Three Ideas That Will Shape 21st Century Cities: Urban Divide, Megacities, and Poly-Centric Regions


The past two days, I covered a list of 20 items from The Futurist magazine’s Outlook 2010 (Nov-Dec 09 issue that will shape 21st c cities. Now I am adding other trends, ideas, and forecasts beyond their list. First, a bit of context.

The Urban Century

As of 2007, more of us live in cities than not, which is an historic first. Furthermore, during the next four decades, the world population is predicted to add 3 billion more people and nearly all of that growth will be in cities.

In other words, during the past 10,000 years of civilization, we grew to the point that 3 billion people live in cities. Now we will add that many again by 2058.

Think about it: Are our cities prepared to deal with doubling size in the next forty years?

Cities In Crisis and Opportunity

Urban change will not be entirely incremental, just more and more of the same; cities will fundamentally transform, in many parts beyond recognition.

The reason I say this with such sureness is by looking backward. To see what lies ahead, futurists become great students of history. We look backward in order to see forward. If you look at 1950, cities are nearly unrecognizable. And 1900, even moreso.

A Very Brief and Recent History

When forecasting, I think about time in blocks or at particular milestones.

  • In 1900, London was the largest city, eight of the top ten largest were in Europe or the US, most people lived without in-door plumbing and many without power, and one of the largest problems was horse manure overwhelming streets.
  • By 1950, New York emerged as the first megacity and power and plumbing were solved in developed countries. However, cities beyond the industrialized west began to fall behind in their technology. The societies remained primarily agricultural.
    • You might say that’s the period when the urban divide emerged. Before industrialization, all cities were primitive – that is, they employed basic construction technology - and societies were primarily rural. Now cities diverged into two distinct paths. Power, transportation, and increasingly complex infrastructure arrived in some cities, and lagged in others. For those cities who industrialized, life changed immeasurably during the first half of the 20th century; it was a transformational change, not just more of the same.   
  • By 2000, Tokyo was the world’s largest and a sea change hit the rest of the top ten list. Only London and New York remained from prior lists. The other largest cities are entirely in developing countries. By 2015, London falls out of the top ten. Furthermore, Tokyo and New York hold their spots by retaining, not adding, people. They are barely growing.

1.      The Great Urban Divide

Growth in Asian cities is exploding. Mumbai, Delhi, Shanghai, Calcutta, and Jakarta lead the world through a combination of rural-urban migration and population increases (not true for China of course that has low fertility rate). Each country has its own problems. While China has organized massive long-term development plans, they build sub-standard buildings and their cities’ air is the most polluted in the world. India struggles with squatters villages, infrastructure, transportation, education, and jobs.

Cities in developing countries grow at a rapid clip of 3 percent annually yes, those cities will gain the lions share of the next 3 billion people – while developed countries that have long been urbanized are maintaining existing population. Therefore, developing countries’ concerns are with massive amounts of new infrastructure, institutions and services while developed countries are repairing, renovating, and re-inventing. The Great Urban Divide looks to continue until the world population balances in mid- 21st century.

2.      The Rise of Megacities

Defined as cities with populations over 10 million people, 20-25 mega-cities will exist by 2015 (depending on how you define the circumference).  While 6.9% lived in mega-cities in 1990, over 12% will be in the 23 largest cities by 2015. That represents an increase urban population from 98 million to 378 million people.

Imagine, in this 25-year period, 23 cities are adding 12 million new people each! Just the housing and infrastructure required is mind- boggling, much less jobs, education, health care, banks, shops, and so on. Look at your city and think about that magnitude of change. 

Moreover, almost all of that growth is occurring not in Toyko, New York, or London, but in India, China, and Indonesia. Even mega-cities are experiencing an urban divide. There are two forms: those more or less built by now, and those that are still building. They have one thing in common: all are scrambling for resources.

3.      Polycentric Cities

While developing countries are squeezing enormous numbers of people into incredibly dense megacities, developed countries are sprawling and eventually converging in what Sir Peter Hall dubbed the polyopolis, or poly-centric regions. The distinction between mega-cities and poly-centric cities is due to transportation and historic growth. Polycentric regions emerge with multiple cities and urban cores, linked by networks in economically beneficial collaborations. Hall identified eight European areas as mega-city regions and three or four in North America.

