The Future of Cities

By Dr. Nikos A. Salingaros

Dr. Nikos A. Salingaros is a world-renowned architectural theorist and urbanist, author of numerous books and articles, Professor of Mathematics, winner of the 2019 Stockholm Culture Award for Architecture, and co-winner of the 2018 Clem Labine Traditional Building Award.

A Schizophrenic Approach to Building Cities

Two currents — so far, irreconcilable and mutually exclusive — are shaping our cities. On the one hand, we have vast construction projects churning profits for multinationals, local firms, and indirectly for stockholders. The media is inundated with their exciting images, and the developing world appears as a testing-ground for the more ambitious (and pharaonic) among those schemes. But are they good for humankind?

The other design alternative is small-scale, and focuses on human responses to the built environment. It uses proven methods to elicit mental wellbeing and bodily healing responses. Its products look very old-fashioned, not because its practitioners blatantly copy traditional forms, but because the healing responses rely upon a specific complex geometry that is common to all historical buildings and cities.

The visual contradiction arises because, ever since the great schism of the 1920s, the architectural and planning professions pursued a narrow “industrial” set of rules and images. What is “approved” — gets built at great expense and proclaimed with great fanfare as the “image of the future” — is gigantic, and utilizes glass, steel, and sometimes raw concrete, and privileges the automobile in both spatial and temporal scales. Fast speed implies the elimination of detail, ornament, and all components of the pedestrian urban fabric.

My friends and I would instead like to see a world made for human beings, fit for children and older persons, where every place is healing and makes us well just to be there. Is this dream possible? Our only hope is through the marketplace: our cities could become human once again if and when industry realizes the immense commercial advantages of doing so.

Globalism’s Pretensions and Manipulations

I wish to slay a dragon before we can even begin to discuss these questions seriously. Extractive global imperialism, which runs the world’s economy, has very specific goals:

  1. Burn fossil fuels as rapidly as possible for the industry to gain peak profits.
  2. Make sure to design cities so that they consume maximum amounts of energy.
  3. Convince governments to replace human-scale sustainable built fabric with monstrous, unsustainable buildings.
  4. Utilize only expensive building materials to generate profits from their extraction and transportation over long distances.
  5. Fuel a massive propaganda campaign that makes popular heroes of opportunistic architectural mercenaries supporting these goals.
  6. Create a monopoly by eliminating local artisans and industries, except for a few that become agents of globalism.
  7. Erase local building and design cultures (which evolution made biophilic and human-scaled) by banning them as “backward.”

This “business-as-usual” gives us a skyscraper-per-minute, ignoring real-life data on the futility of continuing in this disastrous direction. Léon Krier and Henrik Schoenefeldt outline the situation clearly, as an antidote to the self-serving propaganda one usually hears.

Coupling inhuman design — obscenely expensive and energy-wasting architectural “images of modernity” — to exclusively automobile transport has led us into an unsustainable mess. “Throwaway” buildings are not meant to last for more than 20 years. The built fabric of recent decades cavalierly omits sound and thermal insulation and is turning into junk. Unloved structures are not worth repairing and are not even salvageable.

Bringing nature into cities is a major step in the right direction, but it’s only a palliative if the built geometry remains alien. Unfortunately, our world is largely shaped by typologies that are opposite to what human physiology and psychology require. This continues because the subservient, sycophantic media praise — instead of condemn — designs that assault our senses.

There exists an additional problem. To perpetuate its hegemony, dominant power co-opts the ideas presented by the humanist side. But the producers of glass skyscrapers don’t care to understand the elements of human-scale design, and only apply images superficially, to camouflage the standard monstrous and unsustainable typologies. Those highly-publicized attempts are classic scams.

The Path to Sustainability

There is only one way to sustainability: build towns and urban spaces that are loved, and then people will wish to preserve them. It’s time to invest in green city innovations — biophilic, instead of deceptive “green-washing.”

