All over the globe the shape of cities are reformatting as patterns of life within them shift. In a complex interlinked way new technologies, resource constraints, and new cultural values are causing a big change away from late twentieth century certainties of city life. So where is this heading; what is life on the city street likely to be like as this century unfolds? And can we be more successful by embracing these changes actively?
The signs are that the old idea of the future, all anomie and flying cars like something out of H G Wells, is just not happening. It seems that street life may well more resemble the view outside Wells’ window as he dreamed those visions than either what we’re used now or than he imagined. We look likely to be mixing up some quite mature technologies along with new ones resulting in a back-to–the-future kind of new but familiar scene.
There are two areas where this is particularly the case. Spatial patterns are changing as there is a move to more central living, which is a return to less dispersed model; living, working, and playing all jumbled up in more intense centres like in earlier centuries. And habits of movement are changing away from the long commute in four wheeled private vehicles towards both smaller private vehicles and larger collective ones. As well as a greater use of active modes; walking and cycling.
Every day now from all over the western world, there are reports of how more and more young people aren’t bothering to get their driving licences, how the stats show that we are all driving much less, how public transport use is way up. And especially how sales and use of bikes and scooters are going through the roof.
The 21st century is looking much less like the century of jet packs than of ‘two wheels good; four wheels bad’. Not that there is an anti-technology meme here, more that progress seems not to follow a straight line but rather folds in on itself in a more complex way.
The last time there was a big change across our societies in patterns of movement like this was after the second world war when we all leapt into cars and invented the world of auto-dependent suburbia. Everything changed, as both cause and effect; ideals, design, daily routines, our hopes and dreams, our desires.
Right now we’re in the middle of one of these moments of big change again. And while it is a kind of reverse of this last revolution the old model will not disappear but the more successful suburbs will be the ones that adapt best to these new patterns. In order to flourish these areas will need to develop a higher quality of place in themselves instead of simply being a dormitory serving somewhere else. The essential ingredients of success in the coming world are almost a kind of contradiction: a lift in local quality –especially finding and emphasizing some individual local vitality and identity- and a lift in the level and sophistication of connectedness to other centres.
It is becoming clear that communities that better support walking and cycling and that have modern, frequent, and well run public transport networks are booming while the old disconnected and dispersed auto-dependant areas are loosing people and value. This is reflected in dwelling and rental values.
Consider this. Later in the year will be the 40th anniversary of the last time a human stood on the moon. If you’d asked the people of 1972 to look ahead to 2012 I’m sure they would have expected a Lunar colony or at the very least some kind of drop-in centre up there by now. Not one human has ever been back. They’d be astounded; are we in reverse? The future ain’t what it used to be.
If you think about it a rocket is a big brutal bit of kit. More about hopefully directing a huge explosion out one end of something in order to push it off the other way than a sophisticated and complex device. ‘Rocket Science’ is used as an image of difficult thought but really it isn’t. Rockets are more like the ultimate petrol head’s toy: Igniting a vast tank of hydrocarbons make a very big, if somewhat controlled, bang. Perhaps they are then the perfect expression of the automobile age.
Since the confident years of the Space Race instead of technology developing yet more muscle it has gone down the subtler digital road. The transformative devices of our age are electrical and personal. Little machines that do very fast math to communicate facts and feelings in interesting new ways at great speed and over extraordinary distances. And both as a means and a location for new expressions in living.
There are always technological and resource reasons behind periods of dramatic change in spatial and movement patterns. And sure enough, along with our new digital lives we find ourselves confronted with the end of cheap and abundant oil. That vital and defining ingredient of the previous age.
So what are we in for and should we be worried? Well we could just be heading for a better world, the streets being be even busier, but with pedestrians, bicycles, electric bikes, and motor scooters rather than SUVs. There will, after all, still be oil for a while yet, it’s just going to get ever more expensive and more constrained than we’re used to. So a world more like Rome 1955 than Detroit 2005; and what’s not to like? Streets full of people moving between a variety of centres on modern electric trains and trams and all using their smart phones as they move. Roads full of cleaner, safer, and less dominating smaller vehicles. It will be a better connected world, both virtually and actually; much less isolating, more social. Fuller streets with fresher air; just fewer cars.
Perhaps even more like the 19th century city street busy with people, just without the coal smoke and the horse shit and, ideally, with a less punishing social hierarchy. After all it was H G Wells, a son of that century who said: “Whenever I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.”
But this brave new-old world is in part dependant on how ready a city is to fix the physical constraints to this new vitality. Populations being mobile those places that cling to the old structures of auto-dependency will fall behind in both economic and social dynamism. Not only do investments need to be made in transit systems and vehicle privilege restricted but also educational and cultural infrastructure should be boosted. City leaders need to think young, and think smart.
*This is a version of an article in the current Urbis Magazine