Polycentric regions tend to be areas of highly developed technology and with historic social and political patterns. The problems are split governance and enabling a division of resources. In effect, with regional relationships paramount yet without centralized government, a new field of urban diplomacy and legal negotiations is emerging. 

Looking Ahead

While it may seem like this tale of divided problems means we don’t need to worry about urban troubles half way around the globe, that is folly. Two things are shared and deeply linked: the environment and the world economy. Collaboration, risk, opportunity all converge.

No one has yet to build the perfect city. We can learn from each other.

Next I focus on some technological ventures: floating cities, robotics, and geo-engineering.


What’s Next for 21st Century Cities? Part 2


Yesterday, I posted ten trends from The Futurist magazine Outlook 2010, which I selected from approximately 80 topics and modified them to apply to cities. The trends were organized into ten domains. I covered five of them in Part I: Environmental, Government, Habitats, Health and Medicine, and Information Society.


Today, I look at the other four domains. (One area in Outlook 2010, “Business”, didn’t cover any issues with distinct implications for cities, as strange as that may seem.)


Lifting ideas from The Futurists’ prognostications and modifying them for 21st century communities, here are ten forecasts that will shape cities. I added comments in italics.


Lifestyles and Values

1.      Transit Oriented Cities. While 7 out of 8 Americans own cars today, only two-thirds will own cars in coming decades. We already see car sharing, more bikes and a strong push for public transit. The biggest change over time will be in denser, mixed used communities, based on infill and adaptive reuse to retrofit areas and for new developments.

2.      Active Older Population. The oldest segment, Centenarians, is also the fastest growing and will double. Furthermore, this group along with people over 70 is healthier, more active and has more resources. They will demand buildings and public spaces that accommodate older bodies and activities and experiences that cater to their needs.

3.      Virtual Reality as Testing Platform. While The Futurist listed VR as an area to expand research on ethics and moral dilemmas, I think that that we will also see the AEC professions, government agencies and private developers test development ideas via virtual environments. Primitive technology at this time, it may soon be a mandatory means of sharing development plans. Design professionals always wanted more public participation – be careful what you wish for! It could be a tidal wave.

Science and Technology

4.      Brain-to-Brain Telepathy. Or brain-to-thing messages. For example, we can think our house warm, lights on, windows closed, or oven cooking. Particularly useful for people with health problems such as dementia or physical disabilities. The twitter house experiment demonstrates the possibilities.

5.      3D Prototype Printing. These printers which are now used for fabricating manufactured parts and making architectural models will enable people to print objects ranging from building parts to containers to furniture. Distribution, shopping patterns and object design will change as a result.

Work and Careers

6.      Growing Workforce; Shrinking Talent Pool. Financial concerns and healthy aging may add to the workforce with delayed or partial retirement. Yet a shortage of technology workers is looming. Workplaces would need to accommodate an older workforce, and public transit and nearby services become even more important. A countertrend is increased robotics which could reduce available jobs. Furthermore, education needs a full re-vamping, integrated into all levels of activity from personal finance to upgrading our employment potential.

7.      Terrorism Thwarted. Jihadist rehabilitations programs sponsored by Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and others may shrink global terrorism. To me, that sounds as amazing as a cure for cancer! However, perceived problems can still change behavior and people may seek protection with gated communities, secure buildings, and fortified corporate and government facilities.

8.      China Largest Economy by 2025. China will shift to consumer driven while the US slips from the top 20 countries in GDP per capita. In addition to being a location for possible development projects, China will exert cultural influence in design, innovation, and education that will influence cities and architecture globally.

World Affairs

9.      Post-Peak Oil Era. While developed countries will shift to alternative energy sources, nations such as Saudi Arabia will be faced with high unemployment, increased poverty, and slums. These countries may become more open or more insular.

10.     Information Warfare. Security of infrastructure from energy to transportation will become increasingly troublesome. We may find centralized solutions and ubiquitous rfid “smart” technologies can create too many weaknesses. In fact, data security could cause more “off-grid” behavior unless absolutely necessary, which would change internet dependent entertainment, communications, education, and work habits. A walk in the park may find a new generation of enthusiasts.

