Reinventing the Future: Designing Urban 3.0

Article excerpt

Cities in the 2 1st century are both the promise of economic opportunity and social welfare, and the sites of massive poverty, deepening inequality, and social exclusion. This disturbing urban paradox must be resolved if the future is to become one of hope and progress and not a horizon of menace.

The urbanization of developing countries is transforming global climate, landscapes, societies, and cultures. The strong pull of cities and towns for higher wages and quality of life has emptied rural areas and provided higher incomes, education, health status, longevity, and, for many, liberation from the limitations of rural life.

Some writers such as Edward Glaeser or Jeb Brugmann sing of the u triumph of the city" or the "urban revolution/' The world has changed and its new benefits should be understood and praised. This is true, but these observers fail to devote enough attention, outrage, and urgency to the dark side of urbanization, to the billions of people lacking adequate water and sanitation, housing, and, most importantly, decent employment. So too do they minimize the responsibility of government in helping to solve the problems for its most vulnerable citizens. This dark side is not just an exaggerated dystopic view of cities, such as those expressed by Mike Davis or what Ruth Glass called "cliches of urban doom," but rather a massive grinding poverty affecting millions of urban residents.

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The above praise for cities is for an outdated urban model which fails to recognize that cities are now operating on a radically different economic, social, and cultural ecology than the city of the 20th century. Cities in the 21st century are faced with overcoming failed urban legacies, with their extended and energy-intensive form, their alarming and dangerous contribution to climate change, their multiple forms of inequality and exclusion, and their inability to provide decent livelihoods for a large share of the world's population.

A New Global Turn

It should not be surprising that people who have "arrived" in the "promised land" are deeply frustrated by their inability to enjoy the opportunities and quality of life that the city provides to a fortunate few. This perception is well-captured in the Kenyan proverb, "Those who have arrived have a long way to go." But what is new is that this frustration no longer belongs only to people in poor countries but is now reflected in the middle class in rich countries such as the United States, where real incomes have declined significantly over the last two decades, and in Europe where mass demonstrations reflect unhappiness with growing austerity, unemployment, and uncertainty. All of this is succinctly captured in the decision of Time Magazine to declare the "Protester" as Man of the Year for 2011.

These frustrations are dramatically heard from the Arab Spring to los indignados in Spain to Occupy Wall Street, to the polarization of the 99 percent and the other 1 percent. As people flow into Tahrir Square, Plaza del Sol, or Zuccotti Park, they are expressing solidarity with their fellow citizens and criticizing government policies that have failed to moderate the growing gap between rich and poor. The urban question for the twenty-first century must be: how do cities operate to support the needs of the 99 percent?

The last two decades have been characterized by the perceived power and exaggerated optimism of observers such as Thomas Friedman about the prospects of globalization, and more recently by a growing understanding of the downsides of connectivity, asymmetric interdependence, and inequalities. A shopkeeper in Buenos Aires knows that the debt negotiations in Greece will affect her business and now she can follow this news hour by hour on the internet. As Argentine historian Margarita Gutman has pointed out, unlike a century earlier, tomorrow is no longer expected to be an improvement over today. …