There’s no escape from megacities

13.02.2020
The cities of the future will be a cross between neon behemoths and green gardens, powered by renewable energy. Thanks to new technology, life will be good in these cities, said prof. Alain Bertaud, an experienced urbanist.
Smart city v1

(©JCT 600, CC BY-SA)

(©JCT 600, CC BY-SA)

Financial Observer: Will the cities of the future resemble green gardens or rather the neon behemoths from sci-fi films such as “Blade Runner” or “Fifth Element”?

Alain Bertaud: It seems to me that they will be both. Generally, the cities of the future will be characterized by high density of the city centre and vast suburbs. Huge urban clusters will develop, such as those in China today. An example is the megacity Hong Kong — Shenzhen — Guangzhou, where today live around 50 million people.

What sources of energy will dominate in the cities of the future?

That will depend on the region. I’m convinced that renewable energy, particularly solar one, will play an increasingly important role. The houses in those endless suburbs will definitely have solar panels on their roofs. In Poland it might look a bit different, because there aren’t so many sunny days.

What type of transport will be the most popular?

When I began my work as an urbanist in the 1960s, everyone thought that after the year 2000 people would have their own private jets or other flying vehicles and that’s why they would be very mobile. We assumed that modernity would bring rapid movement of people, but it has turned out to be the rapid movement of information. Today, we are talking via Skype, you didn’t have to fly from Warsaw to New York.

The cities of the future will be very extensive. The ideal form of transport will be high-speed train, which will have stops every 10 or 20 km. Vehicles that will help get home from the stations will be popular. They could be electric scooters, bikes, but also small cars. Generally, in the cities of the future we will see a mix of public and private transport, which will function seamlessly thanks to new technology.

Recently, Polish cities have been overrun by the fashionable electric scooters.

It’s a very good vehicle, very slick and easy to use. I believe that in the cities of the future scooters will play an important role. However, I wonder whether it would be more convenient to own one that you could fold up and carry under your arm rather than hire one in a public sharing system. Besides, some people might be upset by the clutter on the streets when used scooters are abandoned on the pavement. This problem should be resolved over time.

There’s a lot of talk about the era of autonomous cars. What changes will they cause? Will there be more or fewer parking spaces?

There will definitely be fewer parking spaces in cities. But this type of car will not be used all the time, so they will need parking spaces. That’s why it won’t be possible to completely eliminate parking spaces, it will be necessary to think about selecting better locations for them. The infrastructure will definitely be used more efficiently than at present. There should be fewer traffic jams and they should be less of a nuisance.

What will the inhabitants of the future cities be doing for a living? What sectors will they work in? Will there be a place for manufacturing? Will they be more “market cities”, in other words, huge retail markets and workplaces, or “people cities”, in other words, huge local communities?

These huge cluster cities which are developing today will be characterized by a large labor market. Almost everybody who is capable and willing to work will find employment. Many will find work in accordance with their skills or even dreams. The cities will also make it exceptionally easy to get an education. There will be a large space between mega-cities, which will be sparsely populated. Workplaces, factories will be located there. That area will be integrated by a supply chain. So, the mega-cities of the future will be one huge effective economic organism.

It should be stressed that in the future there will no longer be cities specialized in a given field, in which one sector dominates, as was the case in the 19th century. A good example of such cities is Manchester, in England, or Łódź, in Poland. Mega-cities will be universal.

Do the mega-cities that exist now — such as Mexico City, New York, London, Delhi, Shanghai, Beijing or Sao Paolo — have a positive or negative impact on the national economy? Is it possible to measure or calculate it in some way?

All data on the currently existing mega-cities show that they produce a significant part of the national GDP. The data also show that these cities are extremely effective in the use of menpower. If only they succeed in improving the quality of transport, if the transport networks succeed in linking the cities with the provinces and better serve the inhabitants of the cities, then the economic effects will be even better.

What characteristics should the ideal city have? Do we know what kind of cities people would like to live in? Perhaps it depends on the region of the world, on culture?

I think we should allow people to vote with their feet and see which cities are close to the ideal. Venice is beautiful, but people are not moving there. I like the free movement of people that exists in Europe. It means that many people come to work in London and that suggests that it is close to an ideal city.

Certainly, for people all around the world it is important that the cities should have cultural facilities, such as theaters, cinemas and concert halls. Almost all around the world people like to go to a bar or a café. But, for example, for Americans it is more important to have a large house with a large garden and lawn than a flat with easy access to culture and entertainment. So, there are, however, some cultural differences.

As we know, Vancouver and Vienna often top the various rankings of cities in which it is best to live.

I always smile when I see such rankings. They contain a grain of truth, because both Vancouver and Vienna are beautiful cities in which it is pleasant to live. However, let’s note that property prices and the costs of living in Vancouver are incredibly high. In turn, Vienna cannot boast a large intake of migrants, and even loses with Frankfurt am Main.

What do you think about the idea of private cities? Once there were many of them, today there are almost none.

I have many colleagues who work on such projects. I can reveal to you that there’s a lot of interest in such projects in the world of big business.

