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Securing Our Real Future by Investing in Evolving Cities

Posted: 11/29/11 04:24 AM ET

By:Rachel Armstrong

In response to FT.com special report on the Future of Cities

http://www.ft.com/cities

And the Guardian extended coverage on Future Cities (sponsored by Arup)

http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/futureofcities"

This is the century of the city. For the first time in human history we are witnessing the advent of megacities - seemingly endless urban expanses that house more than ten million densely packed inhabitants.

Yet, megacities are not the product of ingenious design. They spread like weeds across the urban landscape straining the already stressed modern infrastructures to breaking point and causing potentially life-threatening problems such as, crime, homelessness, waste and resource management issues, disease, traffic congestion and pollution.

By the middle of this century there will be another third again of people taking up residence in cities and many stakeholders are now exploring new ways to address this migration. Iconic projects such as, Korea's New Songdo, Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates, or the PlanIT Valley in Portugal embody the latest approach to addressing the performance of cities using 'smart' information infrastructures to nudge their inhabitants towards better citizenship and ultimately better quality of life. But cities are not a stand-alone puzzle to be solved - they are a shifting target which are evolved, not made. The peculiarities and messiness of their inhabitants are exactly what gives rise to our greatest cities and most of them will inhabit the unruly urban sprawls.

Investing wisely in our rapidly emerging cities is challenging since our current economic and political system only deals with short term-ism based on products, financial returns and executive periods in office. Yet, new inventions are only part of the urban innovation process, the real challenge is putting them into practice to make a difference to our cities. This requires the application of strategic approaches that are based on research, not presumptions, which can change with experience and time.

These kinds of approaches are possible. Architectural research groups such as, AVATAR (Advanced Virtual And Technological Architectural Research) are forging new design methods by applying cutting edge technologies with life-like properties to architectural challenges. This approach embraces the radical creativity possessed in urban environments and is harnessed to bring about change that has not been over-prescribed by top-down imperatives, systems of control or scientific/engineering abstractions that strip cities of their character and history.

Potentially we could be looking at an amazing century for the city, where inhabitants co-create living spaces and make choices that are based on environmentally responsive design and development choices. But if we don't properly invest in creating and supporting evolvable, systems-based practices, then we will be faced with stark extinction scenarios in the middle of this century and experience the dark, blunt end of crisis management. Time is not on our side, but with the right kind of investment - in people, systems and international collaboration - the choice is still ours to make.

Rachel Armstrong spoke on 26 November at the inaugural If Conference. A video of her talk,  

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