The world is in the midst of an unprecedented demographic change. According to the World Economic Forum, before 2020, over-65s will make up a greater proportion of the global population than under fives. Along with this, three million people move to cities each week, with current projections suggesting 2.5 billion people will be added to urban populations globally by 2050. These factors, along with the growing reality of climate change pose an unprecedented challenge to the current economic way of being.
Cities have always been the pioneers of economic growth, and hubs of innovation and modernity. They are often seen as the endpoint of development. But in the transition to a post-fossil fuel economy, there is still a long way to go.
For generations, the main aim of policy-makers has been to achieve economic growth at any cost. Since the financial crash in 2008, the general thrust of policy is to get back to higher growth as soon as possible. But economic and material growth do not equal social progress. If we are going to start delivering social value, growth and development need to be discussed in qualitative terms.
Prosperity can no longer be thought of as an economic term. We need to expand the meaning of prosperity, and think of it as something that includes creating social value. Prosperity isn't just about wealth and growth in the economy or GDP. It’s about flourishing and well being, the health of society and social relationships, and having educated and satisfied citizens who have choice and freedom.
The best way to imagine how the cities of the future may adapt is to see the various ways today’s cities are adjusting to these pressures.
One area where there is massive room for improvement is the production and distribution of food. Currently, much of the food that is eaten in cities is produced by industrial farming techniques, far away from the city. This is bad for environmental reasons, and can limit the options for poorer residents. Many cities have become ‘food deserts,’ meaning fresh produce is unaffordable for many citizens.
One solution to the carbon footprint of our food is the localisation of food production. This provides more local jobs and fresher, healthier food. As the sustainably-minded market grows, companies continue to spring up that aim to feed cities as sustainably as possibly, even delivering with electric vehicles.
Urban agriculture is another way cities can gain fresh, cheap food. Many cities are already experimenting with vertical farming. In Berlin, some supermarkets are already equip with their own vertical agriculture. Equally, some cities are beginning to use public green space to grow food. This raises the prospect of an ‘edible’ landscape. In Detroit - previously a notorious food desert - hundreds of urban farms are springing up, providing income and food in an economically destitute area.
In London, entrepreneurs have started producing mushrooms in disused underground lines. They grow on used coffee beans and shredded newspapers, and offer a significant return per month. This epitomises the kind of innovation that is needed to convert disused space into a source of income and resources.
All these changes are transforming the current relationship between the land, producer and consumer.
Architecture and living
Overcrowding, accompanied with rising loneliness is another challenge our cities face. Alejandro Aravena, an architect who focuses on social housing, came up with a new approach to affordable housing in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. He designed ‘half houses,’ which are liveable houses with only one half complete. This means that people can buy what they can afford, but then add to their property incrementally, as they have the extra income. This makes social housing an investment, rather than an expense.
Different areas adapt to their problems in various ways. In London, there is a well-documented housing shortage. As a result, co-living spaces are becoming an option for Londoners in search of a home. One current co-living space hosts over 500 people. They each have a private room, but share kitchens, gardens, cinemas, a spa, a gym and workspaces communally. In a sense, this is the sharing economy, applied to housing. In Tokyo, as demand for space increases, the size of rooms decreases. This has even led to the emergence of ‘capsule hotels,’ where workers sleep in a pod as opposed to commuting home.
Cities will also increasingly look to smart architecture to alleviate the strains of climate change. Solar rooftops or wind farms are one possibility. Also, incorporating vegetation into buildings is an efficient low-energy way of keeping buildings cool. In Sri Lanka, a residential building is being built which has been dubbed ‘the world’s tallest vertical garden’. It has solar-paneled rooftops, and plants on the outside of most of the building, watered by a special irrigation system. For now, something like this is reserved for the wealthiest residents. But if well designed enough, in hot climates this could be a cheaper way to keep large buildings liveable.