Adding yesterday’s list, that’s twenty images of the future that will change the way we use and build cities:

Colorful Solar Energy                      Transit Oriented Cities

Flooded Coastal Cities                   Active Older Population

Local Fragmentation                       Virtual Reality as Testing Platform

China’s Ascent                                  Brain-to-Brain Telepathy

Healthy Cities                                   3D Prototype Printing

Car-Free Cities                                  Growing Workforce; Shrinking Talent Pool

Suburban Woes                               Terrorism Thwarted

Sensors and Nano-technology     China Largest Economy by 2025

Augmented Reality                          Post Peak Oil Era

Telecommuting                                Information Warfare


However, the list is far from complete in defining tomorrow’s cities – not that The Futurist made any bones about it being a comprehensive survey, and they did not focus on cities in particular.

In fact, the lack of attention to the built environment struck me as a complete oversight, and inspired me to write these two articles. Cities are ascending, we are an urbanized planet for the first time in history. Surely that deserves our attention in 2010.

What’s missing? Off the top of my head: megacities, slums, robotics, geo-engineering, smart infrastructure, diffused energy sources, tribal communities, prefabrication, nanotech, and urban farming, just to name a few.

Many other critical trends will shape 21st century cities, which warrants another post – big ideas looming outside the scope of Outlook 2010.

In the meantime, what do you think of the 20 trends from The Futurist? Are any more critical, exciting, or terrifying? And what do you think might be missing?


Image: Buckminster Fuller: Dome over Manhattan, 1960, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries, Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller


What’s Next for 21st Century Cities? Part 1



The Futurist magazine published their Outlook 2010 this month with forecasts in ten domains. Somehow none of the areas focus exclusively on cities or architecture, despite the fact that the world for the first time in history is now more urban than rural.

In fact, I would call this the urban century. One of the most critical issues we are facing is how to live in and create great cities.

No doubt, historically there are times when cities were truly spectacular – Athens, Rome, Rome again, Florence to name a few. They pulsed with culture, commerce, and a sense of community.

Then technology aided industrialization and automobiles, and now globalization and social networking. Cities are simply more complicated now. Actually that’s true about life all the way around.

Yet, even now, sometimes we build something brilliant. New York City’s Central Park, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Sydney Opera House, Beijing Olympics. At a particular moment, communities create genius in built form. Even with all the forces that tear us in multiple directions, it’s possible.

Lifting ideas from The Futurists’ prognostications and modifying them for 21st century communities, here are ten forecasts that will shape cities. I added comments in italics.


1.      Colorful Solar Energy: MIT devised thin solar film that amounts to paint so translucent it can do double-duty as tinted windows.

2.      Flooded Coastal Cities: If we see 14 degrees centigrade warming, the oceans would rise 75 meters, which puts every coastal city at risk. Actually, I would modify this to far lower figures, say 2-6 meters, based on research, but still with devastating possibilities.  Heavier storm patterns will also increase damage, including risks to river cities.


3.      Local Fragmentation. Local governments will exert more influence than national governments. Brookings Institute notes that fragmented metropolitan regions with multiple small municipalities damage the area’s ability to collaborate and attract jobs.

4.      China’s Ascent. China, maybe Russia, will join the US as leading world powers by 2025. As the EU gains a unified voice, it will become a member of this group.


5.      Healthy Cities. Cliff Moughtin, Urban Design, cites urban gardens and walkability as improvements to quality of life. Example: Freiburg, Germany. I would add the slow city and new urbanist movements.

6.      Car-Free Cities. Electronic sensors in Singapore charge cars as they enter the city. Paris aims to cut auto traffic by 40% by 2020, replaced with bikes.

7.      Suburban Woes. As energy costs soar, districts with spread-out services will spend more in transportation. That is, unless they build public transit and infill to create density, and address problems of aging infrastructure and next-generation residents as urban cores have learned.

Health and Medicine

8.      Sensors and Nano-technology. Health monitoring and even minor diagnosis and procedures will be done virtually, placing an additional duty on houses, especially bathrooms and kitchens. Furthermore, hospitals will be modified accordingly, shrinking examination rooms and beds while adding clinics.

Information Society

9.      Augmented Reality. Sensors, digital maps, and real-time data combine with social media to enrich our experience of cities.

