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Kicking moondust – How will we shape cities of the future?

September 19, 2012

Can utopian futuristic cities be made a reality if we all lead environmentally responsible lives?

Photo courtesy: Evironmentteam.com

Writer: Meera Vijayann

I was sitting at a coffee shop with a friend a few weeks ago, discussing work, when the conversation steered toward the traffic in Bangalore. It’s common knowledge, of course, that over the last ten years, the city has seen a sudden surge in migration. And not so surprisingly,  brought  along with it rapid development that it was simply not designed to cope with. Eventually, we began comparing the major Indian cities that we have had the chance of visiting in terms of population density, area and development and found ourselves discussing Mumbai. Immediately, I charted out a list of problems that I saw with Mumbai’s development. Taking the example of Dharavi, I told him that although the slum has a beating heart of its own with its sense of community and entrepreneurship,  the people who lived there face serious health and environmental challenges if nothing changes.  To this, my friend nonchalantly replied, ‘Oh well. You know, what you must realise is that Dharavi is the perfect example of how mega cities will become in the future’.

At that point, I found myself re-thinking all the beautiful illustrations of futuristic cities that are all over the internet.  As I began to read up more, more questions began to come to mind. I found myself wondering if building any of those pretty cities were remotely ‘realistic’ in any way.  And if those weren’t ‘realistic’, what could be? 

The word that seems to be everywhere is ‘eco-friendly’. Most architects and artists who have come up with fantastic ideas for our future cities base their creations on a dreamy, sustainable world that is moulded to perfection; right from a lilypad-type of island city that runs entirely on renewable sources of energy to a self-sustainable underwater habitat and tent-like super structures that are temperature regulated. But with the given boom in industrialization, technology and population, and the growing demand for access to basic needs, this seems like a distant dream. Mathias Crawford, a futurist and research manager at the Institute of the Future, addressed this in his piece on urban transportation playing a major role in the development of cities. ‘One way to anticipate future needs of cities is to better understand the changing ways, and reasons why, people move around cities. This kind of understanding will allow us to start creating cities that are flexible enough to respond to the as-yet unknown future demands we will place on them,’ he suggests.

Needless to say, almost anyone living in a metropolitan city will agree to this point that traffic is a huge problem that needs to be tackled. This brings me back to the first question I raised – but are we all willing to give up driving cars and opting for public transport? Erm. Perhaps, not.  The issue certainly isn’t as simplistic as that. Even if people do alternate to energy efficient cars, the issue of space remains a problem unsolved. Sustainable cities are also only possible if we live sustainably.  Right?

Yet, when I talked to a few people about their lifestyles and their views about the future, I found that on a local level, people had different insights. One friend pointed out that since the ‘eco-friendly’ concept has also been marketed widely, it has given stores a reason to hike up prices abnormally. Organic food products, appliances, beauty products, cars – these were a few things I could think of – are mindlessly expensive. Of course, this doesn’t mean that all of it makes sense. As consumers, sometimes we don’t understand that living responsibly doesn’t just involve purchasing products that are environment friendly, but changing small habits right from choosing to walk a small distance instead of driving a car, or opting to cycle, or taking a shopping bag so that you don’t carry grocery home in ten different plastic bags, or turning the lights out when we leave a room.

Transport, I realized, is a completely different story.  Thousands of people who work use the city’s public transport system everyday to commute to and fro work, yet, with a rise in disposable income, many people are opting to buy a car.  On many levels, car usage in most countries is seeing a phenomenal rise as it is the easiest option for personal transport. Families find cars a convenient way to travel wherever they want to and youth find it a sign of independence as cars also seem to symbolise a higher social standard. But there has to be a personal transport alternative that makes ‘sense’ to the average citizen. Robert Sullivan, points out in his excellent piece on the growing complexity of transport systems in a city like New York, where he discusses what car usage could eventuall lead to.

On this note, I remember a friend once telling me, ‘These are problems of the future. Yes, I understand. But for people like me, it’s a fight for survival everyday. I need to get to work on time so that I don’t get fired from my job. I don’t see how I can take a bus, pick up my kids from school and manage everyday chores at home on time if I waste so many hours changing buses. My priority is to put food on the table and manage getting by, the world’s problems comes second’.

Without doubt, countries in Europe have done greatly on their parts to make the public transport system excellent and increasing environmental consciousness among their citizens early on. Yet, it is too simplistic to simply think that all countries could merely emulate what Europe has done. In developing countries like Brazil, India and China there is a whole new set of problems on a social level in encouraging people to live sustainably. Infrastructure in so many cities poses a problem too.

What I understood from all this is that the creation of mega-cities largely depends not only on living in a sustainable way and creating excellent infrastructure, but by finding a way to be content as well. Utopian cities seem to be designed on the very idea that urbanism will conquer, and that our natural landscape will be preserved by control of an elite few. Humans, by nature, driven by their innate thirst for more will always demand more from their environment too. So, as far as cities of the future are concerned, there is a need for artists, urban planners and architects to also take into account present day problems as well. How will the geography of cities of the future work? How will the rich-poor disparity play out in future cities? How will people from so many diverse backgrounds find an equal place in the society?

Pavia Rosati, CEO of Fathom, asked the question, ‘What happened to all those gleaming, efficient cities like in The Jetsons?‘ where she discusses the best factors to look out for in a city as part of a debate on the best city to live in in 2032. She points out that on a basic level, she wishes for few things, saying ‘If I can write the wish list, then here’s what I want for the future: I want there to be fewer of us, if only in terms of density. I want us to be living in cities (because they’re more efficient) but I want green spaces to be more easily accessible. I want us to have less stuff (and better quality in what we have) and less packaged food (because it will make us healthier and happier). But it is Dr. Stan Humphries’ (Chief economist at Zillow) perspective on housing needs in 2032 that interested me. ‘With all that said, in 20 years, do I think that most folks are going to be moving into the cities as some suggest? No, I don’t. My best guess is that the biggest winners in the housing market two decades from now are going to be small- to mid-sized cities, some close to larger metros and others more distant.’

I end here with a thought – Will those beautiful cities of the future actually be several smaller cities instead of one, huge, mega city? Hmm. Taking into account issues such as climate change, global warming, depleting natural resources, infrastructure, quality of life, population boom, social progress and spatial mobility, I’d say…

Possibly.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. September 25, 2012 6:51 am

    Thought-provoking! You know when I read or get forwarded images about such cities of the future, I just spare a second to exclaim ‘wow’ & then get on with work… never even thought of the possibility that these pics may jus remain so .
    “My best guess is that the biggest winners in the housing market two decades from now are going to be small- to mid-sized cities, some close to larger metros and others more distant.” – It already is 🙂

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