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Rise or sprawl?

The unabating exodus from rural life means that cities worldwide are having to reach for the sky. Yolanda Brooks reports

Paris, London, New York, Tokyo, Cairo, Cape Town, Shanghai, Rio, Sydney, Mumbai, Moscow and Bangkok. From shanty towns to skyscrapers, you can't escape the pull of the city. They can fulfil our every need or be the stuff of nightmares. They are hubs of creativity, commerce and culture - the place for bright lights and diversity. But poverty, crime, congestion, stress and decay are the words all too often associated with anything urban. Whether you fear or embrace urban life, it will become the definitive experience for the majority of the world's inhabitants. Wealthy Westerners may dream of downsizing to the countryside, but forecasts show that most of the world will be hoping to escape rural poverty for a better life in the city.

The first fixed human settlements on the banks of the Nile, Tigris, Euphrates and Indus date back 10,000 years. But it would be several millennia before the dominance of agrarian society would recede.

Urbanisation is a very modern movement. In 1800, around 5 per cent of the world's population lived in urban areas. That figure now stands at just under 50 per cent. The World Bank estimates that two thirds of the world's population will be living in urban areas by 2050.

For many developed nations, the shift from country to city started during the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century and continued to the middle of the 20th century. Developing nations are now trying to catch up in a much shorter timespan and in the next 25 years, 50 new cities with at least one million people will be created. And during the next 50 years, we will also see the rise of the megacity - cities whose population exceeds 10 million. It is projected that by 2015 there will be 26 such agglomerations.

In Brazil, between 1980 and 2000, the urban population rose from 66 to 81 per cent of the total population. At the same time, the urban population in Nigeria rose from 27 to 44 per cent of the total. With a current population of 1.3 billion, China is probably the nation undergoing the most dramatic changes and it is estimated that 40 per cent of its citizens will be urbanites by 2015.

So how will nations cope with this expected urban influx? Will they continue to spread outwards and create yet more urban sprawl or will they go vertical like the futuristic cities seen in The Matrix and Minority Report? Could cities even move out to sea? With more people comes increased competition for space and water resources, intensified pressure on the environment and greater demand for employment opportunities and social infrastructure.

The current buzzwords are "sustainable development", but how much control will government and citizens have over a seemingly unstoppable process fuelled by global economic conditions? There is no shortage of strategies and plans - the United Nations has its Declaration of Cities, the European Union promotes its Sustainable Cities and Towns Campaign and our own government has the Urban Taskforce. On paper we have the creativity and technological know-how, but, as with all development issues, making the correct choices for the long term requires political will, co-ordination and co-operation between business and state - and a lot of money.

In the past, the pattern has been to grow rapidly and then sort out problems later. It took a few cholera epidemics in England before the government was ready to do something about unsanitary housing conditions.

And for many cities in the world, it's only looming deadlock and brimming landfill sites that have forced them to rethink their transport and recycling policies.

While many developing nations are already struggling to cope with unregulated shanty towns and squatter camps that grow unchecked at the edges of major conurbations, they will also be creating cities from scratch. And it won't just be a case of manipulating physical space so that everyone has somewhere to live. The success or failure of these new cities will affect the social, political and economic futures of countries and whole regions.

Industrialised nations may not be undergoing such dynamic change, but a reappraisal of urban landscapes and urban life is already in progress as they experience the shift from industrial to information societies.

London is expecting an influx of 700,000 people by 2016 - the equivalent of absorbing a population the size of Leeds in just 13 years. In response, the Mayor's office has produced The London Plan, a draft strategy which looks at issues such as housing, transport, health and education services, employment and sustainability - issues relevant to any city, whether in the developed or developing world.

In cities around the UK, empty buildings, left decaying for years are enjoying a new lease of life as residential spaces. With some clever marketing, developers have re-branded city life so we now think of loft living and 24-hour culture rather than traffic jams and graffiti.

