious version, which contains our hopes, but also our darkest fears?  That is perhaps too poetic, but what it is possible to say with some certainty, is that the way in which cities and their neighbourhoods are designed, built, managed and then interconnected (or not) has a profound and lasting physical and psychological, social and economic impact.  By working together, across cities and nations, we all increase our chances of future success.

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