Our urban future

Written by adam


Trend watch! Supercities will be all the rage in the 21st century, as fully 2/3 of the world’s population concentrates in urban regions. This centuries-long migration represents the culmination of a process of industrialization stretching back to the early 1800s, with all of its attendant social and environmental consequences.

I’ve got a handful of links that take a data-driven driven look at cities. First up, what do large cities and elephants have in common? Both appear to be organized according to underlying mathematical principles that make them more efficient than their smaller cousins. On a pound-for-pound basis, an elephant uses less resources than a mouse. To be precise:

> The relevant law of metabolism, called Kleiber’s law, states that the metabolic needs of a mammal grow in proportion to its body weight raised to the 0.74 power.

Cities behave much the same way:

> For instance, if one city is 10 times as populous as another one, does it need 10 times as many gas stations? No. Bigger cities have more gas stations than smaller ones (of course), but not nearly in direct proportion to their size. The number of gas stations grows only in proportion to the 0.77 power of population.

The gas station example is a trivial application of what appears to be a deep relationship. Cities, with their branching patterns of pipes, sewers, streets, and wires, appear to become more efficient in size in just the same way living organisms do, which is one of the reasons that increasing urbanization is on balance good for the planet.

Not that we should take the greater efficiency of cities for granted. Humans control their built environments in ways that have dramatic consequences. In a simple but revealing demonstration of the different forms cities can take, Neil Freeman has traced a series of subways systems, all to the same scale. Here’s Tokyo juxtaposed with the San Francisco bay area:


Check out the entire series. How does your city compare?

Finally, Richard Saul Wurzman, founder of the TED conferences and renowned information architect, has launched 192021.org, a five-year project to collect and share information about the rising supercities, defined as urban areas with populations of more than 20 million. The site right now is just an overview of the project, but it’s worth spending the five minutes it takes to go through the presentation. The changing map showing the development of cities over the past 1,000 years alone is worth the price of admission. (via The City Fix)

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  1. Amitabha Mukhopadhyay

    I have done some research work in the area of building megacities of the future. The areas were mainly in the engineering details of building mile high skyscrapers and future mass transit system as well as future personal transport systems both ground based as well as airbourne. The efforts culminated in writing a science fiction novel MEGALOPOLIS ONE 2080 A.D. It tells the story of lives of people in the year 2080 in a megacity with futuristic technologies.Please visit the website http://www.eloquentbooks.com/MegalopolisOne2080AD.html
    with regards

  2. Greg

    How depressing. Nothing but cities to live in? No thanks. So will this be the next rallying cry for all the central planners? You must move to the cities for a more efficient future. ‘Yes commandant’.
    Liberty seems like such a quaint notion now.

  3. Monika

    The subway maps are very interesting, but they really don’t show a city’s public transportation infrastructure. For instance, in Philadelphia, we have a whole system of trolleys and regional rails that should be included as well, but are not. Sometimes digging under old cities is not the most efficient or safest choice for creating public transportation.

  4. J.V.

    I don’t think the point is that we must all move to megacities for a more efficient future. Rather an increasing number of people will choose to do so for economic and cultural reasons. The upside is that there is a gain in efficiency in doing so and, depending on the choices made, these cities can be more ecologically sound and pleasant to live in.
    Plenty of people will still be living in smaller towns or countryside which can also make choices to be more green. Therefore, liberty is still an intact and relevant concept.
    An important consideration for more rural locales is that as the megacities expand they will tend to swallow up some of these communities. Others on the edges of these cities will also see a boom in population from people wanting to be close but not in them. If these places wish to retain the characteristics that make them desirable it is important that they engage in proactive planning to preserve their natural spaces and character from runaway sprawl. Check out http://www.natlands.org/categories/subcategory.asp?fldSubCategoryId=26 to find out more about the Growing Greener approach to manage growth.

  5. Amanda Schuneman

    Great Britain recently passed legislation that will require all new homes be zero-carbon by 2016. New commercial buildings will be zero-carbon by 2019.
    It begs the question: Can these mega cities follow suit with the UK’s aggressive move?

  6. Joel Gagnon

    I have to wonder whether there isn’t some natural limit to city size, as there is for animals. What happens in a high-cost energy environment? Shipping distance for food — especially fruits and vegetables — and getting the nutrients back to the land where they are grown will become issues that may limit size.

  7. Adam Stein

    Greg — if 2/3 of people are living in cities, that indicates that 1/3 aren’t. No one is being forced to do anything.
    Monika — agreed. I can’t imagine a city the size of Sao Paolo relies on that tiny subway system as its primary form of public transportation. Still interesting, though.
    Joel — I don’t know what the maximum size for a city is, but probably we don’t need to worry about it. Most cities won’t be supercities, they’ll just be regular old cities. And New York is doing just fine.

  8. Chuck

    Speaking a someone who has been researching food deficiencies in 3rd world nations for the past year, the “choice” to live in a city causes more harm than good for the typical individual or family. Yes, their carbon footprint is lower because they are eating less, but the human cost is too great.

  9. masa

    I think Japan as a whole is a good example. The Tokyo metropolitan area uses a massive amount of resources, but around 70-80% of the population is there, leaving most of the country very well preserved as far as nature and agriculture.

  10. Ash

    I think the book “Ecotopia” had a great idea: Focusing population in cities but allowing people to live in the country in small numbers on rotation, so everyone could participate, keeping large expanses of land pristine.

  11. Greg

    This is a seriously scary notion. You can not make a better world by controlling it per your wishes. Freedom is messy but worth it. Besides, what if someone with polar opposite views of how things should be run starts to call the shots?
    I’m all for conservation and innovation, but dictation is off the table.

  12. mariet

    We live in a small village with everything we need except a gas station. If every one lives in cities, who will farm, fish and provide food? Or will we all live on pills? I cannot imagine life with out the sun set over water, green fields to rest my eyes, or clean air to breathe. Living like an ant does not appeal to me nor to many I know. Get past the idea.

  13. Kat

    I agree with Greg.
    “Focusing population in cities but allowing people to live in the country in small numbers on rotation” seems horrific.
    I hope I’m never ‘focused’ anywhere- the idea of it reminds me of livestock or a concentration camp.
    If you cannot buy your own home or have a knowledge that you can make your life what you wish, people would become ambivalent about life.
    And while I do like cities, cities got to eat; I watched this documentary that talked about if there were a fuel shortage people in cities like New York couldn’t stay very long without food shipped in…