It's a movement that may have invigorated Docklands, Cardiff, Manchester and Leeds, but there is still a long way to go. In many places, city living has failed to regain its lustre and, in the US in particular, it is often seen as a poor alternative to life in the suburbs.

Cars made suburbs possible. People no longer had to live where they worked because they had an affordable way to travel to and from cities. This trend is intensified in the US where wealthy residents move out to the suburbs, leaving behind impoverished communities with poor education and limited job opportunities. Crime, drug abuse and social incohesion increased. Commerce and retail followed skills and money out of the city, further exacerbating the problem. The result in too many cities is congestion and a poor work-life balance.

James Howard Kunstler, author of The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition describes suburbia as "automobile slums" which are "economically catastrophic, socially toxic, ecologically suicidal and spiritually degrading". And he believes only a "re-condensing" will bring back civically coherent towns and cities. However the relationship between city and suburb develops in the West, this much is clear; suburban sprawl is not a sustainable option in developing nations dealing with faster population growth. Building new cities is about limiting the size of the "footprint" - the horizontal space that they fill. Suburbs, designed for low population density, are great guzzlers of land.

Sci-fi author Isaac Asimov believed that "Iby the year 2000 man will be exploring the limits of the solar system and living underground." Well, unmanned spacecraft are the only explorers out in the solar system and, so far, we've escaped the threat of underground living, but can we expect to see radical visions for city life in the next century or will we be getting more of the same?

Norman Foster of Foster and Partners, whose buildings have become landmarks in many cities, believes the future lies upwards. He is at the forefront of a movement to re-imagine the skyscraper and rescue it from the identikit filing cabinet design so familiar in cities around the world. The designer of the Millennium Bridge and the American Air Museum in Duxford wants to create buildings which are striking as well as sustainable.

Foster and Partners is one of the contributors to the Sky High Vertical Architecture Exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. The exhibition provides a preview of what future cityscapes could be like. Lord Foster says: "Taller buildings can accommodate more people, at greater densities, seeking to create a higher quality of urban life. While the tall building may not be the only key, with finite resources, and with less and less land on which to build, it is a vital component of the future city.''

The Millennium Tower by Foster and Partners is a hypothetical example of vertical urbanisation. Designed for Tokyo, the self-sustaining conical structure would be 840m high (the world's current tallest building, the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, is 452m) and would house 50,000 people. It would have neighbourhood zones and business sectors within the same structure.

While the Millennium Tower is a mere computer model, the tallest building in Europe - Commerzbank HQ in Frankfurt - is a real-life example of what can be achieved. The 53-storey building is described by Foster and Partners as the "first ecological office tower". It has three four-storey gardens that spiral around the interior of the building to increase daylight and aid ventilation. The installation of two "climate walls" - layers of glass, one fixed, one moveable - allows office workers to control the temperature by opening and closing windows. The building's design encourages natural light and ventilation and its energy consumption is half that of a traditional skyscraper.

Closer to home, the new 30 St Mary Axe building in the City of London, otherwise known as the "gherkin" will be showcasing similar progressive design and technology. Due for completion in 2004, the new Swiss Re headquarters will rely on natural ventilation for 60 per cent of the year and office layouts will ensure that natural light will replace artificial light as much as possible.

Also at the exhibition are prototypes from architecture students at the University of Stuttgart. These feature aerodynamic towers with huge internal wind turbines that would generate their own power.

In the UK, skyward building is still strongly associated with commerce; high-rise living has a poor reputation and many tower blocks built in the 1960s are now being demolished in favour of low-level housing. Improved aesthetics and building design may rekindle enthusiasm for high-rise living in the West - in much of Asia, there is no choice.

With global warming leading to rising sea temperatures, land is going to be at an even bigger premium in countries such as the Netherlands and Bangladesh. Instead of using technology to keep the seas at bay, we could be creating cities in the sea itself. The technology is already there - we have oil platforms that house as many as many as 100 people at a time. We just have to think bigger.

