The Future Of Urban Life Research Paper

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The future of urban settlements and the lives lived therein will depend on a mix of predictable trends and human contingencies. History is the best guide to those future trends, and three are discussed here: technology, the limits to growth at urban peripheries, and the attractive power of urban centers. Caution is perhaps the best guide to discussing future contingencies, but three major issues are so apparent that they will likely confront urban decision makers in the coming generation: large versus dense settlement structures, local versus regional decision-making processes, and automobiles versus other means of mobility and access to urban resources.

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1. Three Determinants Of Urban Futures

Since the beginning of the urban era, technologies in various forms and the relative ‘gravitational’ pull of urban centers and rural hinterlands have been powerful determinants of urban life. These fundamental mechanisms are surely the product of human action and are never completely beyond a human capacity to intervene (Mumford 1961). Yet, the power of such mechanisms (for example, the technology of production and the related attractiveness of center versus peripheral locations) often exerts a defining influence on urban settlements in ways that can overwhelm individual or collective action in a given time or place. Introduced below are three such large trends that may be expected to influence the future of urban life.

Waves of innovation in communications and transportation technologies occurred throughout the twentieth century. At present, these roiling changes are understood and discussed in a summary way as the emergence of an Economy (Mitchell 1995). A new digital geography will reshape the possibilities of urban life over the next generation (Kotkin and Siegel 2000). In particular, the Economy changes many of the incentives (e.g., economies of scale and various costs that increase with distance) that led to concentration in urban centers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By weakening and sometimes inverting such incentives, the New Economy is characterized by much more footloose (or nonlocation-specific) production and consumption. It is now both possible and increasingly common to participate in employment, education and many other daily activities well beyond the commuting radius of a daily urban system. Under such conditions, the nineteenth and twentieth century comparative advantages of specific locations (e.g., entrepot for commodities, large physical agglomerations of workers and consumers) are being eclipsed by locational amenities such as weather and natural beauty as well as cumulative advantages that accrue to particular locations that happened to innovate first in some industry or activity.

Second, the limits of post-1945 development patterns, especially the low density suburban form prevalent in the United States for 50 years, will be tested and some expect those limits to be reached. Technological changes (with, in the United States, the full support and encouragement of several national policies) have maximized the opportunity for low-density choices and this has led to a half-century of suburbanization in urban settlements, in which the increase in built-up land area has far exceeded the increase in population or employment. The resulting development patterns have been associated with a long list of social costs, including increased traffic congestion and lengthening commutes, loss of both open space and agricultural land uses, a rise in social and ethnic segregation as well as in aggregate housing costs, and the decline of communal participation and social capital (Downs 1995, Kunstler 1996, Duany et al. 2000). These critiques have sought to portray as unsustainable the current low-density development regime, often labeled sprawl. Policy recommendations range from government controls on new peripheral growth to the modification of cultural and aesthetic values related to suburbanization.

Third, the attractive power of centers will wax or wane; given the diminished power and autonomy of large industrial urban centers over the preceding century, this third mechanism is likely to be closely related to changes in the first two. Paradoxically, the decentralizing trends of both the digital economy and a low-density development regime have created a powerful role for centralized command and control exploited by a select group of ‘global cities’ (Sassen 1991). This centralizing function is also present on a smaller scale within regional systems, somewhat reviving a role played for smaller urban centers. In addition to this emerging economic function, urban centers may also gain a new importance derived from the limits on further growth at the urban periphery (Rusk 1999), whether those limits are imposed by technology or by governments.

2. Three Issues Facing Future Urban Decision Makers

The multiple contingencies of these and other mechanisms will likely frame the important issues facing decision makers over the coming decades. Without knowing how the possibilities will turn out (a placeless city of bits or not? More growth on the undeveloped urban edge or less? A sustained re-centering of urban settlements or their permanent de-centering?), it is imprudent to list specific issues to be grappled with. But three critical issues are already apparent in the foreseeable (or more seeable) future.

First, if largeness is a consequence of a passing industrial era, then how will the more fundamentally urban quality of density be manifest in the coming decades? While the emergence of a New Economy is neither fully understood nor even universally accepted, the technological framework within which urban settlements are constructed and maintained seems to have changed profoundly. While industrialism’s appetite for physical agglomeration has weakened if not collapsed, there appears to be a powerful revival of demand for density on a very large scale in a select set of global cities and on a smaller scale in centers throughout the urban system. This demand for density appears to be related less to production and distribution, unlike during the industrial era, and more toward lifestyle amenities. Breaking the link between density and largeness in the minds of urban dwellers and decision makers, which seems fundamental to the suburban reform agenda discussed above, will be a major challenge in coming decades. In many ways, of course, this leads back to the future and to a revival of Ebenezer Howard and Garden City and New Town ideas.

Second, if the well known mismatch between formal and informal organization (local–state–national versus neighborhood–regional–global, respectively) is accurate, then how resistant or malleable will formal structures be in the service of informal imperatives? Many of the changes demanded in the preceding paragraph require collective action and governmental capacity. That the ideas being debated are neither new nor complex suggests the difficulties of actually implementing a desirable future. Whether or not the public apparatus of decision–making related to urban life can be adapted to match the new and emerging scales at which urban life is being lived through new technologies and relationships is perhaps the single most important issue framed by observable trends.

Third, urban life will continue to confront the issue of automobiles versus every other form of mobility. While epitomized by US settlements, this tension is rapidly becoming global in both its prevalence and its consequences. Regardless of the scale and governance issues outlined above, physical access to some resources (perhaps a different set than those of today) will continue to be a fundamental rationale for urban settlements. The access problem is solved through mobility of some form. The worldwide trend toward individual automobile mobility (whether that trend moves from the large base of car use in the United States or the smaller but rapidly growing base found in the developing world) will likely join if not eclipse other specific critical priorities facing urban decision makers. Ironically, the negative environmental impact of increasing automobile use is as global an urban issue as the positive relationships of the New Economy. The intersection of combustion engines, urban settlement patterns, and cross-national environmental degradation will challenge urban life in powerful and perhaps decisive ways.


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