Wednesday, July 24, 2019

New Cities in an age of Migration

Over in the Guardian, Wade Shepard* has a good look at the question of Should we build cities from scratch?

* I recently started following Wade's Vagabond Journey blog, which linked to this article.

It's an interesting read that touches on a few key global issues. On the one hand, new cities can be a way of dealing with population influx from migration:

"The major reason for new cities is that there is so much migration," says John Macomber
... the existing cities of Asia and Africa are simply not able to handle this onslaught of urbanisation. Cairo was built to house 1 million people, not the 20 million who live there today.

This attention on scalability reminds me of computer engineering. If a system doesn't scale up, then you look at either restructuring its fundamental infrastructure to cope, or you separate parts out into "external" systems that are, in effect, simpler and more self-contained. But then, aren't cities beautiful precisely because of the way they emerge to handle complex interactions? Is there an inherent size to any city? Or does our modern, controlled attention to urban politic and management these days - summed up in that phrase "smart cities" - no longer allow for complexity, emergence, and for natural death even? Is the city paradigm now closer to a walled garden than a wildflower ecosystem?

Then, secondly, there is the purely economic effect of just a massive building project:

As well as being less complicated and cheaper than retrofitting old cities, building new cities is seen by many leaders as more profitable – and sexier.
... building an entirely new city is the pinnacle of projects.

To come back to a technical perspective, is city building analogous to large IT projects - and if so, then how should we make them effective, rather than crumble into the pink elephants that large projects often turn into before ever launching?

Then finally, there is the question of need, which ties into sustainability, purpose, and perhaps even intended lifetime of a single city.

New cities that work have built-in economic drivers that give them their impetus and reason for being. Khorgos on the China-Kazakhstan border was sparked to life by a transportation hub along the New Silk Road;
... The new city building boom is nearly as much about maintaining and attracting high-value talent as it is about creating space for the droves of rural migrants searching for their first handholds in an urban environment.

What if "urban design" is a misnomer at this point? To come back to the gardening parallels, what if we do not "design" cities, but "seed" them? A city in the middle of a desert looks like a single plant growing, when seen from space. Should we plant several city seeds, encourage them to grow, but ultimately understand which are successful, and which need to be "thinned out"?

From the perspective of space - satellites and terraforming - then where does this leave us with the process of mass migration - the dual challenge of economic distribution in the face of technical progress, plus the grim enforcement of movement brought on by war and climate change. And, just as importantly, who decides things at this level?

Cities are clearly "the one to watch" as we try to consider the humankind plight over the next 200 years. Forget smart cities. Global city planning is where it's at.

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