I managed to go see Stewart Brand's talk last night, "City Planet," a look at the co-evolution of cities and human societies. It was a wide-ranging discussion, with much to contemplate; Stewart's an engaging speaker, and he's clearly been thinking about these issues for some time. Long Now will have an audio recording of the talk up soon, but for now, here are some of the idea highlights:
The planet is urbanizing quickly: 3% of Earth's population lived in cities in 1800; 14% lived in cities in 1900; nearly half the planet's population lives in cities today; two-thirds will live in cities by 2030. Every week, around a million new people arrive in cities.
This is driven both by personal economics -- cities have the jobs, and it's increasingly hard to survive economically in rural areas -- and by global economics. Globalization is giving greater power to cities, as communication networks and market transactions bypass nations in favor of city-to-city connections. Multinational companies go to where the workers and consumers are; NGOs go to where the need is greatest. Rural areas are emptying out so quickly that some governments are offering free rural land to people to get them to return to the countryside and "hollowed-out" towns.
"Nations have borders. Cities have centers."
Urbanization is the chief reason why global population growth is flattening, and will likely peak at around nine billion people. Cities are "population sinks;" the birthrate of new urban dwellers drops to replacement level (an average of 2.1 children per woman) and lower. Globally, urban fertility rate is around 1.85 children per woman. The reasons for this are manifold: in the country, a large family is an asset, while in the city, a large family is a liability; cities generally have less room for big families; women in cities have more opportunities for education, economic empowerment, and cultural independence -- all of which directly correlate with lower birth rates.
Stewart argues that the "squatter cities" which form in rapidly-urbanizing areas are among the most vital parts of the 21st century city. He asserts that these global slums and shantytowns are, for most residents, temporary, that pockets of urban poverty are transitions from even worse rural poverty to a better existence in the city. Squatter cities are usually self-constructed and self-organized, better reflecting the needs of the residents than government-built housing; they're also engines of community, where support is provided by extended family, neighbors and religious institutions.
While we may think of cities as unmoving, they actually change pretty quickly. Across Europe, 2-3% of building stock is replaced annually, and the rate is even greater in the US and in the developing world. Cities grow on top of their own past; what is continuous is the pattern (roads, core & periphery) even if the fabric changes.
Environmentally, evidence suggests that the footprint of city dwellers is lower than the footprint of country dwellers, due to the effects of density. The majority of environmental research, however, has focused on "natural" spaces; very few of the ecological science papers written over the past few decades have looked at the ecology of cities. There's a real need to make certain that cities are humane and green, and to protect the newly-emptied countryside.
When asked about suburbs, Stewart noted that historically, suburban peripheries tend to grow into urban centers, citing Joel Garreau's Edge Cities. This is possible when the pattern of suburban areas allows flexibility and change. "Levittowns," once the symbol of post-World War II suburbia, have generally evolved into very livable communities. Gated "communities," conversely, have overly-restrictive CC&Rs (residential rules) making change and evolution next to impossible. Stewart calls this the difference between thinking of the residences as homes and thinking of them as real estate.
The underlying thread of the talk was Stewart's "pace of change" map, showing the different speeds at which different aspects of human society evolve. Cities enable the fast aspects of human life, while remaining rooted in the slower. Cities which focus too much on one end or the other become brittle, and are prone to failure in crisis.
He broke down the difference between fast institutions and slow institutions thusly:
fast slow learns remembers proposes disposes absorbs shocks integrates shocks discontinuous continuous innovation constraint revolution constancy has all the attention has all the power
What's most interesting is the interaction of communication with these trends. The most cutting-edge innovations in communication, associated with broadband wireless, are making city life unnecessary for many.
For example, the people I work most closely with are at least two time zones away, both east and west. The most difficult logistical problem our team has is coordinating conference calls with people on two or three different continents. Whether anyone's city has good roads or public transportation to make physical commutes to work tolerable is totally irrelevant.
The social statistics that Brand is basing his analysis on are typically 5 years old due to data collection difficulties -- they're reflecting a 20th-century technological trend due to automation of farming at the end of the first industrial revolution. But those statistics don't pick up on the second industrial revolution, the one about personalization of information and collaborative peer-to-peer media.
The second industrial revolution (or is it the third?) will lead to a fourth stratum of society, beyond the country worker, the urban worker, and the multi-home rich: the information worker who can choose to live wherever is most pleasant.
It remains to be seen whether the information worker will choose the social density of urban cores with their attendant social problems, or choose to escape to the country, or compromise on suburbia or exurbia. ....looks to me like suburbia is winning.
Actually, the cities seem to be winning, at least with regards to information workers. True, broadband and the networked economy make it so that one doesn't have to be in the same location as one's co-workers (and the distributed nature of WorldChanging is testament to that), but both research and anecdote strongly suggest that people who spend their days working online tend to gravitate towards cities in order to get their "fix" of human contact.
Alex has done some work on this subject, so I'll prod him to respond when he returns from his weekend break.
And as for the "attendant social problems" of urban life -- quite a few "social problems" (e.g., rates of teen pregnancy) are *more* common in rural and suburban areas than in cities taken as a whole (i.e., not just looking at pockets of urban poverty and extrapolating).
Rural areas are emptying out so quickly that some governments are offering free rural land to people to get them to return to the countryside and "hollowed-out" towns.
Are there any examples of areas where this is happening? I'm in Ireland, where land values have rocketed to ridiculous levels over the last fifteen years - both urban and rural.
Portions of the American midwest, particularly the high plains areas. Small towns out there are just drying up and blowing away.
I attended a version of this speech that Brand presented in Portland. He had a bunch of other examples, from around the world.
The midwest is empty for the same reason parts of russia are. In short it sucks to live there.
While most people in cities may be reaping the reward, each major city has common problems related to a concentration of minorities and extremely poor people in certain neighborhoods. Visit the Map Gallery at www.tutormentorexchange.net or the maps at www.voices4kids.org and you can see how large an area poverty is in Chicago, and the impact poverty has on crime patterns, poor school performance, etc.
The benefits of the Internet and collaborative communities like this can be applied to building systems of suport and knowledge that help kids living in poverty move to jobs and careers, if the knowledge is harnessed for social good.
Just as blogging tools have become free or low cost to millions of users, I envision a day when GIS tools are also available. In that day I'd be able to go to a web site and see a "pie" that represents all of the issues of the world, or all of the cities with populations of 1 million or more. In each city I would be able to look a maps that help me understand where a problem was most concentrated, what organizations were working to solve that problem, and ways I could get involved to help.
A GIS uses overlays to show information, thus the social pie represents layers of information, such as health, jobs, transportation, education, violence, poverty, etc. As each layer is looked as as an overlay to the other layers, we'll soon understand the multi faceted nature of poverty, and begin to see that many different groups who work in the same geography could be working together in cyber space or at the same address, to provide help that actually leads to poor to jobs and out of poverty.
The people managing such systems could be living in a country villa, or an inner city high rise. It does not matter. What matters is that they devote some of their time and talent to solving social problems.