Networks Matter, Not Size

Rapid city growth is just one side of the story. In many cases, it has slowed down and given way to another phenomenon of urban development. Tomorrow’s cities will be defined less by the contentation of power and wealth than by the density of their networks. The emphasis is not on domination but on quality of service through cooperation.

There are now more megacities with an aggregate population of over 12 million than ever before. For the first time 50% of the world’s population lives in cities and by the year 2035 that figure will be 75%. City growth and resource utilization will be the critical factor shaping the world of the 21st century.

The least generally understood fact about urbanization is the growth of Megacities is slowing down rapidly and in many places has plateaued. In 1950 the largest city in China, Shanghai accounted for 8.4% of its population today merely 2.4%. In absolute numbers cities are larger but with a relatively smaller share of the worlds population. Rural to urban migration is the big story in the developing world."

Changing Dynamics of Power

Size is no longer the sole indicator of prosperity. There is an A-List Concept where the concentration of money, trade and power leads to absolute wealth. Future economic power of cities is not in their size but in the networks they organize to achieve a greater preponderance of influence in the global scene.

UN and World Bank Studies put much of the real growth in smaller metropolitan areas. As a whole the densities of metropolitan areas are going down every year. Its the poor parts that have the highest densities. Duravi has 3 times the density of more affluent parts of Mumbai. Dakka has a higher density than Hong Kong. Overall density is declining every year towards a more optimum distribution of population and resources, cities that work right have the right density.

A limit on city size has been imposed from the dawn of history by the length of time necessary for the commute to work. Whether walking to agricultural fields at the periphery or biking to the office at the city center. People don’t like to commute much more than 30 minutes.

Calculating the perfect city

A theoretically Optimum City Size falls within a radius where the mean distance using available transportation is an hour at most from the city center and preferably less. With bullet trains in Japan this could be 18 million. In Boulder Colorado with bikes this could be 100,000. As density declines more egalitarian environments become the rule or at least there is less economic inequality and a better quality of life. Imagine a world filled with vibrant smaller cities.

It is transportation and other kinds of infrastructure that will decide which cities come out on top in the 21st century. Whether you do it extremely well like the Finns or spend a lot on it like the Chinese. Infrastructure is the key to quality and is the key factor to maintaining sustainable Urban Expansion. It is also the key focus in the economic competition between cities that have to attract the workforce of the future. In an economic race it is the champions of infrastructure who will win.

Our urban future is not uniquely invested in megacities. It is in more broadly distributed smaller cities. The emphasis is on delivering the best possible quality of service at all levels. For this new kind of City is evolving one that makes the best use of information, people and resources and that model is likely to be more like Singapore and less like Lagos.

Read more in this debate: George Hazel, Saskia Sassen, Lee Stuart.

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