Future Cities Could Be Beacons of Innovation and Hope

Futurist imaginings of what sort of world awaits humanity often embrace extreme scenarios, ranging from George Jetson’s utopia to George Orwell’s nightmare. They also tend to be wildly inaccurate. But cities throughout history, at least in hindsight, can be seen as the logical expressions of the culture, resources, and technology available to the people at each time and place. With that in mind, and with a resolve not to stray too far into the territory of unrealistic optimism or pessimism, it is possible to speculate on what urbanization may look like in the second half of this century.

To begin with, starting around 2050, urban development will enter a phase of refinement rather than expansion. By that time, human population is projected to have leveled off at around 10 billion, and also by that time, migration to cities may peak at around 80 percent of the population. Between now and 2050, urban areas will grow from housing 4.5 billion people to housing roughly 8 billion people. Navigating that expansion is one of the fundamental challenges of our time.

The news is mostly good, however, because it isn’t immutable resource constraints that can derail the expansion and improvement of cities over the next thirty years, only the political choices we make. Understanding that the availability of resources and the demands of civilization may line up favorably may make wise political choices more likely. Chief among them are how adequate land, water, energy and raw materials will be ensured. Land is perhaps the most fundamental of these, and two factors make it probable that land shall become more available and abundant, not less.

First, the ongoing, worldwide, and entirely voluntary migration of billions of people into cities, to access jobs, security, and cultural amenities, guarantees the depopulation of vast land areas. Over the next 30 years, the rural population on earth is actually projected to dramatically decline, from about 3.5 billion to 2.0 billion.

Adding to this, land use itself will shift away from agriculture, as technological advances will enable 10 billion people to obtain satisfactory nourishment with less farmland than 8 billion people require today. This will happen through a combination of higher crop yields, large scale aquaculture, and indoor agriculture. The only genuine threat to land availability in the 2nd half of this century is if land-based biofuel production continues to expand. That would be a catastrophe, but it is a political choice.

Water abundance is a challenge that is often cited as the looming and inevitable Malthusian check on humanity achieving universal prosperity, but that, too, is a political choice. Technology already exists to recycle urban wastewater, desalinate seawater, engineer interbasin transfers from water-rich regions to water-poor regions (Ubangi to Lake Chad, Bramaputra to Deccan Plateau, Ob-Irtusch to Aral Sea, etc.), and more efficiently harvest storm runoff. Apart from mustering the political will to undertake these projects, the energy required to pump and treat water is considered by some to be a prohibitive obstacle. But this pessimism rests on dubious premises.

To begin with, energy is not in short supply. For everyone on earth to consume one-half as much energy per capita as Americans do, global energy production has to double. That achievement, combined with improvements in energy efficiency, is about what we’re going to need by 2050. The good news is that proven reserves of so-called fossil fuels, at double the current rate of consumption, are sufficient to last about another 160 years. “Unproven” reserves of natural gas, oil, and coal, are estimated to be many times that.

The point here isn’t to defy the climate crisis consensus and advocate unrestricted development of fossil fuel. Rather, it’s a reminder that one of the most widely accepted Malthusian predictions, the “Hubbert’s Peak” theory of imminent and terminal decline of fossil fuel reserves, never happened. If energy abundance is achieved with nuclear fission, or nuclear fusion, factory produced biofuels, or via improving photovoltaic technologies, or even with satellite solar power stations, so much the better. But in the meantime, energy security and an expanding economy can be ensured using conventional fuel sources. One may hope that direct synthesis of CO2 exhaust into liquid fuel or inert solids is just around the corner, as recent reports suggest. Then we can get back to focusing on practical economic strategies and genuine environmental challenges. In the meantime, energy scarcity is a political choice, not an unyielding reality.

Sourcing raw materials for everything from megastructures to disposable packaging is an area of legitimate concern. There are hard limits on some of the most essential mineral resources, but there are also tantalizing new workarounds and innovations to compensate for scarcity. Most metals can be recycled, and even complex systems like batteries will be cost-effectively recycled once robotic technologies dramatically lower reprocessing costs.

One of the most promising alternative building materials is cross-laminated timber, a mature technology that is cost competitive with concrete and steel and in many applications a more appropriate choice. Cross-laminated timber, also known as mass timber, is now available to replace concrete panels and steel trusses, and is already used as the primary structural building material in high rise buildings around the world. Needless to say, mass timber is a renewable product, and well within the capacity of existing forests to sustainably deliver the necessary board feet.

