Rome. Paris. New York City. Beijing. Some of the most powerful and beautiful cities are centuries old, with some having been built up and outwards for thousands of years. Many new, built-from-scratch cities may not be destined for the same success — in fact, hundreds of shiny, modern metropolises lay dormant in spite of high hopes and intelligent design.
With global urban population expected to rise to six billion by 2050 from 3.9 today, new cities will be essential for growing communities to form and thrive. Public and private projects around the world are aiming to design and build these idealistic cities of the future, but have been proven flawed in both approach and outcome.
Flawed planning, hazy results
A Hologram for the King, a Dave Eggers novel recently made into a film starring Tom Hanks, portrays a fictionalized example of how new cities can fail to get off the ground. In it, the protagonist Alan takes a trip to Saudi Arabia to present his company’s IT system, which he hopes will be adopted by the in-the-works King Abdullah Economic City. Throughout the course of the story the city remains in a state of limbo, likely never to live up to the King’s exaggerated claims or marketing promises.
King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC, pronounced “cake”) is real: though perhaps not as bleak as rendered in the book, the desert megacity has been underway since 2005 as one of four new cities proposed to control sprawl and congestion. The city is supposed to become larger than Washington DC, but remains only 15 percent completed, gaining only several thousand inhabitants over a decade post-conception.
Other Middle Eastern countries have traversed this road already to minimal success. The United Arab Emirates’ carbon-neutral smart city Masdar, though completed, remained virtually empty to this day. Built to house 50,000, the population is only 1,000, consisting mostly of students attending the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology there.
China is perhaps the posterchild for from-scratch cities: the nation has used more cement in the last three years than the US in the entire 20th century, and invested more time, money, and space into brand new cities than any other country. Called “overnight cities” by some, a fleet of metropolises have been popped up across rural land in anticipation of rapid population growth.
Roughly 600 new cities have been built since 1949, many in the 80s and early aughts. Hundreds of these remain empty or under-populated, often referred to as “ghost cities” or compared to dystopian fantasy settings. The buildings shine, but the streets echo; they are eco-friendly, but until they are people-friendly their sustainability is a moot point.
China’s top-down approach to urban planning is smart in theory but lacking in practice: you can plan a city all you want, but over half the appeal of cities are their community and culture, which are inherently organic. Even the best marketing plan can’t disguise the deficit.
In spite of China’s struggles with the matter, down in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made smart cities a major goal of his administration. One of such cities is Lavasa, a completely privately-run metropolis. Like the others, it is unfinished. Visitors remark that it is more suitable for vacation than for living, as it lacks adequate hospital and schooling systems. And like many other new cities, it doesn’t solve problems like poverty because it’s too expensive to live there.
Other high-tech, eco-friendly city projects — like Portugal’s fully sensor-embedded PlanIT Valley — have halted construction over economic concerns.
Whether public or private, from-scratch cities face similar issues: attracting people, solving problems, and investing large sums into an uncertain fate.
People bringing promise
Why is it, exactly, that historic cities flourish while new ones flounder? Old cities face troubles of all sorts, especially as older infrastructure crumbles, populations fluctuate and architecture becomes outdated. Systems fail, buildings overcrowd, and yet they remain resilient in their complexity.
They say Rome wasn’t built in a day. This is obviously true: modern Rome was built over the course of two and a half thousand years, and is thusly one of the oldest continuously occupied sites in Europe. Even newer cities like New York have had a couple of centuries to develop character, layers and intricacy.
New cities may never have the chance to make it to that status, and it doesn’t help that they lack the appeal and vibrancy of old cities. As the architect of the still-budding city Loseva said in an interview, “soul is something that the city develops over time.” The older the city, the stronger the soul.
The location of age-old cities also reflects the cream of the crop in real estate: they are natural and ideal spots with the best weather conditions and access to water supply and trade. Their economies and communities have thusly developed both financial and cultural capital over the ages, not out of a goal of perfection but out of necessity.
This said, not all from-scratch cities in recent histories have or will necessarily falter. South Korea’s Songdo is among the most successful so far, whether by design or chance, it’s reached a population of 70,000, which is expected to triple by 2018. Though it’s largely a blank slate still, Koreans already accustomed to the high-tech slickness of cities like Seoul may be ideal adopters to fill it out with the color and energy it needs.
Songdo may be an outlier. Either way, the planet needs more cities. Perhaps people simply don’t want to live in cities of the future — not yet anyway.
What is the solution? Unfortunately, I don’t think there a hard and fast rule — it may be that time and population growth alone does the trick. Even so, the territory is uncharted and the variables are many. Knowing what we know about people, about culture, and urban planning, better practice should at least be in reach.
As Jane Jacob wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” Perhaps this is the core issue: city architects should plan and build alongside people rather than simply for them.
There must be room to go off the books, room for the unexpected, room for a little bit of chaos to seep between the buildings. If urban planners have to compromise their ideals to get there, it may just be worth it: without people, a city is simply a glorified diorama. With them — flaws and all — it can develop a spirit along with its skyscrapers.