At the same time that we’re solving for climate change, we’re going to be building cities for three billion people. That’s a doubling of the urban environment.
Nationalism seems to be sweeping the U.S. and Europe, but maybe it’s just a pushback against natural forces. I remember reading that R. Buckminster Fuller saw the evolution of civilization as a growth from family to tribe to city-state to monarchy to nation, then a final transition to an economic entity of common interests oblivious to physical borders. We are approaching that reality now and it’s hard for some to let go of their perceived national uniqueness.
As our cities expand into megacities covering large areas and millions of people, our physical borders seem to be shifting or disappearing. According to geopolitical futurist Parag Khanna, “ … 90 percent of the world population … will never leave the place in which they were born.” He adds in a further presentation, “By 2030, more than two thirds of the world’s population will live in cities.” Concentration of growth in cities is preordained.
“We have been living off an infrastructure stock meant for a world population of three billion,” he points out, “as our population has crossed seven billion to eight billion and eventually nine billion and more.” And, to try to address the needs of this population, “we will build more infrastructure in the next 40 years, than we have in the past 4,000 years.”
Urban designer Peter Calthorpe warns, “If we don’t get that right, I’m not sure all the climate solutions in the world will save mankind, because so much depends on how we shape our cities: not just environmental impacts, but our social well-being, our economic vitality, our sense of community and connectedness.”
That connectedness applies on a local, regional and global level. Connectedness (in the form of the European Union) is what has kept Europe at peace after hundreds of years of wars. That’s why integrated neighborhoods and communities function; they have too much at stake (the connections) to go to war with each other. They share too many self-interests.
The world is growing more connected through technology, resources and population movement. Khanna sees this evolution: “Connectivity, not sovereignty, has become the organizing principle of the human species.” Echoes of Bucky.
Globally, we are breaking down borders, not through hostile actions, but through commerce, communication and other forms of connectedness. The world’s economy is now heavily tied to infrastructure investment across borders and economic interconnectedness. “Colonies were once conquered. Today countries are bought.” (Khanna)
This connectedness provides ties or links that keep people together, that gives them common bonds unrelated to nationality, and often unrelated to physical location. ‘Foreign’ investment in shared infrastructure creates an investment in the well-being of both parties, a shared need to succeed. The places where societal and economic failure is endemic have little connection to the outside world, and have no stake in world peace or the success of any other parties.
We will see most of the world’s future population growth in megacities, where the combination of infrastructure, resources and economy converge. Obvious current examples include the southern California coast, the San Francisco Bay Area, and the northeast corridor between Boston and Washington, DC. Other countries, particularly in Asia, have more and larger examples where megacity formation is already far advanced. It is expected that individual megacity’s populations will exceed that of most countries.
And in order for those places to continue to be viable, we have to figure out how to grow cities that people want to live in and that can be sustained. Taller buildings isn’t the answer, according to Calthorpe, “but just compact development, what we used to think of as streetcar suburbs, walkable neighborhoods, low-rise, but integrated, mixed-used environments.” Integration includes mixed incomes, mixed age groups, mixed-land use and “the cross-fertilization, the interaction, that make cities great places and that make society thrive.”
Per Calthorpe, the biggest problem with today’s cities and urban areas is that they tend to segregate people into economic and racial enclaves, and embody land-use disparities creating barriers to communication, interaction and connectedness. As cities expand and morph, we need them to help us fight against climate change, resource shortages and social division. In short, we need them to provide community.
What makes a city desirable to be in and live in? Calthorpe defined seven principles for building better cities:
1. Preserve the natural environment, the history and the critical agriculture.
2. Integration — include mixed incomes, mixed age groups, mixed-land uses.
5. Connectivity — create many routes instead of singular routes and many kinds of streets.
6. Access to transit.
7. Focus movement in the city on transit rather than on freeways
Of course, these principles should also apply to our communities, towns and non-mega cities now. We need our communities to be supportive of nature, history and agriculture; we need to be able to move around easily, whether by foot, bike, transit or auto; and we need to avoid creating ‘bubbles’ that keep us isolated.
Khanna sums it all up: “We don’t just build connectivity, we embody it. We are the global network civilization, and this is our map. A map of the world in which geography is no longer destiny. Instead, the future has a new and more hopeful motto: connectivity is destiny.”
Peter Calthorpe, 7 Principles for Building Better Cities, TedTalks, April 2017,
Parag Khanna, How Megacities Are Changing the Map of the World, TedTalks, February 2016
Parag Khanna, Mapping the Future of Countries, TedTalks, July 2009