CONTRIBUTION: Will Technology Render Cities Obsolete?

universityexAt least two 20th Century visionaries have said so: H.G. Wells and Frank Lloyd Wright.

H.G Wells is the author of the Time Machine, but also for a lesser known 1900 essay “The Probable
Diffusion of Great Cities”, which predicted cities would be passé by the year 2000. In it, he argued the concentration of people and resources in cities would be reversed draining away to decentralized urban regions.

This shift would largely occur due to advanced communications and high speed rail technology which he envisioned would connect a series of decentralized villages. Cities would lose their industrial and financial functions to these villages and would continue as a mere shadow of their former selves functioning primarily as a modern indoor super-bazaar with shops and entertainment in order to satisfy man’s “love of crowds.”

Like Wells, Wright saw the days of cities as being numbered except it would be the automobile that would make them obsolete. Cities would decentralize through urban sprawl siphoning industrial, financial, and management services away from urban cores. He also predicted the rise of large roadside markets where superhighways came together closely resembling the big box strip malls Canadians love to frequent south of the border. In both cases, Wright’s predictions came to pass but for the most part the city as a social institution has found a way to persist.

Just imagine what Wells and Wright would say had they taken a time machine into the future and learned of the internet? They’d say balderdash to the automobile and train turning instead to the argument that the virtual space coupled with the borderless world economy is simply a blow the city can’t withstand. Agglomeration which is largely driven by the conceptualization of presence, or the physical need to be somewhere (like the work place), is replaced with an equally efficient and effective form through Google docs, Skype, Fed Ex, and other advancements. If an employee can successfully work in the virtual realm from home the argument can be made that they can function effectively from anywhere in the world.

Our two city skeptics would be correct to suggest that this weakens the economic pull behind centralization but it is a prosaic view. Urban scholar Lewis Mumford described the city as “a geographic plexus, an economic organization, an institutional process, a theatre of social action, and an aesthetic symbol of collective unity.” For Mumford cities are not mere economic entities but cultural sites where the “social drama” unfolds. The Greeks understood well the social link between the polis and the zoa polikon, or the political animals that prefer the city habitat, and maybe the sustaining feature happens to be a simple one; that people live in cities because they like to.

This wasn’t always so, and there are exceptions to this rule as demonstrated by Aesop’s fable of the city mouse and the country mouse, but since the first Mesopotamian cities were erected people have become very skilled at city-craft, both as a form of physical order and as a cultural venue, where the insatiable social human appetite for the social drama can be played out. Technology can’t render cities obsolete on its own; that is something only people can do, and so long as cities are designed in a way which does not frustrate the cultural appeal attracting people to city life, they will carry on.

As a postscript I leave with you these words to drive home the point I am making: “One further conclusion follows from this concept of the city: social facts are primary, and the physical organization of a city, its industries and its markets, its lines of communication and traffic, must be subservient to its social needs. Whereas in the development of the city during the last century we expanded the physical plant recklessly and treated the essential social nucleus, the organs of government and education and social service, as mere afterthought, today we must treat the social nucleus as the essential element in every valid city plan: the spotting and inter-relationship of schools, libraries, theaters, community centers is the first task in defining the urban neighbourhood and laying down the outlines of an integrated city.”

Jake Skinner
Jake Skinner
Jake Skinner is a Contributor to the London Institute. He is a PhD Candidate in Local Government at Western University and a Thames Valley School Board Trustee in Wards 7,8,9,10,13. He holds a master's degree in American Studies and a bachelor's degree in Political Science.
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