10.     Telecommuting. US jobs filled by telecommuters could increase four-fold to 19 million by 2012. That many folks may have partial telecommuting in two years. Reduced road infrastructure could save $5 billion and wed recapture 1.5 billion commute hours. Changes to cities without rush-hour commuting would be enormous. Residences become base-camps for work and living, and neighborhoods – urban or suburban – become 24/7 communities.

That’s ten changes that apply to cities from the first five areas that The Futurist covered. They had many other points under these headings; I selected based on relevancy to cities.

Tomorrow I will add items from the second portion of their 2010 forecast. That post will cover: Lifestyles and Values, Science and Technology, Work and Careers, and World Affairs.

And looking at the list – where are robotics, geo-engineering, smart infrastructure, diffused energy, public space, public art, sacred places, tribal communities, local/global connections, prefabrication, mega-cities, slums, security issues, and urban farming to name a few?

Really, how could 21st century communities not be at the top of their list??  


Will Filtering Reality Build Communities or Fortresses?

While Jamais Cascio is concerned that we will block people we don’t like and live behind blinders that hide contrary ideologies, I think that we might use augmented reality to change our common landscape and city scapes.

What if we can choose what buildings we see? or what the buildings look like? Its a little like colors. I assume that you see red like I see red, but I can only trust our word descriptors. From then on, its a shared cultural reaction that red is a fighting color, a vibrant dress, or a shade of holiday seasons. We know what we mean when we say “he’s seeing red!”

What if you like a red Eiffel Tower and I prefer it in purple? We might stop fighting urban ugliness, and start changing our browser filters to omit signs or trash heaps or sprawling parking lots. The junk will exist, we just wont perceive it.

Perceived, Conceived, and Lived-In Spaces

Henri Lefebrve, an urban sociologist, described our different ways of knowing the world as physical, mental and social realities. We sense or perceive the physical world, conceive or represent mental space like maps and photos, and interpret social lived-in space. Our experience of a place combines all three.

In dense cities, people share sidewalks and subways. However, distinct districts, daily practices, and private transportation separate us and allows each person to know the city a little differently. An architect knows the city differently than a truck driver or a mayor.

Bridging Gulfs or Building Forts?

Augmented reality has the potential to enlarge that gulf, or to reduce it. We could use the digital overlays to communicate more publicly and share our experiences. In this way, we might actually have more in common with people who cross our paths.

While sitting at a stop light, many tweets could be seen, interactions might happen, something deeper than “you #%(%)@I((“. I might spot a bird, post a link, or share a song. (Not my singing of course!)

Augmented reality has the potential to place us in bunkers and forts. Or we can build communities that have greater ties and understanding.

Those are our choices in the future. Seems to me that the conversation of transparency, access, and fairness will test us all, because what previously was simply supplied to us or the purview of a city or a company will become increasingly our individual responsibility.

Some Folks Already Get It, Others Will Hold Out for More Proof

Really, our cities and our lives are already deeply changed. And it is just beginning. Augmented reality is simply another form of social media. Folks that get the meaning of social media, the early adopters, will also see the usefulness and pitfalls of augmented reality.

Augmented Reality: Dream App or Disaster for Cities?

FrewenWuellner AR.ppt
Download this file


Today I had the pleasure of speaking to Be2Camp Working Buildings in London, courtesy of Martin Brown @fairsnape, an inspiring green building expert. Here’s a recap of my session Dream App or Disaster for Cities?? Here is my slide show; its also on slideshare.

Augmented reality (AR) will change the way that people use cities, and consequently the way that we build cities and buildings.

Vernor Vinge in Rainbows End explored 2025 San Diego where architecture became primitive Quonset huts that were experienced through AR as elaborate neo-classical monuments. An extreme outcome, no doubt some buildings may be stripped of quality materials, replaced by digitized imagery. Uses of AR in buildings and cities are emerging; its time for building pros to get immersed in the conversation.

While AR can be defined narrowly as layers of information over the real world, that view is from the information technology perspective. Building professionals can better use AR if we see it as the link between objects and people, a way of “enlivening” buildings and cities. In effect, AR gives buildings a voice. Furthermore, we extend ourselves into the environment with AR. (see McCullough diagram, Slide 38).