I’m not opposed to the idea, but I see many problems connected with its implementation. First, for a private city to be created a huge amount of capital is required. Apart from that, it is necessary to find a way to attract people. And not only engineers, scientists, specialists from various fields, but also those who will clean, prepare food, etc., in other words, people who will carry out simple work that robots do not do at the moment. So the question arises, how do we do it? Because a private city is built from scratch. But people move to cities because other people are there. So an important problem arises from the very beginning of such a project.

So you don’t think the Neom project will succeed? The Saudis want to create an ultra-modern city in the middle of the desert for USD500bn.

I’ve heard about this project. I think it will end in a painful failure. You don’t move to a city because there are skyscrapers there. You go there because there are people, because there is life. Because something is happening that attracts people.

So will it be yet another failure of an “artificial” city, as Brasilia was?

Brasilia is a failure as far as the quality of life is concerned. It’s a bad place to live and it has huge traffic jams. But it’s not entirely a failure in an economic sense, as it remains the capital of Brazil. And some kind of life goes on there. It is inhabited mainly by civil servants and their families. Meanwhile, Neom could be a massive economic failure. The Saudis are building glass house in the desert that will stand empty.

However, some cities seem to be overpopulated. In Rome or Barcelona tourists are less and less welcome, residents have had enough of them. Venice is dying under the weight of tourism. What can be done about it?

For many years tourism seemed to be the savior for cities from an economic point of view. But it started to become so massive that it’s a problem. After all, we can’t get rid of all inhabitants of Venice, or have a situation in which Parisians make a living by baking baguettes and selling models of the Eiffel Tower.

On the other hand, I believe it’s not a good idea to significantly limit tourism. I also can’t imagine closing cities to tourists. This is a difficult problem that can’t be resolved easily.

Perhaps tourists have to be convinced that sightseeing in a crowd isn’t a pleasant experience?

Perhaps there is some hope in self-regulation. However, on the other hand, there are people who are not bothered by crowds, because they want to take selfies in a popular place at any cost.

There are too many tourists in Barcelona, and in Lagos probably too many inhabitants. Is the rapid development of African cities a problem according to you? Could it lead to some sort of humanitarian catastrophe? Or maybe it’s a chance for more rapid economic development for Africa?

I don’t believe in such a thing as overpopulation of cities. I’ve lived in many poor and densely populated cities, such as Dhaka and Jakarta. Based on my experience I can say that life there isn’t at all as bad as it seems at first glance. Since people are moving to Lagos, it means that the city gives them more opportunities than the province, that life there is better than in the village. I don’t believe that some kind of humanitarian catastrophe will happen in Lagos.

What role do you see for artificial intelligence in the cities of the future? Is it possible that it will be able to design whole districts or regulate traffic in an optimal way?

Artificial intelligence will certainly play an important role in the cities of the future. But I don’t believe it would be able to design them, because a city is a living, permanently changing organism, and AI bases itself on data from the past. It will definitely be useful in optimizing traffic. After all, even today traffic lights are optimized in some cities thanks to the modern technology.

Are you a supporter of the conservative or liberal approach to designing public space? Should planning conditions be strict or should they allow a lot? Which is more important — freedom or harmony?

I feel that urbanists devote too little time and effort to planning public space. Instead, they focus on regulating and restricting private space. Spatial planning in cities should begin with listening to people. The urbanist should know what the people who live in the given city want. The city is for people and not the other way round.

In some cities, such as Berlin or New York, the authorities control the level of rent or rental costs. What do you think about such interference in the free market?

Such solutions make everyone satisfied in the short term. But in the long term problems appear. For example, fewer new buildings are built than are needed. Let’s remember that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Someone pays or will pay in the future for the fact that rent is not as high as it could be if it was set in market conditions.

In Poland there’s a lot of talk about the smog in the cities. How should we tackle it? Many left-wing activists see the solution in restricting the movement of cars, but is this really where the problem lies?

Poland has access to cheap coal. On the one hand, this is good for you, because you have cheap energy, but it pollutes the environment. Many homes in Poland are still heated by coal, many factories use coal. This is where I would look for the main causes of air pollution.

Of course, limiting the number of petrol or diesel-driven cars will do no harm. But you should be cautious, because the functioning of cities is based, among others, on car traffic. I can’t imagine a situation in which cars are completely excluded from cities.

I guess you visit cities. In what way? What do you think about Polish cities and which do you like the most? And do you have your favorite city?

Of course, I visit cities. I do it in many different ways. I like slow walks the most, in which I make use of cafes, restaurants and cultural facilities.

As far as Poland is concerned, I know Warsaw and Cracow very well. Cracow is a very beautiful city, certainly one of my favorites. However, the city I love most is Hong Kong. I love it for the mix of tradition and modernity. Apart from that, I just love Asian cities in general.

Thank you for the interview. And I invite you to Warsaw.

Thank you. I haven’t been to Warsaw for 15 years. I know that now it looks like New York, it has lots of glass skyscrapers.

Alain Bertaud is one of the most distinguished and experienced urbanists. Retired professor of New York University Marron Institute of Urban Management.


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