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The Future of the City

By Yelena Niazyan

Philosophers, emperors, and artists have long succumbed to the pull of urban magnetism. Plato wrote of Atlantis; Petersburg rose from swamplands at the word of a czar; L. Frank Baum pictured an Emerald City; and William Gibson imagined a Sprawl. As our cities transform so too do our dreams and fears for their future. But with the World Health Organization’s estimate that by mid-century the global urban population will double to 6.4 billion, these dreams take on a sense of urgency.

By 2030, six out of every ten people will live in a city, and the most pressing global challenges will increasingly play out in urban locations. With this growth comes a host of challenges: pollution, lack of access to clean water, snarling traffic, congested metro stations, and tons of garbage. Given this, it is clear that the growth of cities cannot be left unplanned. How, by whom, and to what end this planning should be done, however, is far from clear.     

It is with these and other questions in mind, the Journal of International Affairs, with the help of the World Policy Institute, and Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs held a thought leadership forum on the future of the city on April 23rd. Columbia University Professor Ester R. Fuchs moderated an eclectically staffed panel of seven speakers. Yale University professor Alexander Garvin and Jeffrey Inaba, founding director of C-lab—a think tank at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture—brought urban design perspectives to the discussion. Famed Columbia sociology professor Saskia Sassen; Greg Lindsay, author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next; Kavitha Rajagopalan, author of Muslims of Metropolis and a World Policy Institute fellow; Carne Ross, the founder and executive director of Independent Diploma, a nonprofit diplomatic advisory group; and Jesse M. Keenen, the research director at the Center for Urban Real Estate, rounded out the group.  

Manhattan borough president Scott M. Stringer’s keynote address introduced one of the forum’s dominant themes: the role of technology in the future of the city. Stringer emphasized specific ways that open data can breed novel devices that smooth the rough corners of urban life—citing the 50-plus privately manufactured MTA phone apps that access and analyze municipal subway information. Several of the seven speakers, however, imagined technology molding cities in a more drastic way.

Inaba, for instance, mentioned the emerging phenomenon known as the “smart city.” Essentially run by one “urban operating system.” Such a city would be a bastion of efficiency. Piezoelectric sensors embedded in sidewalk pavement would generate electricity whenever stepped on. Smart buildings would guide residents to safety in the event of a fire, even as street lights would coordinate to accelerate the speed at which fire trucks reach their destination. Phone apps could link to building apps so that air conditioning, lighting, and household appliances could be controlled remotely. Everything would link back to one central nervous system. These metropolitan wonderlands are conceived of as often as not by private technology companies and are very much top down-planned affairs.

Living PlanIt, a company that specializes in developing a platform that will extract, aggregate, analyze, and manage the omnipresent sensor data of future so-called smart cities, teamed up with Cisco several years ago to build a model for PlanIt Valley—a smart city set for completion in northern Portugal in 2015. Similarly, there is South Korea’s Songdo city—a metropolis that rises out of a man-made island in the Yellow Sea. Scheduled for completion in 2015, the city is being built by the combined efforts of the national government, New York-based real estate company Gale International, and Korean steel-making company Posco. It promises to be an urban oasis without the sorts of problems that plague most modern cities: pollution, traffic, or high carbon footprints.

Yet even as technology promises to ease urban inconveniences, it is not a panacea for every global ailment. While Lindsay believes that planners have lost their agency—shuttled to the side by technology companies—Inaba laughed at Google’s ugly attempts at urban design, making it clear that there’s a lot these companies have to learn. Lindsay says that mistakenly, “we often think we can plan from the top-down, because we are collecting data from the bottom-up.”

Ross went even further, asserting that the crisis of agency is endemic. While the ability to aggregate and analyze vast amounts of data appears to buttress arguments in favor of top down city planning, such planning, Ross argues, leaves residents feeling largely disaffected. Instead, Ross argues, citizens should actually meet and make decisions about the places they live. Ross invokes the example set by Porto Alegre, Brazil, where a direct-democracy movement in the 1990s led to a decrease in partisan rivalry and better access to clean drinking water for all residents—rather than just the wealthy ones.

What the panelists could not agree on, however, was how exactly to give urban communities agency. Creating new direct and parallel governmental structures—as Ross endorsed, or adding muscle to existing subservient community organizations—as Stringer advocates, in his endorsement of Manhattan’s neighborhood community boards. The potential solutions vary, but the central problem is a pressing one. As urban public life comingles with technology, there’s a potential either for the opening up of democracy or for technology to disintegrate traditional community relationships.

Urban drift will continue to define the coming decades, and with it more and more of the human story will play out on cityscapes across the globe. With every city—as Sassen conceives of it—a complex, incomplete system of frontier space, profound change is a constant of urban life. Like Garvin argues, planners must engage government, business, finance, and public opinion—constantly shifting sources of changing thought and norms—to make positive alterations to urban environment. “Planning is about change,” Garvin says, and without this change, city planning is worth little.   

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Yelena Niazyan is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

(Photo courtesy of Ahmet Sibdial Sau)

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