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The Pull of Cities

In the rest of this century, I suspect that getting our cities right will be one of the most pressing of the many lines of research that universities will have to engage with. Why would I make such a strong statement?

Here are the facts. As Burdett and Sujdic note in Living in the Endless City, cities and metropolitan regions make up only 2 percent of the world’s land surface, but they are already lived in by 53 percent of its inhabitants, a figure which is expected to reach 75 percent by 2050. In other words, the 21st century is witnessing the great and final decanting of humanity out of rural areas and into “arrival cities,” to purloin the theme of Doug Saunders’ recent highly readable book. Only this week it was announced that at the end of 2011, more than half of China’s 1.35 billion people were now living in cities.

The result is that all kinds of problems start and end in cities. For example, think of climate change (between 60 percent and 80 percent of global energy consumption and approximately 75 percent of carbon-dioxide emissions arise from cities); food supply (as documented in Carolyn Steel’s book, Hungry City); economic output (urban areas currently account for 80 percent of global economic output); or, poverty and unemployment (33 percent of urban dwellers now live in slums).

But truly recognizing facts like these requires a change in styles of thinking that is only just happening.

To begin with, too often cities have been seen as a result of a set of interlocking processes, as a kind of synthetic effect of other things. It isn’t going to be easy to forswear this position. To many academics, cities are still accumulations, or arenas in which more general processes play out “locally.” But they are now increasingly being seen as the cause, as something which is not just an illustration of process working its way out on the ground but as the process itself.

Another problem has been the tendency to split the social and the technological apart as though these were somehow different things. In cities, more than in most situations, this kind of thinking simply doesn’t work. The great rethinking of these categories that has been taking place is, in part, fostered by precisely this impossibility.

Finally, the idea that there is something called natural science which can be easily split off from social science or the arts and humanities has become an increasingly difficult one to countenance in cities in the face of problems which not only require a concerted response, but in which such divisions can be actively damaging to providing meaningful solutions.

Contemporary developments are continually underlining these points. For example, cities are increasingly both networked and perforated by information technology in ways which are bringing them together as actual forceful entities rather than as simply conglomerations. In some places, that process is purposeful (think of the example of Living PlanIT’s kitting out of a new town in Portugal). But more generally it is the growth of GIS, locative services, and telematics which is producing a gradual but definite change in how we think about cities–cities in which place defined by movement becomes a defining characteristic.

What all this means, I think, is that we will have to grow a distinctive urban science, one which no longer makes the divisions between categories of thought that we have often simply taken for granted. This will be no easy task. Current manifestations of urban studies of whatever stripe still tend to work within the old styles of thinking, although exceptions to this statement are now beginning to spring up. In time, indeed, we might even see a change in the form of the university, not only in its curriculum but also in its very form, in order to cope (see, for example, the idea of the 20 kilometre university in Phillips et al).

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