Reinventing the city

Worldwide, cities continue to grow at a rapid pace, despite scenarios that warn of a collapse of urban structures. One thing is clear – there is a need for a new kind of urban planning.

According to UN figures, more people were already living in urban structures than in rural areas back in 2008. And by 2050, it’s likely that two-thirds of the world's population – so 6.3 billion people – will be living in cities. And what’s more, big cities are getting even bigger. Even today, there are already 23 so-called megacities, i.e. cities with more than 10 million inhabitants, across the globe. By 2025, another 14 megacities are likely to be added to that number, the majority of which will be in emerging and developing countries. At the same time, mega-regions are emerging as megacities merge – one example is the Chinese region of Hong Kong-Shenzen-Guangzhou, with its population of over 120 million people.

But even in the “Global North”, cities remain the centres of gravity: In 2013, 73.3 per cent of Europeans* lived in cities; by 2050 that figure will be 82.2 per cent.

Now, cities are not only growing outwards from within; above all, they are expanding as a result of immigration from without. The challenge confronting urbanisation, therefore, is a thinning out of many regions, which are becoming increasingly unattractive, and whose infrastructures are wasting away, resulting in even more migration away from those areas. Traditional urban planning thus faces two enormous challenges: more people here, fewer there.

Even the growth or sprawl of cities in itself is problematic in many respects – from land use, housing shortages, supply and disposal bottlenecks, to resource consumption and resilience against external, climate-related influences. Megacities in emerging countries in particular are already under threat of extensive flooding – but even New York is highly vulnerable.

Above all, that means one thing: Urban planning must become more interdisciplinary and involve citizens, residents and initiatives in projects and proposals from an early stage. Urban development is no longer a top-down undertaking, but rather a more democratic, horizontal process – particularly in European metropolises, middle-order centres and low-order centres, but even in villages, too.

There are many approaches to new urban planning. One example is the idea of the 15-minute city. While not a new concept, it is one that was left to gather dust for a long time. The central claim underpinning the 15-minute city is that the separation of living, working and amenities espoused by the fathers of classical modernism is obsolete. Rather, the city of short distances is an integrative city that allows and promotes diversity – in terms of residents, applications and ideas. A vibrant city is not created at the planning table, but in discussions. The “smart city”, meanwhile, a construct that for now has technocratic connotations, seems to be something that nobody wants. Even projects announced to much fanfare like Toronto's Quayside, which the Google subsidiary Sidewalklabs wanted to use to show that a fully digitised smart city is the solution to all problems, failed at the early planning stage. Cities are complex structures – and that is both a hindrance and an opportunity. Complexity can be significantly reduced, namely by first compartmentalising and breaking things down – to district level, for example. Self-contained neighbourhoods that utilise their own regenerative energy sources relieve pressure on large, central infrastructures. Neighbourhoods ensure social cohesion even in times of crisis, urban gardening can thrive in neighbourhoods, other forms of mobility will establish themselves, as will the common good approach (if given political backing). Urban development of the future must adopt a bottom-up approach and abandon the prioritisation of purely profit-driven investors. Cooperative projects stand in contrast to these types of investors. They think and act more sustainably from the outset, which definitely benefits cities and their residents. Heterogeneity is not a flaw, but rather a prerequisite for an urban society that is both vibrant and resilient in many different ways.

The city should be compact, but not all-encompassing. It needs green open spaces – as places of relaxation and recreation, but also for the climate: to cool the city down and to clean the air. Many planners and initiatives are already concerned with environmental justice, i.e. the question of how environmental pollution is distributed in urban areas, how hot spots with extremely negative effects on residents can be avoided. The principle of the superblock can significantly reduce traffic flow in residential districts, but under certain circumstances it is an obstacle to environmental justice because greater levels of traffic are generated elsewhere.

No two cities are ever alike. They are individual, and because they have grown throughout history, planning always requires a tailored approach. That is exactly what makes intelligent urban planning exciting. And it will only get more exciting in the future.