The Future Cities project

encouraging debate, criticism and freedom of expression

Debate: Are Cities Good For Us?

CitiesGoodForYouLouise Bjørnskov Schmidt | 1 October 2014

Are cities good for us? The answer seems obvious. Throughout history humanity has flocked to cities which are often celebrated for their dynamism, increased opportunities and the economic benefits that they can offer.As pointed out by the Institute of Ideas Dave Bowden in his introduction to a packed audience at London’s Barbican, clearly this debate could be a very short affair: Yes, cities are good for us. Thank you and goodnight .

However, as the planet has became steadily more urbanised, so there seems to have grown an urge to discuss the future of cities. It is certainly true that more people electing to live in cities suggests enthusiasm for urban living; as has been noted widely, by 2008, for the first time in human history, more than half the world’s population lived in towns and cities. However, in parallel with urbanisation, deep seated anxieties have emerged, for example over growing numbers of people and the failure to adequately develop infrastructure; over urban fragmentation and social inequalities; and over resource depletion and the threat of environmental disasters. One question commonly asked is how to manage urban growth responsibly. More ambitiously, one might ask how can we make cities better suited this growth?

This wide-ranging debate clearly reflected an appetite on behalf of the audience to discuss and understand the various attractions and perils of urban life, the rise of mega-cities, and the extent to which viable solutions exist to the much talked about sanitisation of city life.

For writer and historian Leo Hollis, people are ‘hard-wired’ to live in cities, though perhaps this downplays the extent to which we are able to choose our habitat to live? Certainly, some forms of city at least, for example, the prospect of coast to coast ‘supercities’, stirred Christian Wolmar, author and prospective Labour party candidate for London mayor, to stress the necessity for urban compaction allied to sustainable transport.

In fact cities, by their very nature, are a mass of contradictions, and as Future Cities Catapult’s Claire Mookerjee pointed out, while living in a city permits the advantages of the opportunities of proximity, diversity, and marketplace competition, this must be weighed against the downsides of stress, alienation, high cost of living. According to Future Cities Project associate director Alastair Donald, we have become more mistrustful of others and intolerant of behaviour that in the past would have considered perfectly normal. Consequently, as we attempt to design in certain behaviour, we’re in danger of creating an antithesis of the city – even as we celebrate urbanity.

While in the end there may have been more questions than answers, nevertheless, such debates could be a catalyst to encourage a more critical examination of the dynamics of urban life, and boost the search for new opportunities that might can maximise and advance urban life in our ever-changing world.

Best of all, the debate is on-going and will continue at the Battle of Ideas annual festival in October, a forum for free thinking and discussion on a host of topics, and also be part of City Visions, a season of films, talks and debates, exploring the ways in which cinema has engaged with the phenomenon of the modern city and the experience of urban life.

Louise Bjørnskov Schmidt is a Danish architecture-student with one year post part II qualification from Bartlett School of Architecture. Louise currently works at Forbes Massie and is a writer at LOBBY magazine.