Sustainable Cities Collective has re-launched as Smart Cities Dive! Click here to learn more!

Extreme urbanism: live here at your peril


In "The Triumph of the City"' Edward Glaeser argues that efficient cities should be built up around elevators, rather than built out around cars. As a resident of Birmingham, the city where Matthew Boulton and James Watt came together to commercialise the steam engine that powered the first of those elevators (see here and here), I'm predisposed to agree.

Glaeser, along with Richard Florida, Tim Stonor and others argue that cities are vital to our society and economy as they are the places where people congregate to generate and share ideas, and enact Matt Ridley's memorable idea that value is created when "ideas have sex". Glaeser even argues that cities emphasise our basic humanity because the defining characteristic of that humanity is our ability and desire to learn from each other.

It's also clear that our cities need to improve in efficiency. As more and more people live on the planet and as more and more of us live in cities, political, charitable and scientific organisations have pointed out that each of us simply must consume less resources. For examples refer to the United Nations "7 Billion Actions" programme; the lobbying organisation Population Matters; and the recent report published by the UK's Royal Academy, "People and the Planet".

But how far do we want to go in using the modern technologies that have succeeded lifts and cars to enable us to live in ever greater numbers at ever greater density?

Some imaginative but frankly scary forms of extreme urbanism are emerging as technologists invent concepts for ever larger and more densely populated cities, and for systems to supply the resources that enable the people who live in them to live and work. I'm saying that as a technologist myself; and as someone who's passionate about the possibilities technology offers to improve wealth and wellbeing in urban environments – I gave some examples in a previous blog post.

But I don't personally find it attractive, for example, to consider that the only way we can feed city populations is by growing artificial meat in laboratories, as Dutch and Canadian scientists have suggested. Or that we should farm vertically in skyscrapers, at the same time as building homes and offices for people underground in "earthscrapers".

To me those ideas are extreme urbanism; and they don't represent the sort of city I'd like to live in. (I do live in a city, by the way; and whilst I live in a relatively spacious suburb, I nevertheless find it easy to use efficient public transport to get around far more than I use my own car).

There are alternatives to extreme urbanism. One of them is adopting a sensible approach to population growth, as promoted by Population Matters amongst others. Our challenges would be less severe if there were less of us; and many of the most disadvantaged communities and individuals across the world would be better off if they were more able to choose the size of their families and provide equal opportunities to all of their children of either sex.

And there are healthier ideas for applying technology to make cities more efficient. Rather than growing meat in laboratories, why not provide the know-how to encourage people to grow vegetables and keep small animals in city gardens, as Landshare and Growing Birmingham do? And why not use social media intelligently to connect food consumers with local food producers as Big Barn do, making it as easy to buy sustainable, locally produced food as it is to buy globally sourced food from supermarkets?

There are tremendous efficiencies that can be realised in city systems by such "hyperlocal" thinking; and the same ideas could make city life more attractive and nuanced, rather than clinical and engineered.

For a couple of years now I've been producing my own air-dried and smoked meats such as salami, bresaola, and chorizo at home in Birmingham. Of course they do not taste the same as the Mediterranean originals; but they taste vastly superior to anything I've bought in a supermarket. Rather than think of them as poor alternatives to Spanish and Italian produce, why not consider them regional variations to be explored and valued?

The aforementioned Royal Academy report asserts that as a species inhabiting a planet we find ourselves at a crucial juncture for determining what the size of our population should be, and how we should collaborate to use resources to sustain ourselves. I would argue that our response should be a balanced assessment of the opportunity for technology to enable efficient city ecosystems, in combination with moderation of population growth.

If we get that right, we can all enjoy a more interesting, healthy and efficient life. I would much prefer that outcome to the possibility of descending by default into the extreme dystopias described in novels such as "We" by Yevgeny Zamyatin  or films such as Logan's Run. They describe worlds that are fascinating to experience as works of art; but I'd hate to live in them.

Image Credit: ilker canikligil/Shutterstock