Friday, August 12, 2011

What happens next? Changing paradigms for changing cities

So what is the future of urbanisation?
In response to a post about changes in the  global distribution of urbanisation, Mark asked:

What happens now with globalisation? how many business finance centres do we need?
He is concerned that “our city planners seem to work in isolation......Given the next 10-20yrs of stagnant economies, my suspicion is we'll see a shift away from Govt as 40+% of economies, and get back to more normal historical levels. Will those jobs shift out of govt departments in Wellington, to agriculture supporting towns?”

These questions are highly relevant in a year of bursting bubbles –housing and equities – and a halt to income growth inflated by private and public debt, events potentially bringing about a ground shift in how cities work.  This post doesn’t provide answers.  Rather, it asks questions about how we might think about our cities’ futures.
Perils of prediction
Urban planning is flawed by unreliable predictions (beyond any momentum or inertia we might project into next year, or the year after).  Reliance on extrapolation ignores the discontinuities that shape cities from one generation to the next.  Quantitative forecasts may help to structure thinking about the future.  But projecting current perceptions of cause and effect and imposing past behaviours on the future are unlikely to lead to accurate predictions.

Two reasons are suggested.  The first is obvious, but significant: the future begins from a different starting point from the past.  Second, experience demonstrates that the path to the future is shaped by unforeseen shocks.  Some may have been the product of human invention, others the unforeseen outcomes of past behaviours, or shifts to new ones.
Planning failures come not from making predictions, but from believing them, and then enacting policies reliant on that belief.

 At best, prediction demonstrates the consequences of what we think might happen.  Better perhaps to plan not for what we expect to happen, but what we don’t expect.  This is not simply about sensitivity tests, or varying scenarios.  It is about planning to cope with uncertainty.
Missing the big ones
Most outcomes that have affected urbanisation revolve around shocks – destructive technologies, directional shifts, and threshold events – of the sort rarely anticipated in plans.

At the dawn of city planning, for example, who planned for the impacts of a world war followed by a global pandemic?  Who planned in the 1920s for the urban impact of the Depression, or in the 1930s for massive bombing of civilians in cities in another world war?  Or in the 1940s, for the proliferation of cars and consumers in the following decades?
Who planned in the 1960s for the oil crises and stagflation of the 1970s?  Who anticipated in the 1970s the collapse of Keynesianism and the triumph (of sorts) of monetarism in the 1980s?  Who in that decade picked the emergence of China as the world’s driver of global industrial trade and investment in the 1990s, and its impact on both eastern and western cities?  How many planners in the 1990s were talking about the implications for city plans and management of random acts of the urban terrorism we have since come to know? 

And who at the beginning of this year predicted the reach of today’s economic meltdown, and who even now can pick the enduring impact on cities and their residents? 
Who, in all intellectual honesty, can say they know what might be driving cities in 30, or 20, or 10, or even 5 years time? 

Urban Game Changers
The long-term history of urbanisation and urban form is a history of game changers, big and small.  Here are a few I can think of.  There are plenty more.

The biggest has probably been the mechanisation of agriculture (and associated changes in social relationships and political arrangements), freeing up populations for activity other than food production.  In the west, this translated into a work ethic which focused on cities as centres of production and capital.  It’s a process that continues to drive the urbanisation of developing nations.
The development of urban sanitation services in the 19th century played a more important role in public health than even advances in medicine, making cities literally more liveable for more people. 

The refinement of the elevator and mass steel production in the 19th century saw the emergence of skyscrapers early in the 20th.  This supported white collar employment at densities previously associated with labour intensive industrialisation and sustained the central city through the 20th century.
The development and spread of mass transit in the 20th century enabled people to live away from crowded centres and unhealthy work places.  It continues to play a role, supporting the suburbanisation that sustains cities of far greater scale than previously possible.

The internal combustion engine complemented this. Greater personal mobility meant the interstices between fixed transit lines could be occupied by housing, allowing for more efficient public service and infrastructure delivery.  Automobility also enabled work and commerce to decentralise, reducing the externalities of over-concentrated industry. 
The development of oral contraception coupled with women’s emancipation in the late 20th century facilitate big changes in household structures, housing needs, consumption, and workplaces, all helping shape today’s cities. 

According to Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew, air conditioning enables people to work comfortably and productively in settings otherwise unsuited for sustained work in small areas, a boon to the material advancement of much of Asia.[1]
And so it goes on.  It’s difficult to anticipate the social movements, events, and technologies that will reshape our cities.  It is not easy, either, to anticipate how they might alter the possibilities for economic activity, individual, household, and cultural behaviours, or urban form

So how do we respond?
One option is to be more passive in city planning, to retain a capacity to respond to the unexpected by limiting long-term infrastructure and land use commitment to those that for technical reasons we cannot avoid making.  It means writing principles rather than detail into plans, and providing mechanisms for rapidly responding to needs as they emerge. Physical factors might shape long-term directions  but the detail might best be dealt with in the short-term.

Another is to be more active, and promote and invest in the outcomes that we want regardless of the direction the world is moving in.  Such plans, though, should be robust in the sense that they retain integrity in the face of different external events, and do not unduly limit different actions or plans in the future.
Advice on responding is necessarily general: individual circumstances will be critical in determining how cities might plan for an inevitably unpredictable future.  Among the principles that might help, however, are promoting adaptability and flexibility in land use; developing enabling and inclusive rules and regulations in urban plans and policies; and building the capacity and resilience of communities within our cities.  These principles are not often evident in a tradition of planning that uses deterministic methods to view the future and centralised, prescriptive methods in an attempt to shape it.

[1] Cherian George (2000) Singapore: The Air-Conditioned Nation, Landmark Books, Singapore

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