A to Z of the Human Condition: U is for Urban Living

17 September 2014

We invited you, as fellow experts on the #HumanCondition, to add your own idiosyncrasies to our current exhibition by submitting photographs on Instagram for a few of the themes explored in the gallery. As a thank you for your wonderful pictures, this series explores those themes and finds out the roles they play in making us human. This week, Andrew Matheson looks at how more and more people live in an urban environment, illustrated by your photos.

For the first time in human history more than half the world’s population lives in urban areas. Between 2000 and 2050 developing countries could add 3.2 billion new urban residents: larger than the global population in 1950 (Thinking Spatially, RTPI 2014). Yet planning as a recognised profession– the attempt to manage this rapid and accelerating urbanisation – has just celebrated its centenary. The story of the last century can be seen through a kaleidoscope of efforts to manage a massive move to urban living against a background of powerful social, economic and environmental factors.

For many, New York City is the epitome of urban living. Its seemingly perpetual reach-for-the-skies is based upon order brought about by one of the most regular street-pattern grids of any big city. But whilst New York appears to crave density, this comes at a heavy price: it is not placed in the top 20 cities of the Economist Intelligence Unit‘s (EIU) “Liveability Ranking”.

Yet there seems no single blueprint for loveable, liveable places. Cities that consistently rank highly on liveability rankings – such as Copenhagen, Melbourne and Vienna – are very different. Copenhagen has virtually all residents living within 350 metres of public transport and it also has ambitions to have 50% of commuting residents use a bicycle by 2015. In contrast, Melbourne sprawls but it makes the most of its ability to intersperse high and low densities. Vienna it seems has managed successfully to meld old & new. Each city has challenged the potential for dislocation from growth and change in its own way.

Boris Bikes or these?

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Jane Jacobs in her hugely influential book ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’ (1961) criticised the notion that you can bring control and order to cities; she noted the contrast with what they are in reality, complex organic systems. It is that complexity that is both the benefit and challenge of living in cities. Opportunities abound but every dislocation has a myriad of consequences, many difficult to foresee with any clarity, and so we build knowledge from past experience.

Perhaps urban living is an attractive proposition precisely because of the range of experiences they can encompass.  Ebenezer Howard who published ‘Garden Cities of To-morrow’ in 1896 knew this and his vision was of places free of slums and enjoying the benefits of both town (such as opportunity, amusement and high wages) and country (such as beauty, fresh air and low rents). Howard’s vision still inspires today with The Wolfson Economics Prize 2014 building on this legacy by seeking viable ideas for 21st Century Garden Cities; proposals here have suggested up to 40 new ‘cities’ with populations ranging from 25,000 to 400,000 ‘city’ populations.

On the world scale we clearly have very modest ambitions. The new Prime Minister of India has said his country will create 100 new cities, “equipped with world class amenities”. This commitment is said to have taken a lead from China where a whole array of planned eco-cities are being created (Guardian 14.04.14). Like Howard’s theory, the Chinese have the goal of building exemplar cities from the ground up rather than letting them develop organically. But as the commentator notes: “You can want to design your urban landscape, but in reality, on a fundamental level, that’s impossible. We have to acknowledge that it’s extremely hard to build a regular city from scratch.”

#HumanSardines @wellcomecollection @sarahblenkinship

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Some will see planners as the dead hand of bureaucracy stifling ambition and ordering the energetic chaos that brings excitement to cities. Others will see planners as the ushers of unwanted and dislocating change that has too little respect for tradition. As with most things, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. After the next 100years we will certainly know better!

Andrew Matheson is a Chartered Town Planner for the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), as a Policy & Networks Manager.

See all the #HumanSardines photographs submitted by the public.

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