An example of this can be seen on a miniature scale with Burj Al Arab in Dubai. The 321m, sail-shaped hotel sits on its own man-made island off the coast of the Jumeirah Beach Resort. It has an internal garden but with helicopter transfers and "materials sourced from around the world", it is not an exemplar of sustainability - but a proposal for a new apartment building off the coast of Dubai showcases the sustainable option. Designed by Hopkins, Expedition and BDSP, the ecological apartment buildings have their own wind turbines and photovoltaic cells to help cool the building.

An alternative marine vision is provided by the Freedom Ship, a floating city which would house 75,000 people and circumnavigate the globe every two years. A concept of Freedom Ship Inc of Florida, the company stresses that this is a real, residential environment and not a cruise ship. The company plans to build the floating city it describes as a "flat-bottom barge with a high rise on top", with an airport on the top deck, libraries, schools, shops, a hospital, parks, waterfalls, casinos, offices, warehouses and, according to the prospectus, light industry and assembly. Freedom Ship sounds like a grandiose pipe dream, but - if it ever gets built - it will house 40,000 permanent residents, 15,000 hotel guests and 20,000 employees.

The corporate vision for new settlement has been the socially exclusive gated communities and retirement villages. In these consumer-determined societies, the chosen few opt out of traditional civic life and pay a company to provide the services usually supplied by local government. A variation on this theme is Celebration - the town created by Disney. It's a community that aims to "take the best ideas from the most successful towns of yesterday and the technology of the new Millennium, and synthesize them into a close-knit community". With 6,000 residents, it qualifies only as a town or village, but it does have all the amenities expected of city life including office blocks, schools, a cinema and a hospital. While small-town America is becoming ghost-town America, Disney is trying to re-create the concept for the 21st century. There are pedestrianised areas and cycling is promoted, people are expected to take part in civic life, and the retail areas are not full of big global brands but are locally owned and run businesses. Celebration even has a weekly farmers' market. Architecturally, however, it's a case of back to the future. The buildings may have all the mod cons of a contemporary home but, in terms of design, nostalgia rules.

In the UK, the future doesn't seem quite so exciting. For Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, the man currently in charge of urban development in the UK, the future lies in 30 houses per hectare. It's not a vision that will inspire the imagination but an edict for the nation's builders to make better use of space. The Government has established the need for 200,000 new homes to be built in the flourishing south-east in the next 20 years.

He wants the majority of houses built on brownfield sites - previously developed land - and the Government is promoting the use of new building technology such as off-site construction that will speed up the rate of development and cut costs.

Cities aren't just about buildings, they are about people, politics, economics, culture and change. But the architects and engineers who have the job of creating the cities of the future won't be expected just to erect memorable landmarks, they will play a significant part in creating life-support systems, not just for people but for the environment itself.


Urbis: the museum of city life in Manchester

Tel: 0161 907 9099

Sky High Vertical Architecture at the Royal Academy Summer Show Until August 10, 2003.



Congress for New Urbanism:

Office of the Deputy Prime

Royal Town Planning Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment:


Sky High: Vertical Architecture by Chris Abel, The Royal Collection, pound;12.95


Great Pyramid of Giza: 146m

Canary Wharf: 244m

Commerzbank, Frankfurt: 259m

Chysler Building, New York: 319m

Sears Tower, Chicago: 443m

Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur: 452m

World Financial Centre, Shanghai: 492m (completion date 2007)

Source: The World Gazetteer


population area population

(thousands) (km2) (per km2)


Hong Kong 5,693 60 95,560

Ho Chi Minh City 3,725 80 46,397

Tokyo 27,245 2,821 9,660


Paris 8,720 1,119 7,793

New York 14,625 3,300 4,432

London 9,115 2,264 4,027

Los Angeles 10,130 2,875 3,524

Source: Public Places in Asia and Pacific Cities: Current Issues and Strategies.

Edited by Pu Miao. Dordecht, Boston and London, 1999

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