BBC World News - Horizons

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The importance of cities

Seven hundred years ago the Italian city of Florence was in the midst of a commercial boom. It became a centre for the curious, the ambitious and the innovative.

It is no coincidence that this new, powerful urban centre also became the focus of the European Renaissance which revolutionised life and art in Europe.

One of the lessons of the Renaissance is that cities are important. They become the focus of people and their ideas and encourage communities to talk to each other, help each other and as a result their combined efforts at progress become more than the sum of the parts.

In other words, bringing people together has a multiplier effect. An idea had in an isolated village is much more powerful when shared with others who can improve it and see other uses for it.

In the modern hyper-connected world of the Internet, Twitter, mobile phone and email, there is a temptation to think that location doesn’t matter. But it still does. We have become more mobile but we also remain social animals who want and need real life interaction as well as virtual ones.

If that were not true, offices wouldn’t exist and everybody would be working from bed.

As most people are not in their pyjamas, dusting off toast crumbs as they work, it’s clear we must continue to re-work the concept of the modern city so it continues to encourage the creation of new ideas and new ways of working and living.

So whereas the idea for this film started with the growth of Florence, it took us to that new hub of revolutionary ideas and products; China.

Shanghai is a Mega City still undergoing rapid expansion. With over 25 million inhabitants its population has increased by over 37% since 2000 and it shows no sign of slowing down. This sharp spike in population has put a huge strain on the city infrastructure and radical development plans are needed to provide for the needs of its new inhabitants.

We visited Shanghai Tower. Once completed in 2014 it will be the second tallest building in the world. But it’s much more than just a skyscraper. At over 632 metres tall this 121 story building claims to be the first city within a city. As well as commercial space there are residential zones along with public spaces, restaurants, shopping malls and entertainment facilities. Eventually it will provide both a home and workplace for over thousands of people. You need never leave!

What’s more its architects claim: “Sustainable design is at the core of Shanghai’s Towers development. 33% of the site is green space, with landscaping that breathes fresh air into the city and shades paved areas that radiate heat.”

The challenge for future developers is to create high density urban centres that are more environmentally friendly but offer all the latest technology and facilities. They have to offer us more and do it with less impact on the environment. That will be part of the new 21st Century Renaissance.

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