Here are three common myths about modern-day cities

London's rapidly changing skyline. Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty.

Urbanisation is often touted as a solution to the world’s various ills. It’s been heralded as a fix for issues such as poverty, mass migration, and climate change. Cities will make our societies healthier and more productive. Cities will make us happy. Cities are our inevitable future – or so we’re told.

While cities can vastly improve the way we live, and many of these ideas are important, there are several myths caught up in the current hype. Claims that there is a “global shift” towards living in cities, that urban economies abound with productivity benefits for all, and that cities will continue to grow and prosper, are all misleading.

By busting some of these myths, we can get to grips with the real pros and cons of cities, and the role they’re likely to play in our future. Here are three.

1. We’re entering the urban age

In 2008, the UN announced that, for the first time in human history, 50 per cent of the world’s population lived in cities. Ever since, the statistic has been cited over and over as evidence of a global shift toward urbanisation – the dawn of a new “urban age”.

Many are still living the country life. Image: Steve Slater/Flickr, CC BY.

But these declarations disguise the many varied and diverging trends across the world’s different regions.Over 40 per cent of the world’s countries are still more rural than urban, and 18 per cent have a smaller share of people in cities, compared with the year 2000.

In both developing and developed regions, cities have grown larger in size, but they have also become less dense. This fact suggests that, in places where urban growth is occurring, cities are not just expanding – they’re transforming.

2. Cities are more productive

It’s also taken for granted that city economies are more productive, and leave us better off economically. This is true in the sense that urban centres are more productive in terms of their per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP): in London’s case, this premium sits at around 15 per cent, compared with the UK average.

The problem is, we’re not comparing like with like. Urban firms aren’t just better, more productive versions of their rural counterparts. In fact, their model of providing specialised, high-value goods or services is only viable in places with large populations. So, urban economies have a fundamentally different structure to rural ones. Outside of a city, many urban firms wouldn’t simply be less productive – they would be out of business.

Taking care of (urban) business. Image: westen30/flickr.

For example, corporate tax lawyers need a large population of local firms to generate enough work in their specific field. Niche businesses – dare I say it, cereal cafes – can only exist in big markets with a large number of potential consumers.

And not all sectors benefit from the urban premium equally. Education, emergency services and retail cannot specialise in the way that knowledge-based sectors can. As a result, workers in these crucial sectors don’t see much of the added value that supposedly comes with being part of an urban economy.

3. Big cities are here to stay

History shows that cities are not stable systems. Cities are more likely to go through a “boom and bust” cycle than experience long-term stability, as they struggle to adapt to impacts of recessions and conflict.

One striking example comes from North America: of the ten largest US cities in 1950, eight had lost at least 20 per cent of their population by 2010, after they failed to adapt to economic and political shifts.

Derelict in Detroit, one of America’s dying cities. Image: Thomas Hawk/flickr, CC BY-NC.

Even successful cities frequently encounter problems. Some of the world’s most “liveable” cities, such as Sydney, Vancouver and Auckland, are struggling with overheated real estate markets, as urban property becomes an attractive financial investment.

Increasing resilience to economic slumps, political change and new technologies one of the toughest challenges facing governments and city-dwellers today. Security and prosperity can only be ensured with careful investment and planning, together with strong communities and robust economies.

Clearing away the myths around urbanisation is crucial, if we’re to understand the more nuanced forces that are driving urban growth, and shape the future of our cities for the better. Let’s trade in blind enthusiasm for a clearer vision of how our world is changing – and what governments and citizens can do to forge an urban future that works for all.The Conversation

Jenny McArthur is a PhD candidate in infrastructure investment and urban economics at UCL.

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

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Here’s how Henry Ford and IKEA could provide the key to solving the housing crisis

A flatpack house designed by architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, on display at the Royal Academy, London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

For many people, the housing market is not a welcoming place. The rungs of the property ladder seem to get further and further out of reach. There are loud calls to build hundreds of thousands of new homes (and equally loud demands that they’re not built in anyone’s back yard).

If there was ever a time to introduce mass-produced affordable housing, surely that time is now.

The benefits of mass production have been well known since Henry Ford’s car factories made the Model T back in 1908. It was only made in one colour, black, for economic reasons. Not because it was the cheapest colour of paint, but because it was the colour that dried the quickest.

This allowed the production line to operate at faster, more cost effective, speeds. And ultimately, it meant the product could be sold at a more attractive cost to the customer.

This approach, where processes are tested to achieve increasingly efficient production costs, is yet to filter properly into the construction of houses. This makes sense in a way, as not everybody wants exactly the same type of house.

Historically, affordable mass-produced housing removed a large amount of customisations, to ensure final costs were controlled. But there is another way. Builders and architects have the ability to create housing that allows a level of flexibility and customisation, yet also achieves the goal of affordability.

Back in 2006, the “BoKlok” approach to affordable housing was launched to great acclaim in the UK. Literally translated from Swedish, the term means “live smart”. Originally created from a collaboration between flat-pack favourite IKEA and Swedish construction giant Skanska, the BoKlok housing approach was to allow for selected customisation to maximise individuality and choice for the customers. But at the same time, it ensured that larger house building components were duplicated or mass-produced, to bring down the overall costs.

Standard elements – wall panels, doors, windows – were made in large numbers to bring the elemental costs down. This approach ensured the costs were controlled from the initial sketch ideas through to the final design choices offered to the customers. The kitchens and bathrooms were designed to be flexible in terms of adding additional units. Draw and cupboard fronts interchangeable. Small options that provided flexibility, but did not impact on overall affordability.

It’s a simple approach that has worked very well. More than 10,000 BoKlok houses have now been built, mainly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a small number in the UK.

But it is only part of the architectural equation. The affordable housing market is vital, but the cost of making these homes more adaptable is rarely considered.

Flexibility is key. The needs of a house’s inhabitants change. Families can grow (and shrink) and require more room, so the costs of moving house reappear. One clever response to this, in BoKlok homes, has been to allow “built in” flexibility.

Loft living

This flexibility could include a loft space that already has flooring and a built in cupboard on a lower floor which can be simply dismantled and replaced with a “flat-pack style” staircase that can be purchased and installed with minimal disruption to the existing fabric.

Weeks of builders removing walls, plastering and upheaval are replaced by a trip to the IKEA store to purchase the staircase and the booking of a subcontractor to fit it. The original design accounted for this “future option” and is built into the core of the house.

The best approach to new affordable housing should consider combinations of factors that look at design, materials and processes that have yet to be widely used in the affordable housing market.

And the construction sector needs to look over its shoulder at other market places – especially the one that Henry Ford dominated over a century ago. Today’s car manufacturers offer customised options in everything from colour to wheel size, interior gadgets to different kinds of headlamp. These options have all been accounted for in the construction and costing of each model.

The ConversationThey share a similar design “platform”, and by doing so, considerably reduce the overall cost of the base model. The benefit is quicker production with the added benefit of a cost model that allows for customisation to be included. It is a method the construction sector should adopt to produce housing where quality and affordability live happily together.

David Morton, Associate Professor in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

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