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Why purpose-built cities may not solve living problems

About the author

Frank Swain is Communities Editor at New Scientist, author of How To Make A Zombie, and a freelance science writer for Mosaic, Wired, Slate, BBC Radio 4, and others. You can find him on Twitter as @SciencePunk.

Why purpose-built cities may not solve living problems

(HoK)

What’s better, living in a new city raised from the ground or in an existing city that’s free to adapt? Here’s where designers and dwellers disagree.

Wandering the streets of Songdo is supposed to be a pleasant experience. The South Korean city boasts streets that are clean and spacious. There is little traffic, and no cars lining the roadside – they are all parked underground. Gleaming tower blocks rise around a central park, and everything you need is a short walk away. There are no garbage trucks either: rubbish dropped into bins is sucked into pneumatic tubes sent off to be processed. And its environmental credentials are a talking point too. As well as freshwater and sewer pipes, a grey water system recycles wastewater. And this is the poster-child smart city, perfused in electronic infrastructure, interlaced with high-speed data fibres, and peppered with sensors that monitor everything from traffic conditions to fire alarms.

What Songdo lacks is any history. It is a purpose-built city built on reclaimed land, a business hub that crystallised out of the Yellow Sea as a conurbation of neighbouring Incheon. So is Songdo’s 21st-Century city a preview of what’s to come for the rest of us. Is this the blueprint of the future?

“I can't see that Songdo is any meaningful way a model for the future, except possibly a clumsily-written dystopia,” says Adam Greenfield, author of Against the Smart City. “It's very little other than a conventional commercial real-estate proposition – though achingly pretentious, and perhaps less successful than most.”

He may have a point. Visionary cities conjured from the imaginations of master builders are nothing new. And though the prospect of building a city entirely from scratch is appealing, a clean break from the past is no guarantee of long-term fit for the future. The dream visions that became Brasilia, Milton Keynes, and Adelaide all achieved a reasonable level of success, but for each of these there is somewhere like Palmanova, the ideal Italian town built in 1593 that proved so unpopular pardons were offered to any criminal willing to move in.

“I myself would be very unlikely to build a city from scratch,” says Greenfield. “I think it's a very bad idea from the start: wasteful of the Earth, destructive of the integrity of the ecosystem, wasteful of resources. There's plenty of room for densification of existing urbanised sites.”

Purpose-built cities have come into vogue in recent years, but without much in the way of success. In Abu Dhabi, British architectural firm Fosters and Partners have started work on Masdar City, a zero-carbon aerotropolis built in the desert, but plans for futuristic self-driving electric pods and a cool undercroft (below-ground area) have already been shelved. India’s privately built Lavasa is a boutique city, designed to resemble the Italian town of Portofino, has become mired in controversy and bureaucratic wrangling. And the much-vaunted smart city promised by the PlanIT initiative in Portugal has yet to see a single stone laid – smart or otherwise.

The disjointed relationship between the people who design cities and the people who have to live in them is a recurring problem. The traffic-free streets of Songdo owe more to a lack of citizens than a lack of cars. Authorities aren’t mailing out pardons to Korean prisoners yet, but the city is struggling to attract residents. “The primary threat in masterplanning is as it ever was: that the masterplan will completely fail to account for fundamental shifts in social or technological practice,” says Greenfield, “literally setting in concrete notions about personal mobility or work that are live, dynamic, open questions.” The most obvious of those was the explosive growth of personal car ownership, a trend that has strangled cities from New York to Shanghai.

Future imperfect

In City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age, author PD Smith agrees that to be successful, it’s more important that cities are free to evolve as needed than follow a fixed plan of a master builder. “My view would be that unless human nature changes fundamentally, cities will probably be in essence the same. One of the things that struck me looking at the history of cities is the continuity across cultures and time-zones: people want to socialise, they want to be safe, they want opportunities to work, earn money, and shop or trade; they want good schools, healthcare, and so on.”

Futuristic model cities such as Songdo are less a prediction of what’s to come than a reflection of what lies in the hearts of contemporary designers. Like science fiction, futuristic predictions of the city don’t always pan out. Fifty years ago, Liverpool hatched an ambitious plan for a floating city of raised walkways to separate pedestrians from vehicle traffic. The post-war years also saw a flurry of architects sketching plans for cities where the personal helicopter replaced the personal car, most notably resulting in the flat-roofed Pan Am Building in New York City. The once-futuristic monorail became so emblematic of over-optimistic city planning that it was lampooned in an episode of The Simpsons in 1993. None of those visions came to pass, and cities today are generally sparse in skyways, helipads and monorails.

So can we expect current trends to continue? One of the most apparent changes to cities was the development of steel-framed buildings at the beginning of the 20th Century, which allowed us to build up and up, massively boosting urban density and kick-starting a rush of dizzying architecture. This shows no sign of slowing, with cities still competing to build the tallest possible towers. The Burj Khalifa ascends to a vertiginous 830m, but even that will fall into the shade of the kilometre-high Kingdom Tower under construction in neighbouring Saudi Arabia. And we can go higher still. But aside from their extravagance, supertowers suffer from more practical issues, such as the amount of floorspace that must be sacrificed to elevators to keep the building’s residents on the move. Super skyscrapers are eye-catching jewels in a city skyline, but unlikely to become as ubiquitous as their smaller cousins.

What Songdo’s characteristics can reveal is a hint of the concerns that will drive city builders in decades to come: particularly a closer attention to resource use and energy efficiency. As a general rule, the closer humans live together, the more energy efficient and therefore environmentally friendly we become. Per citizen, cities have less impact on the environment than suburbs or even the rural settlements. The challenge facing city builders is divorcing us from the spectre of uncontrolled 19th Century urbanism, with its cramped, dirty, slums, and instead presenting a vision of high-density life that is appealing for the three billion plus who will live in our cities.

Increasing urban populations, as well as climate change leading to more intense and unpredictable weather, could push cities into water stress, fuelling the need for conservation efforts. This means integrating water-saving designs into the city environment, such as permeable surfaces to soak up rainfall. This could prompt us to start thinking of cities not as concentrations of urban construction, but systems that are part of the wider natural environment. “The biggest single use of potable water is flushing the toilet,” says Professor Joby Boxall, chair of water infrastructure engineering in the Pennine Water Group at the University of Sheffield. “Is that sensible? Why not use rain water or grey water?” Unlike Songdo however, many cities will be forced to rely on solutions that don’t require an entirely new infrastructure for the time being. “Changing behaviour is potentially as important as changing infrastructure to make best use of water resources,” says Boxall.

In Australia, water-sensitive urban design has become the watchword of city building. When developing the site of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, builders integrated measures such as traps that capture stormwater and rainfall and recycle it for use in the park’s irrigation, water features and fire-fighting reserves, conserving 850 million litres annually.

But it’s the adaptability and resourcefulness of residents that is the defining feature of the true city of tomorrow, says Greenfield. “If I had to put my money on it, I’d bet that most cities would feature an ambiance we now associate more with the megacities of the developing world. Daily life will be characterised by insecurity, informality, making do under the most difficult circumstances, and a sense of adaptation that is both admirably ingenious and desperate.”

In the end, it won’t be the master builders who define the cities of tomorrow, but the people who live in them. In other words, it will be you.

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