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Big cities for a small planet – too small or too big?

Big cities for a small planet – too small or too big?

Markus Appenzeller

About every second book about cities starts with the announcement that we are now living in an urban age with more than 50 percent of the world population calling a city their home. So far so good, but what does city or urban area mean. Even the UN states that there is no global definition, and every country or organization has its own way of measuring. Having visited places around the globe I can clearly understand why. An urban area in China in many parts feels completely different in its lack of – what Richard Sennett calls intensity and people on the street than a village in Ghana even though inhabitant statistics tell you otherwise. How urban something feels is largely dependent on local culture and the settlement’s social, economic, and spatial fabric. Why are we so obsessed with the statistics then if they do not tell us anything about the qualities of what we call city? And – does it matter if something falls under the category of urban, rural, natural or any other not so clear definition? Where does our fascination for cities come from so that we see it as an achievement that we have more and more of it?

Times Square, New York

I believe it is the sensations that cities offer that make them attractive to us. As the complete antithesis to ‘untouched nature’ they radiate glitz, fashion, lifestyle, wealth, and a promise that one could achieve the same if only one moves to the place. The village, the rural area is neither – it is touched nature and not city. And while Richard Florida postulated the city as the place where everything happens and where the sheer amalgamation of talent, capital and opportunities lead to more and more concentration of wealth and feed the myth of the city as problem solver, we now see that cities are a big problem when in our endeavour to bring back balance into our global ecosystem. Cities are parasites. They drain resources from their closer and wider surroundings. Their structure does not allow them to be self-sustainable. That is not a new phenomenon. It you look at ancient Rome or medieval cities – they also drew things and services from near and far. This is what made them crossroads of people and goods and fuelled their growth. Since then this effect has only become bigger and with the rise of the megacity region, we are currently in the process of bringing that even onto a higher, an unprecedented level of urbanization. If the result is that this new beast is an even bigger parasite in the flesh of its surroundings then we have an even bigger problem, one that we might not be able to solve.

Megacities Worldwide
Source: Euromonitor International

What to do about it?
I think there are two things that we need to do:

We need to develop an entirely new urban model for megacity regions. Since this type of urbanization is in its early stages of emerging, we have the chance to steer it in such a way that more urban does not mean a bigger parasite. To achieve that, we need to put all the measures and tools upfront that climate change adaptation and rebalancing our human footprint require. The gaps between the megacity and the megacity region therefore cannot be more megacity but it has to be something entirely new that is focussed on production of resources the megacity needs and the processing and reuse of its waste. The goal must be a fabric that enables a largely closed circular system of stocks and flows. Energy and food production, growing of renewable materials and the re-, ideally upcycling of materials not used anymore and room to recharge threatened ecosystems all need to be part of this megacity region extension. Most likely this fabric will look and feel unlike anything we have seen and experienced so far.

Spaces in between megacitites – the place where the megacity becomes a megacity region

To reduce the amount of megacity regions emerging we also need to have a new look at rural areas. We need to create new possibilities in them that take them out of their current state and make change their image towards highly desirable environments to live and stay. Technology can help us with that. The current trends towards online retail and virtual service provision help reducing the gap to cities. But this revaluing must go further: we need to come up with entirely new, highly desirable things that cannot be found anywhere else. Countryside life has to be attractive again and it has to provide professional opportunities that cannot be found in cities and that keep people and attract new ones.

Agriculture is changing, moving into two very different directions. On one hand, it is transforming from a largely human controlled practice towards high tech robot and software driven discipline where controlled food production environments secure much higher yields. The farmer of tomorrow here is a robotics and software expert. The other direction goes back to a more natural form of farming that makes increased use of natural processes, no artificial fertilizers and machinery. This form of agriculture will involve more people again since it natural production methods and minimized environmental impact will be compensated for by higher prizes for organic food.

Strip agriculture – testing beds of Wageningen University

Energy production that does not use fossil fuels will offer new opportunities for the countryside. Oil plants, large scale wind or solar parks – they all need large areas and allow for a new profession, the “energy farmer” to emerge.

The countryside also offers lifestyle opportunities. Living in cities has increasingly become difficult to afford with house prices going through the roof. Cost of life in rural areas is significantly less expensive and requires therefore fewer financial means to live a good life. It also allows for more time and space for leisure, hobbies and family and friends.

Working on both, the inter-megacity space and rural areas and coming up with a vision and credible new models can become key in mastering the challenges we face in the next two or three generations. Modernism tried to postulate the urban landscape continuum with limited success. One of the reasons is, that it did oversimplify human life and reduced it to spatial considerations only. Now we have the chance to come up with a better, more complex and multi-threaded model that offers many more opportunities and spatial complexity its predecessor was missing. Let us get started now – before it is too late.  

By Markus Appenzeller

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