The Next Generation of Cities

By Regan Turner

In studying brand new cities such as King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) and Masdar, we saw examples of ambitious sovereign governments taking on bold development projects that encapsulated their vision for how their country’s population would live, work, and play in the future. In undertaking these projects, however, these governments also assume enormous financial and social risk that the cities may never reach their potential. In the future, therefore, I would argue that master-planned growth should happen in locations where people already choose to live, rather than in places that are sparsely inhabited, or not inhabited at all.

Across the globe, populations are urbanizing and densifying. For the first time in the world’s history, more people now live in urban centers than in rural locations, and as Figure 1 shows, that gap is growing.

Figure 1: Urban and Rural Population of the World (Source: United Nations, http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/WUP2005/2005wup.htm)

As people move from farms to cities, they will do so because they perceive that their way of life will be better in the city than in the countryside and that jobs and better pay await in population centers. Such opportunity-seekers, therefore, are much more likely to locate to mature cities with robust economies than new cities like KAEC that are built on the premise of attracting corporations and residents through economic incentives.

Economic incentives alone will not create enough demand for a new city to rise from desert sands, an infill site, or existing green space. Governments can, however, help their cause by locating an abundance of public-sector jobs in new cities if they want the private sector to follow. Brazil successfully did this by building Brasilia and making it the national capital – the workforce and therefore economy, were guaranteed by virtue of the government locating its operations there.

Sovereign governments should look at Brasilia as the successful exception of a planned city, not the rule. Rather than building new cities, governments should instead look for ways to densify areas that are already populated because of the economic advantages and efficiencies of scale that can be achieved. Densification can be encouraged through relaxed zoning laws, density incentives for real estate developers, and increased public transportation that will encourage people to work and live in convenient locations to transit stops.

In municipalities where this option of “smart growth” is chosen, housing and workforce demand is already proven and governments will be taking on much less of a risk about trying to plan for how and where people will live in the future.

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2 thoughts on “The Next Generation of Cities

  1. While existing cities do have reasons for people to live there, they will not be able to sustain the massive wave of urbanization that is expected over the next 20 years. Large cities in emerging markets (and even developed markets) are bursting at the seams; one could increase the density of people and buildings in these cities, but increasing infrastructure in existing cities is not as easy.

    Retrofitting cities (whether large or mid-tier) and their infrastructure, is easier said than done. The Dharavi case is an extreme example, but providing increased access to water and sanitation facilities can be tough in existing cities. Organically developed cities do not always have clearly laid out streets, and trying to reduce congestion can be tricky. It is harder to widen roads as the property belongs to individuals or institutions that may not be willing to give it up, even if it is for the “greater good.” In Boston, the Big Dig was designed as a response to congestion, but the project saw cost overruns, delays and caused several inconveniences to Boston residents.[1] Increasing public transportation options may not be viable either, as we saw in the TransMilenio case – residents of certain neighborhoods may object to the development of certain types of transit close to their houses.

    Greenfield cities do not have any of these problems. While governments do need to provide people with reasons to live in these ‘from-scratch’ cities, I think attracting a few large companies as anchor tenants is a good starting point. Other companies will want to serve the rising middle class in emerging markets and will therefore also be attracted to these new cities. Silicon Valley did not really have a reason for being – Stanford University’s alumni were encouraged to set up companies in the area around campus, and this eventually developed into present-day Silicon Valley. [2] While I understand that replicating Silicon Valley is difficult to do, the concept of setting up a greenfield city in close proximity to an existing city, can be replicated.

    The Big Dig was described as “performing open-heart surgery on a wide-awake patient.” [3] Most options to retrofit existing cities will seem the same way to residents of those cities.

    [1] Steve LeBlanc, “On Dec. 31, It’s Official: Boston’s Big Dig Will Be Done,” The Washington Post, December 26, 2007, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/12/25/AR2007122500600.html, accessed March 2013.
    [2] John Markoff, “Searching for Silicon Valley,” The New York Times, April 16, 2009, http://travel.nytimes.com/2009/04/17/travel/escapes/17Amer.html, accessed March 2013.
    [3] Steve LeBlanc, “On Dec. 31, It’s Official: Boston’s Big Dig Will Be Done,” The Washington Post, December 26, 2007, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/12/25/AR2007122500600.html, accessed March 2013.

    • By John Macomber

      The Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor is an attempt to spark the development of meaningful new cities. There are a number of financial incentives but a lot of the challenge is to make these into their own places with a soul…more than labor camps…somewhere people want to go. (Didn’t finish this case in time for the course this year even as a draft)!

      ‘New Delhi, Feb 28, 2013 Plans for seven new cities along the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC) have been finalised and work on two new smart industrial cities at Dholera in Gujarat and Shendra Bidkin in Maharashtra would start in the next financial year, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram said Thursday. “The DMIC project has made rapid progress. Plans for seven new cities have been finalised and work on two new smart industrial cities will start during 2013-14…” ‘
      http://www.deccanherald.com/content/315568/seven-cities-delhi-mumbai-industrial.html

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