Apr 13

Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

A World Made of Cities

As part of the Long Now Foundation's public lecture series, Stewart Brand gave a talk on urbanization. As is usual with Stewart, he gave much food for thought. I didn't actually make it to the lecture, but I enjoyed Stewart's email report on his talk, which was sent out to past sponsors (among whom I am honored to be included). Since it's not up on the web, I asked him if I could blog it here. This is definitely news from the future, to be thought on along with Thomas Friedman's recent book, The World is Flat, as a major trend that will affect all of us in ways unexpected and profound. Here's Stewart's report:

"I started with a spectacular video of a stadium in Philadelphia being blown up last year. The announcer on the video ends it, "Ladies and gentlemen, you have just witnessed history!" Indeed demolition is the history of cities.

Cities are humanity's longest-lived organizations (Jericho dates back 10,500 years), but also the most constantly changing. Even in Europe they consume 2-3% of their material fabric a year, which means a wholly new city every 50 years. In the US and the developing world it's much faster.

Every week in the world a million new people move to cities. In 2007 50% of our 6.5 billion population will live in cities. In 1800 it was 3% of the total population then. In 1900 it was 14%. In 2030 it's expected to be 61%. This is a tipping point. We're becoming a city planet.

One of the effects of globalization is to empower cities more and more. Communications and economic activities bypass national boundaries. With many national governments in the developing world discredited, corporations and NGOs go direct to where the markets, the workers, and the needs are, in the cities. Every city is becoming a "world city." Many elites don't live in one city now, they live "in cities."

Massive urbanization is stopping the population explosion cold. When people move to town, their birthrate drops immediately to the replacement level of 2.1 children/women, and keeps right on dropping. Whereas children are an asset in the countryside, they're a liability in the city. The remaining 2 billion people expected before world population peaks and begins dropping will all be urban dwellers (rural population is sinking everywhere). And urban dwellers have fewer children. Also more and more of the remaining population will be older people, who also don't have children.

I conjured some with a diagram showing a pace-layered cross section of civilization, whose components operate at importantly different rates. Fashion changes quickly, Commerce less quickly, Infrastructure slower than that, then Governance, then Culture, and slowest is Nature. The fast parts learn, propose, and absorb shocks; the slow parts remember, integrate, and constrain. The fast parts get all the attention. The slow parts have all the power.

I found the same diagram applies to cities. Indeed, as historians have pointed out, "Civilization is what happens in cities." The robustness of pace layering is how cities learn. Because cities particularly emphasize the faster elements, that is how they "teach" society at large.

Speed of urban development is not necessarily bad. Many people deplored the huge Levittown tracts when they were created in the '40s and '50s, but they turned out to be tremendously adaptive and quickly adopted a local identity, with every house becoming different. The form of housing that resists local identity is gated communities, with their fierce regulations prohibiting anything interesting being done by home owners that might affect real estate value for the neighbors (no laundry drying outside!). If you want a new community to express local life and have deep adaptivity, emphasize the houses becoming homes rather than speculative real estate.

Vast new urban communities is the main event in the world for the present and coming decades. The villages and countrysides of the entire world are emptying out. Why? I was told by Kavita Ramdas, head of the Global Fund for Women, "In the village, all there is for a woman is to obey her husband and family elder, pound grain, and sing. If she moves to town, she can get a job, start a business, and get education for her children. Her independence goes up, and her religious fundamentalism goes down."

So much for the romanticism of villages. In reality, life in the country is dull, backbreaking, impoverished, restricted, exposed, and dangerous. Life in the city is exciting, less grueling, better paid, free, private, and safe.

One-sixth of humanity, a billion people, now live in squatter cities ("slums") and millions more are on the way. Governments try everything to head them off, with total failure. Squatter cities are vibrant places. They're self-organized and self-constructed. Newcomers find whole support communities of family, neighbors, and highly active religious groups (Pentacostal Christians and Islamicists). The informal economy of the squatter cities is often larger than the formal economy. Slum-laden Mumbai (Bombay) provides one-sixth of India's entire Gross Domestic Product. The "agglomeration economies" of the burgeoning mega-cities leads to the highest wages, and that's what draws ever more people.

So besides solving the population problem, the growing cities are curing poverty. What looks like huge cesspools of poverty in the slums are actually populations of people getting out of poverty as fast as they can. And cities also have an environmental dimension which has not yet been well explored or developed.

