One of the greatest mega trends of our time is the concentration of people into ever-growing cities. Urbanization offers new opportunities to manage the smooth movement of people – if we develop some fresh ideas, says Anthony Shorris of New York University.
In 2008, the world population reached a new milestone. For the first time in history, an equal amount of people live in urban centers as do in rural communities. In fact, statistics from the United Nations show that about three billion of us live in urban areas. By 2030, this number is expected to reach five billion.
Where once families stayed on the farm from one generation to the next, shifts in income availability has caused yesterday’s farmers to become today’s city slickers. While it’s natural to assume that urbanization and the attendant super boom in city centers is most prevalent currently in Eastern societies (think China and India), the implications of even slow-growth urbanization is something all urban centers globally are contending with.
What this means is that more people are packed into tighter spaces. And thanks to the internet, mobile telephones and a global network of airports, moving around from one place to another is easier than ever. As private-sector companies compete to attract an ever-mobile pool of brain power, cities, too, are in a race against each other; as more residents mean more revenue for city development. The global beauty contest for the world’s best city has many implications.
Fundamentally, the densification of people into concentrated urban areas highlights the importance of the efficient movement of people. More people need to move in the same space, at the same time – and they will need to do so with the lowest carbon footprint possible.
People on the move Some more statistics from the UN World Urbanization Prospects: the number of mega cities with over ten million inhabitants has grown from two in 1950, to ten in 1990, and is expected to reach 21 in 2010. Our cities are growing, and the choices we make now will impact their development far into the future.
“For literally billions of people, urban agglomeration represents hope and escape from grinding rural poverty,” feels Anthony Shorris, a transportation planner and professor at New York University. “The opportunity offered to connect the poor to the global economy is great, but also dangerous, as these new concentrations also offer more ways to exploit them.”
Before his days as an academic, Shorris worked as the executive director of the New York and New Jersey Port Authority, an agency responsible for a vast network of airports, ports, bridges and tunnels that connect New York City’s financial hub to industrial commercial centers in the adjoining state of New Jersey. The Port Authority, whose operating budget in 2009 was $6.7 billion (€5.0 billion), also manages the PATH commuter railroad system and the World Trade Center complex.
Shorris thinks if we want to improve our cities, looking to how Western societies have handled urban planning is not the best place to look for answers. “Urban transport systems will need to be re-thought as increasing density demands new approaches to the movement of people and goods. The application of simple Western models to vastly denser urban areas can have disastrous consequences, as we can see in the traffic chaos of Bangkok or the increasing pollution being seen in growing Chinese cities. There is no point in ignoring the failures of the West in our new urban agglomerations; instead, we should develop new models.”
It likely comes as no surprise to hear that the professor thinks we need to get out of our cars and back on our feet. He also thinks that cities need to go up and not out. “Land use policies need to be established to encourage density instead of sprawl, walking and riding in low-cost mass transit, instead of driving,” he says.
Where do I fit in?
While urban planning is a public sector endeavor, the private sector also has a role to play, if it is pointed in the right direction, feels Shorris.
“It cannot be assumed that private participants in the construction industry will depart from the lowest cost, most profitable models that reflect out-dated practices without public sector direction, either through regulation or incentives. Given the right set of guidelines, however, there is no replacement for their creativity in response to new requirements.”
Shorris says that more government involvement may be one way to get buildings to operate in a more environmentally efficient manner, if the private sector does not make changes on its own. For the professor, many answers to how our future cities should develop come from taking the best parts of economic systems from different cultures. “Laissez-faire models have failed the West almost as badly as communist models failed much of the East. We need more thoughtful approaches that provide a more-just society.”
Fundamentally, however, cities for this urban dweller are places where the best of humanity comes together. It is up to all of us to ensure their continued success. “Cities are and will always be about opportunity and access – to people, ideas, and to freedom itself,” says Shorris.
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