How do we guarantee that users will love a new project? It has to be beautiful! Even though notions of beauty are frequently twisted to serve an agenda, Richard Florida argues that the most beautiful places are also the most commercially successful on all counts.=

Looking ahead over the next 20-40 years, the possible (or likely) future of cities is uncertain. It could develop in one of three ways:

  1. Blissfully going along with the status quo towards a dystopian, industrial, inhuman world. The dominant power will continue to seek out and suppress vestiges of human-scale design.
  2. Transform our world into a humane, healing environment that is also sustainable; slowly at first, then gaining momentum to become the mainstream.
  3. Mainstream society continues in its destructive path, manipulated by global interests to destroy the environment and erect ugly buildings, while an isolated minority creates healing environments. Those few must continuously fight a culture war to protect the remnants of humanity from the onslaught of the majority power. Humankind is set up for a post-human split into two parts.

The most likely is the first option, following the historical principle that a tiny minority can never overturn totalitarian power. Only unforeseen large-scale, sometimes catastrophic events could trigger such a change.

Yet some optimism is indeed called for. We propose an economic solution that can still benefit developers while achieving human-scale urbanism. Legislators can re-write the scale-erasing codes enforced after World War II, because those make the living urban fabric we wish for illegal. Those of us who know the science now consult with architecture and building firms. We apply Alexandrian Patterns and supporting geometrical tools for adaptation. Neuroscience experiments are finally validating what we knew empirically all along. We are convincing stakeholders of the health and long-term advantages of biophilic design.

Resilience is Mathematically Related to Human-Scale Design

Resilience is the ability of a working system to withstand perturbations. The degree of resilience is how far a system can be displaced and still bounce back, maybe to a new stable state. The keys to achieving resilience are:

  1. Use the biological analogy of multi-scale interlinked systems.
  2. Understand how natural structures evolve in time, and enable the system to re-adjust its functions dynamically.
  3. Short-term fixes often create long-term fragility by masking deeper problems!
  4. A complex system’s resilient limit is fixed by its most fragile subsystem.
  5. Narrow efficiencies create fragility, so we need built-in redundancy.
  6. Human and urban systems work far from equilibrium; therefore, a neat appearance is misleading.
  7. A resilient living system has an infinite variety, and many more connections compared to 20th Century cities.

Ordered city geometry that is built today is meaningless for energy cycles. Resilient networks contain inherent diversity and redundancy, with optimal cooperation among their subsystems, yet they avoid optimization (maximum efficiency) for any single process. They require continuous input of energy in order to function, with energy cycles running simultaneously on many different scales.

Short-term urban fixes only wish to perpetuate the extractive model of cities, not to correct its underlying long-term fragility! Today’s power-driven culture of glass and steel skyscrapers typically focuses upon a single efficiency, and ignores everything else. 20th-Century architects and planners optimized city morphology strictly for fast automobile traffic.

Resilience comes from linked processes and structures working on many different scales. Solutions are found in self-built spontaneous settlements and in traditional cities. Historic evolution took place towards healthier environments through biophilia and design patterns, but city form as decided by design ideology linked to power cannot re-configure into a new system. By worshipping “images of the future,” society doesn’t re-use older successful solutions, and this limitation prevents resilient systems from forming.

Improving the Urban Realm

Rules for generating a living city go beyond biophilia. The following mathematical points define urban structure that supports wellbeing:

  • Building façades that employ all the human scales encourage pedestrian occupation and movement alongside them.
  • Beloved urban spaces are visually defined by being partially surrounded by human-scaled building façades.
  • Configurational rules for space come from enclosing geometries (yet today’s planners ignore them).
  • The city has to guarantee a “necklace of public spaces” that are connected by robust pedestrian access.
  • Legislate mixed use — combining commercial, education, light industry, residential, etc. — and drop monofunctional zoning.
  • Keep vehicular traffic from invading pedestrian space.

There is more interaction between architecture and urbanism than is commonly acknowledged. Fractals connect to us through their scaling, because our own body is fractal inside. A living city is itself a giant fractal, with the critical scales being the human dimensions from 1 cm to 2 m. Everything larger is anchored on these smaller scales, in a way that the complex whole is perceived and works coherently.

