The five technologies that changed the way we build cities

Without electricity, steel and lifts, there'd have been no Chrysler Building. Image: Getty.

Like most people who live in London, I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about, or travelling on, public transport. And when walking around, I find myself constantly on the hunt for the shortest possible route from A and B. We city-dwellers tend to be a pretty impatient lot, and that can make us a bit blind to the details that surround us.

But I think it’s about time that we started to take notice of how the city works.

I’ve explored this very topic in my new book, Science and the City. It takes in cities on six continents, and looks at the technologies they’re using to change the urban landscape – as well as those developments from the lab that might utterly transform them in future.

Here is my own personal Top 5 – the five specific developments that, I believe, created the modern city.

1) Steel

Until the mid-1800s, large buildings were constructed from stone, brick and iron. All of these were strong but heavy, which limited how tall a structure could be before it began to collapse under its own weight.
To make taller buildings then, engineers needed a new material. So, they added small quantities (between 0.02 and 2 per cent) of carbon to iron, along with other impurities, to make an alloy. The steels produced were lightweight and easy to shape, while being hard and strong enough to form walls and foundations – perfect for use in tall buildings.

The alloys that were first developed in the early steel age gave birth to the railways, bridges, aircraft, cars, reinforced concrete, and, of course, the skyscrapers that now dominate our cities. For me, it's the king of urban materials.

2) Toilets

 

Ok, I’m cheating a bit here, because when I say toilets, I’m also referring to the sewers they empty into. Let’s start with this delightful thought. London’s sewers manage approximately 1.25bn kilograms of poo each year.
Before Joseph Bazalgette built his extensive sewer network, much of the city’s waste was discharged directly into the Thames. In Chicago, too, the uncontrolled mixing of water and waste led the city to take drastic action – they reversed the flow of their river, using a series of canals and locks.

It was the widespread adoption of plumbed toilets that first properly separated people from their waste, making the streets and waterways of the urban landscape considerably less smelly and more hygienic. It also kick-started the large-scale approach to water treatment that we all rely on today.

3) Electrification

A city’s electricity might be generated in any number of ways – from the burning of fossil fuels, through to wind energy from turbines. But electricity ultimately changed the world because it provided a way to rapidly and safely "pipe" energy to homes and businesses.

It was Thomas Edison who built the world’s first integrated power plant and grid system, and Nikola Tesla who figured out the best way to distribute the electricity it generated. Thanks to the resulting network, cities got electric streetlamps and escalators, trams, metros and trains, as well as homes full of labour-saving gadgets. Electricity also provided a way for city-dwellers to communicate over long distances – first, via the telegraph, later the radio, and now via cabled and wireless internet. Energy storage, however, remains a challenge facing every city.

4) Cars

While many of us try to avoid driving in the city, lots of the things we associate with urban life – traffic lights, road markings, signs and crossings – were all introduced to cities precisely because cars were on the road. 

The first motor vehicles had to be preceded by a person on foot, waving a red flag, but the invention of traffic lights changed all that. They also introduced structure to road networks, and gave pedestrians a place to cross. Road signage too is designed with a vehicle in mind: its retroreflective surface is designed specifically to be seen with headlights. 

If we get to a stage where the only cars on the road are driverless, our familiar street furniture could disappear entirely. Who needs a big shiny sign when a car could communicate with a sensor buried in the road?

5) Lifts

This one might seem a little controversial, but hear me out. Before the invention of the humble lift, living several storeys up was a pain. After them, tall buildings became practical, and top-floor apartments began to represent the ultimate in desirable city-living. 


In the centre of cities, where land has always been priced at a premium, going "up" rather than "out" became the norm, so skyscrapers started popping up everywhere. Lifts didn’t just change the way we did things – they built the city, and no-one could have predicted that outcome.

Lifts, and the skylines they created, may well have had a secondary impact too. A number of recent studies (such as this, or this) have suggested that densely-packed cities produce lower emissions, and are more energy-efficient, than those that have grown by low-rise sprawl.

The thing is, cities have never been as big, or as busy, as they are now. And while these five developments have given us a good foundation to work with, as our cities grow, we’ll need to find much better ways to power, clean, build, travel through and live in them. And for that, we’ll have to look to great science and clever engineering yet again.

What other technologies would you add to the list? Tweet me @laurie_winkless or using the hashtag #cityscience.

Laurie Winkless is a science writer based in London. Her book, Science and the City: The Mechanics behind the Metropolis will be published by Bloomsbury Sigma on 11 August.

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Community-powered policies should be at the top of Westminster’s to do list

A generic election picture. Image: Getty.

Over the past five decades, political and economic power has become increasingly concentrated in the UK’s capital. Communities feel ignored or alienated by a politics that feels distant and unrepresentative of their daily experiences.

Since the EU referendum result it has become something of a cliché to talk about how to respond to the sense of powerlessness felt by too many people. The foundations of our economy have been shifted by Brexit, technology and deindustrialisation – and these have shone a light on a growing divergence in views and values across geographies and generations. They are both a symptom and cause of the breakdown of the ties that traditionally brought people together.

As the country goes through seismic changes in its outlook, politics and economy, it is clear that a new way of doing politics is needed. Empowering people to take control over the things that affect their daily lives cannot be done from the top down.

Last week, the Co-operative Party launched our policy platform for the General Election – the ideas and priorities we hope to see at the top of the next Parliament’s to do list. We have been the voice for co-operative values and principles in the places where decisions are made and laws are made. As co-operators, we believe that the principles that lie behind successful co‑operatives – democratic control by customers and workers, and a fair share of the wealth we create together – ought to extend to the wider economy and our society. As Labour’s sister party, we campaign for a government that puts these shared values into practice.

Our policy platform has community power at its heart, because the co-operative movement, founded on shop floors and factory production lines, knows that power should flow from the bottom up. Today, this principle holds strong – decisions are best made by the people impacted the most by them, and services work best when the service users have a voice. Our policy platform is clear: this means shifting power from Whitehall to local government, but it also means looking beyond the town hall. Co-operative approaches are about placing power directly in the hands of people and communities.


There are many great examples of Co-operative councillors and local communities taking the lead on this. Co-operative councils like Oldham and Plymouth have pioneered new working relationships with residents, underpinned by a genuine commitment to working with communities rather than merely doing things to them.

Building a fairer future is, by definition, a bottom-up endeavour. Oldham, Plymouth and examples like the Elephant Project in Greater Manchester, where people with experience of disadvantage are involved in decision-making, or buses in Witney run by Co-operative councillors and the local community – are the building blocks of creating a better politics and a fairer economy.

This thread runs through our work over the last few years on community wealth building too – keeping wealth circulating in local economies through growing the local co-operative sector. Worker-owned businesses thriving at the expense of global corporate giants and private outsourcers. Assets owned by communities – from pubs to post offices to rooftop solar panels.

And it runs through our work in Westminster too – with Co-operative MPs and peers calling for parents, not private business, to own and run nurseries; for the stewards of our countryside to be farmers rather than big landowners; and for workers to have a stake in their workplaces and a share of the profit.

Far from being ignored, as suggested in last week’s article on community power, our work has never been more relevant and our co-operative voice is louder than ever.

Anna Birley is policy offer at the Co-operative party.