Perpetual human innovation, whether it’s mass timber, or next-generation concrete using abundant desert sand, or, for low rise buildings, structural blocks with cores of hemp or straw, or virtually inexhaustible new minerals mined from the moon and the asteroids, will always ensure that when the political and economic environment is favors innovation, the collective lot of humanity will get better and better. So what will the cities look like in the 2nd half of the 21st century?

One may hope that as cities expand over the coming decades, then are refined as global population stabilizes after 2050, the process is organic and decentralized. This will not always be the case. An example of wealth fueled hubris might be found in “The Line,” brainchild of Saudi Crown Prince Bin Salmon. Envisioned as a single gargantuan building 600 feet wide, 1,500 feet tall, and 100 miles long, this monstrosity is planned to house over 9 million people. Built in a straight line, with a minimal cross-section, it is intended to be locally “walkable,” with quick access to any point along its length via its internal high-speed rail. Predictably, “it will run on 100% renewable energy.”

The Line may represent the antithesis of an organic evolution of cities into the future, but it nonetheless may be an authentic expression of the resources and technology currently available to the Saudi’s. It also speaks to the role that megastructures may play in expanding the capacity of cities to nearly double in population over the next few decades. And it brings up an interesting counter-argument to those who decry the inevitable densification of urban areas via so-called smart growth policies; the per capita quantity of personal interior space available to urban residents may increase, even if their access to personal outdoor space will decrease. This may not be a palatable tradeoff for some, but it is better than nothing, and megastructures will make it possible.

As the cities of the world expand upwards and outwards, governments and investors will have to cope with the privatization paradox, whereby private investment is always stimulated when there is scarcity. But when scarcity is reversed by new investment, there are often unpleasant consequences for the least privileged. This is seen in contemporary urban renewal. Poverty and disorder causes values to drop, this in-turn stimulates investment which causes values to soar, rendering housing unaffordable to the original residents. Imagine this process writ on a global scale. With massive investment and magnificent visions will come displacement. There is no orthodox answer to this paradox. A mixed-capitalist political economy may best manage the complexity, but along the way, epic fumbles are inevitable.

On par with the challenge of managing the economics of transitioning to global megacities is that of changing demographics. Birthrates in the developed world are below replacement levels and as access to healthcare, reduced infant mortality, education, prosperity, and female emancipation has proliferated across the developing world, this trend has emerged without exception. Once global population peaks at around 10 billion, it will begin to decline, and with that, the so-called population pyramid will invert. By 2100, according to current extrapolations, the worldwide population of youth will begin to be outnumbered by old people.

Intertwined with these economic and demographic challenge are cultural issues. Will cities arise in the developing world to keep pace with their ongoing rapid population growth, or will billions migrate into the cities of developed nations, as those nations are the first to enter into population decline? Can mass migration occur from developing nations into developed nations without inciting cultural conflict? Can construction regulations be calibrated sufficiently to enable private developers to make a profit while still meeting demand and offering affordable housing? That model has failed in California, a state where home ownership is out of reach for most residents, because excessive regulations and a failure to invest in infrastructure has created a politically contrived housing shortage. Can local communities and neighborhoods be preserved when high-density housing is built? Can the architecture of high-density housing avoid being aesthetically alienating?

Urban planners have a tumultuous century ahead. Cities must nearly double in capacity, then they must successfully accommodate an aging, declining population. The good news is that global resources are adequate, and rapid advances in robotics technology ensure there will not be shortages of workers, including caregivers. Good news for environmentalists is that the 22nd century will likely see a steady decline in total global population, shrinking the footprint of civilization.

Navigating the path to a future of peaceful, thriving megacities is fraught with peril. But the necessary preconditions for success are present. There is an opportunity for cities, through a process of perpetual refinement, to expand and innovate, delivering a quality of life that just gets better with every passing decade. Who knows; a hundred years from now, our lives may not be terribly different from the Jetsons. It is not merely a healthy emotional exercise to imagine a wondrous and bright future for humanity. Such a future is possible.

The second half of the 21st century can be defined by stability, abundance, enlightenment, and glorious, sprawling, glittering cities and suburbs. It can be remembered as a time when humans eradicated infectious disease, cured cancer, dramatically extended life expectancy, protected wildlife and wilderness, achieved universal literacy, brought freedom and opportunities to everyone on earth, and took the first bold steps towards becoming a multi-planet species.

There are plenty of difficult challenges facing humanity. But maybe, just maybe, we face a future that is dazzling beyond description.

An edited version of this article was published by the Pacific Research Institute.

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