Whither the 21st-Century City?

Cities defy predictions and continue to expand

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The "information revolution" was supposed to "make cities irrelevant," explains Mario Polèse in City Journal, but "that hasn't happened." Instead, "big cities have continued to grow." Why? And what challenges will that present to cities already struggling with numerous logistical challenges?

  • 'Why Big Cities Matter More Than Ever'  Big cities endure, according to Mario Polèse, due to a number of factors: "economies of scale in production ... economies of scale in trade and transportation ... falling transportation and communication costs ... the quest for the center," and the "buzz and bright lights" factor. The "quest for the center" is about businesses "naturally want[ing] to locate in the geographic center of their markets." For all of these reasons, Polèse says that, despite the challenges cities face ("municipal debt, onerous taxes, the cost of living, and crumbling infrastructure"), "people will continue to seek places where they can share ideas, make transactions, and pursue their dreams." This ties in nicely with the "buzz and bright lights" idea:
Talented and ambitious people benefit from being in a big city, just as firms do--in part because the companies can hire talented and ambitious workers. Some people move to cities not just because they need to make a living (though being in a metropolis does offer all the advantages of a diverse labor market) but also because they want to be where the action is. Ambition, dreams, the need for recognition--all are powerful forces in human behavior. Many a young man or woman will ask: Where are my chances best of meeting the right people and doing exciting things? The answer, for good reason, will often be the big city.
  • Other Advantages  James Joyner at Outside the Beltway agrees on the necessity of people congregating in one place: "I can frankly write from anywhere," he writes, "but connections matter and, in the politics and foreign affairs realm, they're going to be made in Washington and, to a lesser extent, New York." In addition, he points out, he could lose his job today and have "an excellent chance" of finding "comparable employment without moving. There are only a handful of places on the planet where that would be the case, all of them major cities."
  • The Big Coming Problems: Transportation and Sustainability  Ben Tuxworth writes at Grist about the "crisis of mobility heading our way," as growing cities already "struggling to provide effective mass transit" try to keep up. He summarizes work done by Forum for the Future, which "proposes a to-do list that includes curbing car use, prioritizing the mobility needs of the poor, sharpening up integration between modes, refueling vehicles with low-carbon alternatives to gasoline, and changing behavior so that people travel fewer miles and by less damaging modes." Businesses are already onto this problem, he explains:
According to Chris Borroni-Bird, director of GM's advanced technology vehicle concepts work, we're about to see a new chapter in the story of cars and cities. "In the past 100 years, the automobile has shaped the city ... in the future, the opposite will be the case: cities will shape mobility." ... The battle for sustainability will be won or lost in cities. This point is not lost on the many businesses--among them GE, sponsor of our Sustainable Cities Index--tooling up to provide the integrated city solutions of tomorrow.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.