Living Places for Children and Aging Populations

Re-making post-war cities fit for children and the elderly accommodates everybody better. This necessitates a return to human-scale design prioritizing pedestrians. The tools are found in traditional cities built up to the 1920s, and their application has made neo-traditional urbanism commercially successful. But they are disdained by architecture and planning schools and ridiculed by an entrenched élite.

Public squares and plazas left in traditional city centers attract children, with or without their parents, and older persons with reduced mobility. Organized-complexity implies a blend of trees, bushes, and perhaps some lawn in a plaza. Neo-traditional places let pedestrians experience these configurations close-up, not as lifeless abstractions. Contrast this with “hard” contemporary plazas that are emotionally dead, used only by pedestrians taking a shortcut, if at all. Nobody lingers there, because they lack biophilic qualities.

Our society can only survive by abandoning mindless “design-as-image.” Ignoring human emotional responses, “professionals” have been erasing beauty from our environment for a century. Dominant architectural culture inflicts inhuman geometries on new urban spaces, guaranteeing that those are perceived as hostile, despite the presence of green.

To see what happens when cities blindly listen to trend-setters, look at the Piazza Verdi in La Spezia, Italy. Drastically reducing its biophilic index killed the life of this urban space. A thriving boulevard full of people, shaded by century-old trees, was destroyed when those trees were cut down and replaced with bizarre abstract “sculptures.” After “renovation,” the piazza is despised and sits empty.

Human-Scale Urbanism is Connected But Slow

The flows of a city occur on many networks, which compete on the same ground plane level (separating transportation modes on different heights having proved too problematic). All modes of transport need to connect, with the weaker ones protected from the stronger. This requires special adaptive design to create a safe environment for pedestrians — by not giving in to traffic engineers who gutted our downtowns in order to increase vehicular traffic speed. Again, we are fighting the old top-down approach to city building that ignores human sensibilities.

The public realm consists of pedestrian space. Loved, usable places pay attention to human dimensions. They are made as comfortable and safe as possible using Christopher Alexander’s Patterns and supporting work. Re-introducing old-fashioned bollards protects a pedestrian both physically and psychologically from adjoining traffic. Whenever possible, build arcades and colonnades that enhance the human scales.

Conclusion

While it is encouraging to offer guidelines for the future of cities, nobody really pays attention to such things. Our world is shaped by greed tempered by ideology that dominant power finds useful. Positive ideas about changing for the better — towards a more human built environment — invariably turn into empty slogans that are instrumentalized to continue global consumerism and cultural devastation. Even when we see that, surprisingly, a good idea is adopted by the mainstream, it is given over to be implemented by those who have been damaging the world all along.

We need the occurrence of a miracle: where new ideas are adopted; new faces not beholden to the old ideology replace guilty collaborators; users educate themselves and henceforth demand healing environments… That is highly unlikely, yet in this age of information, major world changes could occur on very short time scales. There is hope!

Discussion

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3 Comments

  1. Yes. This article summarises what we have started promoting as academics in many cities around the world recently. Human beings and scales should be considered in all masterplans for future cities. More pedestrian routes means more space available for social interaction and above all, more connections or connectedness with nature through introduction of green and blue infrastructure in harmony with human life at all times.

    Reply
  2. The “car” is not the evil foil it is made out to be. Perhaps the gasoline suv is, but that is not a constant. If we evolve an advanced vehicle to run on only sunshine and go 180 mph so the network-effect of large populations to draw from do not create traffic nightmares then some of these assumptions would need to be retooled. Vehicles on elevated guideway would eliminate many of the concerns while still allowing a dual mode vehicle to deliver to the ground level but travel at high speeds to bring more population into the functioning “city”. Spreading cities out so they have enough solar energy to be actually self sustaining goes counter to the present urbanist ideals of taller and more energy wasteful. It would be interesting to hear your opinion if you assume vehicles do not pollute and travel on two absolutely new elevations in existing cities and run on sun only. Bringing water to these population peak regions is also done on this same sun powered new infrastructure. It does depend on paths being straight at high speeds to remain cost-effective and energy self-sufficient.

