Insights · August 29th, 2012
This year Canadian futurist and writer Dennis Walsh and I began a conversation about a book on the future of cities. As the conversation continued the concept moved toward a discussion of cities but more so of the personal choices we face if we are to make cities and by extension the planet a sustainable place to live. These choices loom large for young people as they shape their own lives, and, we hope, save the future. Now we are writing, and have decided to release the first draft of the book as a blog serial. This is part 3 of Chapter 1. Our plan is to publish a new book blog nearly every day for the next couple of months. We will publish them both here on futurist.com and on dothefuture.com. Later we will compile the blogs into an e-book.
We are debating the eventual title. We have two choices: “Downtown” and “Shine…The Rebirth of American Cities.” Which do you like? We hope you will find the subject of interest and follow this book in serial form. A reader has suggested, “City Transformation.” What do you think?
CHAPTER ONE – Part 3
by Dennis Walsh and Glen Hiemstra
By the year 2030, more than five billion people will live in cities, our greatest invention. Cities generate wealth, bringing people jobs, and everything else that is needed for economic growth and creative living. The late great Jane Jacobs pointed out that cities are engines of innovation and that concentrations of talented, creative people promote and accelerate that growth. Cities have precious little to stop them from growing bigger than ever before — except the governments that run them. The McKinsey Global Institute thinks there is no limit set by technology or infrastructure to how big or how fast cities can grow. The only glitch is that government leaders must be able to manage the complexity that comes with super sizing.
But cities are far from earthly paradises. They face serious problems and challenges. Cities have the potential for further growth and poverty reduction across many emerging markets, but measured by any yardstick the world’s cities are in trouble.
The economic crisis hit cities hard. Sunbelt cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix, which were once among the fastest growing in the nation, faced rampant housing foreclosures and very high unemployment. Rustbelt cities like Detroit have been devastated by deindustrialization and staggering job loss. They are facing some difficult choices.
It isn’t pretty. There are many examples of dysfunctional cities elsewhere across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The United Nations forecasts that, in a dozen years or so, half of all Asians will be city dwellers in mega-cities that struggle with water, sanitation, and pollution. Understandably, this has enormous implications for the environment. If they are not managed well, cities decay and become less and less livable, even as people pour into them. As more of the world’s population lives in cities, accommodating them has the potential to make existing environmental and socio-economic problems worse. Yet at the same time a well-managed city can be the most energy efficient, water conserving, pollution abating and land preserving place for humans to live, while simultaneously enabling the height of human creativity and contact.
Time is running short. The world can no longer wait for governments alone to provide solutions. You “get thatâ€ too. Everyone should be concerned about the environment, about human rights, about the growing cultural, political and economic divides that separate Americans. Economic and class divides have been getting worse for 30 years or more, undercutting the greatest experiment in equality of opportunity and growth of a middle class that the world has seen to date. From the London riots to struggles over gentrification to Occupy Wall Street, cities have become centers of political activism and discontent. Countless millions feel increasingly disconnected and truly disadvantaged.
This is not a new problem. From Jakarta to Lagos, Cairo to Manila and Nairobi, more than one billion people live in slums in desperate need of rudimentary water and sewer infrastructure, basic housing and schools. But radical change isn’t about controversy and conflict. It is about community, collaboration, and interconnectedness. Ironically, in spite of these challenges, our very problems can be the source of innovative civic and policy solutions. Cities and their leaders have been pioneering pragmatic approaches to economic revitalization, bubbling up organically from community groups, non-profits and residents; people just like you.
Thankfully in the midst of all the chaos the quest for meaning and for spirit are alive and well. There are those who still yearn for a sense of community and are searching for meaning. If you are among them, you can make a difference at a personal level if only by creating meaningful change through social media and day to-day consumer actions. But the opportunity runs much deeper than that.
Growing up in schools and universities, you have a certain enlightened advantage – learning to work with people of all faiths, colors, and sexual orientations. Your generation elected the first black President of the United States. Your generation will bring new innovation, ideas and tools to the table because of your diversity. The world is waiting, the future is eager for the new to begin. Think of it as hitting the “restartâ€ button on the 21st Century. That’s where we are.
[Glen Hiemstra is the Founder of Futurist.com, and curator of Dothefuture.com. Dennis Walsh is a sustainability futurist from Canada best known for his work as the first publisher of green@work. Contact us through futurist.com]