• Wednesday , 13 November 2019

Why cities must downsize

Beijing-Hong Kong-Macau Expressway, the widest motorway in the world.

Cities may be viewed as both places of hope and despair. In David Harvey’s book Contested Cities he describes ‘environments of marginalization, disempowerment, alienation, pollution and degradation’.[1] Author Lewis Mumford described the city as ‘one of the central discursive sites of society’.[2] The city is a multifaceted entity, a repository for knowledge and wealth yet at the same time a primary target for division, evisceration, and destruction.

The city has changed dramatically during the past century; in 1900, no more than seven percent of the world’s population could be classified as urban, while in 2007, this figure reached over fifty percent for the first time. This process is both on-going and happening at an increasing rate. In 1990, the urban population in Asia was one billion, and by 2020 this will have doubled to over 2.5 billion. Should this pattern continue there is a risk that the growing complexity of urban problems may outweigh the initial advantages of size and aggregated populations.

‘Cities are fundamental for economic opportunities and social interaction as well as cultural and spiritual enrichment. Cities are also increasingly damaging the natural environment, unsustainably exploiting natural resources, undermining the social fabric and jeopardizing the long-term prosperity on which these benefits depend. These impacts are of global concern as more than 50 percent of the world’s population live in cities and the trend indicates that this proportion will increase. Improving the sustainability of cities will not only benefit their inhabitants, but also significantly contribute to improving the global situation’.[3]

But in today’s modern digital age, being physically close to the city is no longer a necessity to do business. Martin Pawley writes that one of the biggest decentralising forces is the improvement in communication technology: ‘A cellular telephone, a car, a computer, a fax modem and a cottage were all that was necessary to do business with half of the world’.[4] As a result, he goes on to claim that it may be the city (as we know it today) that becomes cut off and left to starve as digital technology continues to break down urbanism: ‘New technology had broken the egg of the old city and threatened to spill its contents all over the landscape’.[5]

The question that all of this raises is how the city is meant to survive (or should it survive) if urbanism is detrimental to the natural environment and no longer has an essential purpose due to the forces of decentralised technologies. In considering these issues, and how the contemporary low-density development model might evolve to incorporate a more resilient, sustainable, and adaptive form, it may be worth looking to past examples of human settlements. For example, Pawley makes the interesting point that cities were once megastructures, ‘complex assemblies of spaces making the maximum use of shared structural walls, roofs and floors. The medieval city was more like a nest of termites than a parade of palaces’.[6]

The point being made is that the more a city expands, the more it loses its focus, loses the advantages of size and scale. If an environment is to be urban in its entirety, it should be efficient in all of the ground it covers (literally and metaphorically). In nature, as an organism evolves it sometimes miniaturises into a more compact and complex body. As with electronics and automobiles too, the city must find a means of downsizing to evolve.


1. David Harvey, ‘Contested Cities: Social Process and Spatial Form’, in Nick Jewison and Susan McGregor (eds.), Transforming Cities, London, Routledge, 1997, 19-27.

2. Lewis Mumford, The Culture of Cities, New York, Harcourt Brace, 1938, p. 23.

3. Esther Charlesworth, City Edge, Linacre House, Jordan Hill, Architectural Press, 2005, p. 214.

4. Martin Pawley, Terminal Architecture, London, Reaktion Books, 1998, p. 158.

5. Martin Pawley, op cit., p. 159.

6. Martin Pawley, op cit., p. 155.

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