Here’s how we can embrace urban living without triggering the apocalypse

The future of cities? Image: Paul Jones/Northumbria/author provided.

Cities – we are repeatedly told – are the future. Governments and global corporations seek to increase productivity by accelerating urban growth, while more and more citizens migrate to cities, in search of a better life. Indeed, the Chinese government recently unveiled plans to construct a city three times the size of New York, calling it a “strategy crucial for a millennium to come”. The Conversation

Yet as it stands, visions of our urban future are bleak.

By 2050, it is predicted that up to 6bn inhabitants will live in urban areas – more than two thirds of the world’s population. There could be as many as 30 cities with populations exceeding 10m, and massive urban areas may merge to form megacities, resulting in urban populations exceeding 50m.

According to Mike Davis, author of Planet of Slums, approaching 2bn of the world’s inhabitants will live in slums, scratching out an existence without access to the basic services necessary for life. Another 4bn will live severely compromised lives within urban sprawl, left to fight for resources as city governments fail to cope with the rapid influx of people.

A dim prospect. Image: Tokyoform/Flickr/creative commons.

Social services and health facilities will break down. Human catastrophes such as starvation and the spread of disease will result from unsanitary conditions and high population density. The megacities of the future will have weak and unsustainable local economies, that will negatively affect citizens’ lives in myriad ways.

Wealth will not provide immunity from these issues. Pollution will rise exponentially, with toxic smog regularly enveloping entire cities. This will inevitably lead to a rise in respiratory diseases, which are already emerging as one of the three major health risks to the modern population. Bad air quality will be made worse by the urban heat island effect, as parks and rural hinterlands are built over to house the influx of people.

Nature will struggle to gain a foothold in the future city, with rural land predicted to shrink by 30 per cent to accommodate urban expansion. The lack of countryside and green space will ultimately contribute to the sixth recorded mass extinction of animal and plant species.

A brighter future

But there is a way to avert this apocalyptic vision. Efforts to control the rapid and chaotic expansion of cities must go hand in hand with tackling the global environmental crisis, brought about by climate change. Governments, however, have proved unwilling or unable to reconcile the interests of global corporations with those of everyday people and the environment; this can be seen through their support of projects such as mining the Alberta Sands and oil operations in the Niger Delta.

Mining Alberta’s tar sands. Image: Kris Krug/Flickr/creative commons.

As such, any alternative to this bleak urban future will require a radical shift in governance and economic philosophy. Scholars argue that society’s economic aim should be the sustainable production and fair distribution of wealth – rather than the maximisation of profit. Devolving wealth and power will help to build robust local economies and strong communities, which can mitigate the pressures of global urbanisation.

These changes should also be manifest in the physical structure and form of urban communities, with compact, densely populated, sustainable and self-governing community developments, as opposed to laissez-faire urban sprawl. In alternative future cities, urban blocks will support all the immediate needs of their inhabitants; from healthcare to housing, education, food production, clean water and sanitation.

Welcome to the Organicity

A cut-through view of the Organicity. Image: Paul Jones/Northumbria/author provided.

To better understand what such a place might actually be like, David Dobereiner, Chris Brown and I created Organicity: an illustrated prototype for localised, autonomous, sustainable, urban community infrastructure. The Organicity is densely occupied, with residential, urban agriculture, retail, industry, commerce, education and health facilities stacked above each other, accommodating approximately 5,000 people per unit.

Automated industries and waste processing are located beneath the living zone, where there is no need for natural light. Each unit has a primary industry which trades with other neighbouring communities to generate income to support the infrastructure. Resources should be managed at a local level, with a higher level of responsibility than is currently shown by global corporations.

Nature and knowledge, side by side. Image: Paul Jones/Northumbria/author provided.

Protecting the environment and supporting a diverse range of wildlife would be a natural function of these new communities. Biodiversity could be promoted by green corridors, situated near education, health and office spaces so that children and workers can benefit from the proximity of a rich natural environment.

People power

Investing in local people through the provision of skills and education will add to the commercial viability of the community, as well as building cohesion, purpose and mutual respect. As the sociologist Jane Jacobs argued back in the 1970s, for cities to remain viable they should become the producers of resources, rather than insatiable consumers.