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  3. Wonderful article ¡

    Wonderful approach to a well-known reality, architecture is the first symptom of social changes, the change is taking place and at this moment the trend is evident, then it only remains to get on the wave and surf, but what is proposed here is with what criteria, from large or small works. I would ask myself what are the habits that come from development since 1920 and that today are a barrier ?, and on the other hand, what is the new purpose that must be achieved? The human responses … to the automobile, to the market, to the way of life in front of everything created are sometimes a mystery, but over time unsuspected variables appear, such as recognizing that the medium is a good, and that it is not an individual good but of all, and the mobility that sometimes departs with a promise and ends up being the grave without time or environment, the collective results of our personal results, source of massive solutions, everything we are able to foresee and visualize in each scenario , design with or without the current habits the final result.

    I am aware of being the first to say it at least in this way, the car stopped being a solution is the problem, certainly Henry Ford or anyone can imagine it in 1920, the real cost of cities is not in the built is the scale that be, but it is the cost and investment in streets and roads, has anyone added this cost and investment within a city? Surely it will surprise us from the first moment to know the cost of street or road every meter built.
    I can assure you that with the investment of 100 or 1000 km we can find a technology that eliminates the need to use asphalt and cement for a vehicle that has immobile cities with people without satisfaction or time. But on the other hand we can not be absolutist in terms of the size of the work that will benefit a certain group of people, the substantial quality of the result in our habits, one of those mobility, certainly another is consumerism (Mr. Ford shared by all) today is a bad habit, which in 1920 was the solution to achieve peace in the world …

    Perhaps if we start the manufacture of pieces to build a single great work of global architecture, a large building from only 8 pieces manufactured on a large scale and that gives us the possibility to build all the ways where and how we want, we could get the benefits of manufacturing in series against the total satisfaction of living as you want or need with high quality and level of solution of all kinds from manufacturing to its maintenance and subsequent development of the work. Why not take advantage of good habits and discard what is not so good to go after the purpose of growing and developing without limits from our essence? I refer to the essence of our way of Being. That may be totally healing, to stop living dissociated from oneself by giving pleasure to what the market has because it does not look at our condition of unique and exclusive beings and each way of Being is totally exclusive and must be respected, then it will arrive promptly the day we find another variable not known as the environment ( global assets or legal value, not particular) that ended 25 years ago being legislated, this would be the fundamental law of the rights of the Being, where all other laws will be subordinated. That is evolution growth and development.
    “See a world made for human beings, suitable for children and elderly people, in which each place is healing and makes us good just to be there. Is it possible that this dream? ”

    It can also be from our own nature in a space that has our form and ego tuned and where we cultivate nature, our livelihood, or shared environment and generate all our own energy, in general change consumerism for self-consumption and generate a circular economy From 8 pieces where we are all investors, again from ourselves, for all architects, it certainly demands that each cell be aware of itself. Truth and love only deliver beauty.

    These 8 pieces are designed and we can build any space in any way for any purpose with maximum quality at standard cost and if we add 100 km of road we can invest in this solution now, we have developed it. We all build, but from a standard that ensures resistance to earthquakes and wind, for example, or that is acquired certified for certain conditions, the rest is design and personal work where the result of planned urban planning begins to have a true form, our surprising form , without impositions, fractally.
    https://challenges.cityoftomorrow.com/challenge/pittsburgh/propose/sculptural-dwellings-habitable-sculptures
    Without cars, streets or congestion in the middle of a landscape of each place with the basic needs satisfied of healthy people who seek their transcendental satisfaction without time problems or basic constraints of having to go to prey to pay their bills of services to their They stop him when he tries to mobilize. Here you can incorporate mega structures even larger than existing ones where each occupies a space that builds with its own forms a whole with water services and interior mobility satisfied.
    Although the world has people who are conditioned to what is established or to a non-democratic scam outside of information and transparency, human beings feel security in that environment. Do you know how difficult it is to sell a house that is not a cube or a dome? If you offer a new form, but repeated symmetrically in two or three parts in the same place, you will accept it immediately.
    Finally, the key is in a single element, water; We are water in almost our entirety and this is related to our life, environment and health, our essential spaces must be covered from our water, waters without development and fractal movement are dead waters.
    To see the horizon from immobility is to get out of stasis, by ourselves, walking and communicating.

    My hope¡

    Reply

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