There has been some useful analysis of the "ecological footprint" that cities make on the landscape, incorporating the impacts of fuel use, waste, etc. but that analysis has not compared the per-person impact of city dwellers versus that of people in the countryside, who drive longer distances, use large quantities of material, etc. The effect of 1,000 people leaving a county of 1,000 people is much greater than that of the same 1,000 people showing up in a city of one million. Density of occupation in cities has many environmental advantages yet to be examined.

At present there's little awareness among environmentalists that growing cities are where the action and opportunities are, and there's little scientific data being collected. I think a large-scale, long-term environmental strategy for urbanization is needed, two-pronged. One, take advantage of the emptying countryside (where the trees and other natural systems are growing back fast) and preserve, protect, and restore those landscape in a way that will retain their health when people eventually move back. Two, bear down on helping the growing cities to become more humane to live in and better related to the natural systems around them. Don't fight the squatters. Join them."

tags:   | comments: 12   | Sphere It

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Comments: 12

  Bill Seitz [04.21.05 12:56 PM]

A lot of this material is covered in a recent article of his.

  paul [04.21.05 02:32 PM]

I need to read this through, but my first impression reminded me of the post-election analysis in 2004, where the real division wasn't between states (red vs blue) or "moral values" but between rural areas and cities. Cities and inner suburbs went blue, everything else went red. There's a lot to think about there: thanks, Stewart and TIm.

  Sean Bethune [04.21.05 04:15 PM]

Great article, but I think that the economic stratification in cities was understated. Specifically, cities in the US are becoming more suburbanized as people are pushed out of urban housing markets by high housing prices and taking on long commutes in and out of the cities. I believe there was one good description of this effect in San Jose California where almost all the municipal city staff and teachers were commuting over 60 miles each way since housing costs had syrocketed beyond their income bracket. Interestingly, house prices didn't drop much following the dot.bubble and low interest rates have only fueled the housing cost explosion.
How will this factor into the vision of the dominance of cities? Good question.

  paul [04.21.05 06:32 PM]

To Sean's point: here in Seattle we have the same bubbly real estate goodness as in the Bay Area. And the end of the dotcom bubble didn't make much of a difference here, either.

I wonder how the decision to rip up all the streetcar and intercity rail lines in the postwar years looks now? While transit may not have made a difference in population density, it might have made sprawl less destructive if the suburbs and exurbs were linked by cleaner more manageable transit solutions.

  len [04.22.05 08:28 AM]

The case of Rome is interesting. It has been speculated that the collapse of the empire followed urbanization given the cities were non-productive and returned no value to the country estates and villages from which they derived foodstuffs. The value of urbanization depends on the energy budgets and the exchanges with sources of energy. Modern cities are different in some respects from that model, but one wonders what the evolutionary model is given the needs for sustenance.

  jkottke [04.22.05 10:10 AM]

Stewart's talk is available on the Long Now site (scroll all the way to the bottom) as an mp3 or ogg file. The Long Now suggests a donation of $10 if you download the talk.

  jkottke [04.22.05 10:15 AM]

Ugh, the form stripped out all of my links (a heads up about that would have been nice). Let's try this:

Stewart's talk is available on the Long Now site (scroll all the way to the bottom) as an mp3 or ogg file:

The Long Now suggests a donation of $10 if you download the talk:

  phil jones [04.27.05 07:20 AM]

I'm a bit suspicious. But because I can't seem to get paragraph breaks in these comments I'll just link here :

  dhi [05.23.05 09:21 AM]

Reply to Len - Need for sustenance?

Dude - Take a look at a country world renowned for their export of agricultural products - Australia.

Australia has been more urbanized for longer than either the US or the UK and yet still produce huge food exports. Why? It has had cutting edge mechanisation for 100 years. From the Economists' Pocket World in Figures 2004:

Australia - Urban Population 91.2%
United Kingdom - 89.5%
United States - 77.4%

I think there is not much to worry about a drop in food production once people move to the cities. Instead you'll get what you see in New Zealand and Australia - most farmers have University Degrees.

  Anon [07.07.05 05:16 AM]

Ya know, there's already a name for 'Islamicists' (a word you'll be hard pressed to find in a dictionary); it's 'muslims'.

Just FYI

  Steve [02.07.07 06:44 PM]

Stewart's ideas reminded me of my first look at PAOLO SOLERI'S models of "3-D-Jersey" and other futuristic mono-urban-mega-structures at the Corcoran Gallery in DC in the mid-60's and I wondered how we could possibly live in one of these things. I'm still wondering, but it seems we're headed that way unless human spermatozoae stop swimming upstream for a long while.

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