In the Organicity, each development will have the necessary expertise for the community to flourish, including doctors, architects, solicitors, dentists, as well as skilled and unskilled labour. This new urban model transforms city blocks into productive environments. For example, the development of urban farming would boost food production and prevent starvation, which would be an inevitable consequence of unimpeded urban growth.

Community greenhouses. Image: Paul Jones/Northumbria/author provided.

The developments will vary in scale, with the bigger ones housing hospitals and other community facilities that require specialist facilities. The prototype reinvents the concept of “terraced housing”: land is stepped backwards up a slope, forming true terraces, where rows of houses are arrayed to embrace the public plaza and allotment gardens.

Within these communities, it is essential that people work close to where they live, to reduce the impacts of transport: not only will this tackle pollution, it will also afford people more quality time with their families and local community.

Sharing communal resources – including machinery and cars – is an important principle of urban sustainability. Communal ownership of assets, including real estate and green space, is essential for this model to work. Renewable technologies could also be community-owned, which would help to break people’s dependency on fossil fuel.

By shifting from globalisation to localisation, and creating smaller, self-sufficient communities within sustainable developments, cities could regain their equilibrium. From where we stand today, the Organicity may sound like a Utopian dream. But if we’re to avoid an urban apocalypse, we’re going to need strong alternative visions, to change the way we imagine and plan for the cities of the future.

Paul Jones is professor of architecture at Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

What do new business rates pilots tell us about government’s appetite for devolution?

Sheffield Town Hall, 1897. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

There have been big question marks about any future devolution of business rates ever since the last general election stopped the legislation in its tracks.

Not only did it not make its way to the statute book before the pre-election cut off, it was nowhere to be seen in the Queen’s Speech, suggesting the Government had gone cold on the idea. (This scenario was complicated further recently by the introduction of a private members’ bill on business rates by Conservative MP Peter Bone, details of which remain scarce.)

However, regardless of the situation with legislation, the government’s announcement in recent days of a pilot phase of reforms suggests that business rates devolution will go ahead after all. DCLG has invited local authorities to take part in a pilot scheme which will allow volunteer authorities to retain 100 per cent of the business rates growth they generate locally. (It also notes that a further three pilots are currently in operation as they were set up under the last government.)

There are two interesting things in this announcement that give some insight on how the government would like to push the reform forward.

The first is that only authorities that come forward with their neighbours with a proposal to pool all business rates raised into one pot across a wider geography will be considered. This suggests that pooling is likely to be strongly encouraged under the new system, even more considering that the initial position was to give power to the Secretary of State to form pools unilaterally.

The second is that pooled authorities are given free rein to propose their own local arrangements. This includes determining, where applicable, a tier split (i.e. rates distribution between districts and counties), a plan for distributing additional growth across the pool, and how this will be managed between authorities.

It’s the second which is most interesting. Although current pools already have the ability to decide for some of their arrangements, it’s fair to say that the Theresa May-led government has been much less bullish on devolution than George Osborne in particular was, with policies having a much greater ‘top down’ feel to them (for example, the Industrial Strategy) rather than a move towards giving places the tools they need to support economic growth in their areas. So the decision to allow local authorities to come up with proposed arrangements feels like a change in approach from the centre.


Of course, the point of a pilot is to test different arrangements, and the outcomes of this experiment will be used to shape any future reform of the business rates system. Given the complexity of the system and the multitude of options for reform, this seems like a sensible approach to take. But it remains to be seen whether the complex reform of a national system can be led from the bottom up. In effect, making sure this local governance is driven by common growth objectives, rather than individual authorities’ interests, will be essential.

Nonetheless, the government’s reaffirmation of its commitment to business rates to devolution and its willingness to test new approaches is welcome. Given that the UK is one of the most centralised countries in the western world, moves to allow local authorities to keep at least some of the tax revenue that is generated in their area is a step forward in giving places more autonomy over how they spend their money. That interest in changing this appears to have been whetted once more is encouraging.

There are, however, a number of other issues with the current business rates system which need to be ironed out. Centre for Cities is currently working on a briefing of the business rates system, building on our previous work in this area, and we’ll be making suggestions as to how the system can be improved.

Hugo Bessis is a researcher for the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article originally appeared.

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