In short, AR wakes up buildings to everyone in the way that they have always been in the foreground for AEC pros. Suddenly everyone knows history, data, uses of different places, the information that was previously in the realm of experts or locals. And it puts the people who use buildings and cities into the foreground for those of us who merely see the multitude of technical issues.

Slide 19. AR has the potential to:

  1. Make invisible things visible. Data, people, history, stories about a place can be tagged to it and then can be manipulated to find aggregated patterns such as in maps.
  2. AR gives power to people and paradoxically takes it away. We gain information and are drowned by it, so trusted voices and analysis become even more critical. Plus we lose control of privacy, such as in the case of London surveillance cameras.
  3. The more virtual becomes real, the less difference there is between virtual and real. If we think virtual has the same qualities as real space, we will substitute them without thinking. Right now, we are most aware of augmentation technology because it is so awkward and novel. However, in the future, they will become invisible. We will in effect internalize it.

Slide 46, 48. Three consequences that will change the way that we build cities are sensors, co-creating, and virtual/real choices.

  1. Sensors. Data from fixed sensors and from people will inform us regarding patterns of behavior, energy, etc. Will we monitor our neighbor’s green choices? Will some uses be higher taxed, like a luxury tax? Green building in particular will benefit from augmented reality, because sustainability data will become social.
  2. Co-creating. Preliminary plans will be shared by city planning departments for review. Rather than appearing in person at long, difficult meetings, people will be able to participate in city planning from the comfort of their home. Multiple suggestions may flood development decisions. If people know how much a development will cost in terms of public infrastructure, will we veto it? AEC professionals will have new skills and responsibilities.
  3. Virtual/Real Trade-offs. Stronger virtual connections make mobility optional instead of necessary. Particularly as commutes are cumbersome and expensive, travel will be by choice rather than by mandate for work. The experience becomes paramount.

Since we build cities based on plans about 10-20 years ahead, we need to stay involved in how augmented reality influences behavior and how people view cities. Some cities will grasp the opportunities and shape AR while others will be left behind. 

The first part (slides 4-19) of the presentation defines AR, the second part (20-41) gives visual examples, and the third part (42-49) addresses consequences for cities, particularly for AEC professionals. Let me know if you want more explanation or have ideas about my approach.

Thanks to Martin and his colleagues for hosting this fantastic un-conference, the second in London on sustainable building. It was a delight to be a part of it. I will be writing more about AR and love to hear what people are thinking about it or using it.





Rebuilding New York and New Orleans after Disasters

Why do some cities rebuild from disasters, better than before, while others decline? We are at the 8th anniversary of World Trade Center towers destruction and 4 years since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. In fact, all cities experience disasters – floods, earthquakes, storms, terrorism. Some bounce back with renewed vigor while others leave gaping chasms as tragic reminders.

Post 9/11, New York fell into one trap after another, squandering financial resources and good will. At every step, the magnitude and significance of the work was critically underestimated. From the beginning, the scope was simply thoughtlessly conceived, the developer was blind to public exigencies and the government agencies treated it as a massive, complex project, not the heart and soul of the community.

Attempts at elevating the quality of design through a competition failed to ask a core question: What will New York be? Instead they used a developer’s and insurance bargain to establish the foundation for this legendary project. Sadly, the best outcome for New York so far is that none of these grand-scaled monuments have been built – yet.

Other cities have been re-invigorated by disasters. Chicago burned and rebuilt stronger than before. After an earthquake, San Francisco’s leaders
grabbed at the chance to remove the obstructive Embarcadero and reconnect downtown to the bay. With each rebuilding effort, cities learn how to renew themselves, redefine who they are and where they are going. They dig deep into who they are as a community and as a unique place, and find in themselves a more perfect expression of that self. They become experienced re-builders.

Both people and ideas make the difference. Engaged communities pair with compelling images of the future. New York and New Orleans each have a singularly strong sense of sense of place. They rebuilt time and again; I believe that these communities will find a way to make these cities greater than before.

Fred Polak (1961) said: “The rise and fall of images of the future precedes or accompanies the rise and fall of cultures.” These images are not merely extensions of the present; they transform the place and allow a rebirth. The city is built new for the future.

New York and New Orleans can each still find that miraculous rebirth.