Most people in the world already live in urban centres, and the number is climbing steadily, not just as a raw population figure but also as a percentage of the world’s total inhabitants. Urbanisation (people moving from rural regions into urban areas) is an immensely significant global trend for all of us, not just the developing world where it is happening faster. According to the UN, as of 2015 around 54% of the global population lives in urbanised areas. That number is projected to rise to 66% by 2050, at which stage our global population will be closing in on 10 billion. We have no idea what that will feel like in our urban centres at that point, but it’s going to be really intense compared to today.
The truth is that in their current state, many of our cities are incapable of meeting the challenges that lie in the not too distant future as more and more people move into them: infrastructure won’t cope, housing supply won’t keep up, environmental quality will diminish, big data won’t be made useful, affordability will cause bitter fighting… This list of interconnected issues goes on and on to the point where it can depress even the most optimistic urbanist.
Right now there is great focus on the significant city-building issues of our time by governments, big companies and organisations with a mandate for improving the urban environment. It is very important work, but it is so often incredibly dry, and, not surprisingly, the average person in the street either doesn’t understand or isn’t even interested in these topics. The disconnect between ‘problem solvers’ at the top and the ‘citizens’ at the bottom is really dangerous – too many people living in cities are desensitised by the way in which their futures are being discussed and directed by others. We should care more about how this kind of separation impacts on our lives.
Undeniably, the ‘powers that be’ could be better at communicating and engaging city-dwellers about important urban issues. Countless commissions producing indecipherable thought-pieces; community-action meetings where only angry people turn up or get heard; elitist city-building symposiums; and baby boomers making ill-informed decisions about the future for millennials… This goes on all the time in almost every modern city, and it’s problematic. The formally appointed people and channels might be mind-numbing, but this is no excuse for us as individuals to simply disengage from critiquing where we live and what can be done to improve it. We have a responsibility to ourselves and to our fellow citizens to think more about cities. We must continually ask: how we can help shape the urban environment so it continues to meet our needs and improve our lives?
“Our bodies, minds and beliefs all respond to the qualities of the place in which we live, giving us every reason to play an active role in changing it for the better – to make it an environment that nurtures the kind of person we want to be.”
Animals are all products of their environment: fish developed fins that help them move through water, monkeys have long tails to climb and balance in trees, and so on. Human beings are also animals, and we are equally products of the environment around us. Our adaptations are subtle: people living near a beach are more likely to surf, people without access to public space are more likely to be obese, people in cities with good access to education are more likely to be learned and tolerant… Our bodies, minds and beliefs all respond to the qualities of the place in which we live, giving us every reason to play an active role in changing it for the better – to make it an environment that nurtures the kind of person we want to be.
The first cities were formed around 3,000BC in Ancient Mesopotamia, China, India and Egypt. There are a few theories about exactly why they came to exist, but the unifying thread is that the first proper urban centres came about primarily for economic reasons. Quite simply, agricultural development had reached a point of productivity where excess stock needed a place to be stored and traded, so the first cities formed around commerce rather than social needs. A tension between the commercial and the human has shaped city living ever since. We are trying to back-end the importance of people into places that are fundamentally driven by economic forces. This ceaseless negotiation between capital and social interests has evolved over time as our industries and communities change, always requiring us to put down the needle somewhere in the middle, often leaving everyone dissatisfied with the outcome.
The ever-present friction between commerce and human needs is only one of the fundamental dynamics of any city. Another is the stark reality that if we don’t invest energy into a city it will begin to decay: structurally, morally, commercially and socially. This can happen fast, as we’ve seen in cities like Johannesburg in South Africa where during the 1990s a reasonably sophisticated CBD devolved into one of the most dangerous places in the world over just a matter of months. The tendency to entropy is not something we should be ashamed about; it’s a principle of nature that if you don’t inject energy into a closed system it will gradually become disorganised and less functional. However, what this teaches us is that better cities won’t happen passively. We are going to have to try hard at all levels, from politicians, to business owners and everyday people on the street. We need to realise the unfortunate truth that just one person has the potential to destroy the work of millions and the passage of centuries… like Donald Trump seems to be doing. As Sam Rayburn famously said: “Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a carpenter to build one”.
Barrie Barton is co-founder of Right Angle Studio. Since 2005 he has overseen the company’s strategy and insights, establishing it as as one of the most influential agents of urban change in Australia and increasingly across the world, with Right Angle now also working in London and Johannesburg. Qualified as a lawyer but motivated by creating cities that improve the lives of their inhabitants, Barrie brings an humanistic understanding and casual style to property development. ‘On Cities’ is an excerpt from his forthcoming book.