In 2090, we will all live in cities

Urbanisation seems inexorable. Can it continue indefinitely?

It seems that with population growth after the Ice Age and migration to urban centres over the past few decades, everyone on the planet will be living in cities by the year 2090. However, urban researchers do not believe that development will be this straightforward.

—  It’s more important to prepare for surprising changes than to make predictions, states Professor Michael Batty from University College London, who spoke at the Urban Academy’s Complex Urban Futures seminar.

Development is going towards a variety of different cities as opposed to the creation of a single giant megalopolis. We should consider what we mean when we talk about cities. For example, while São Paulo and Copenhagen are both cities, they are completely different as living environments. The British speaker pointed out that even Helsinki and Tampere are different.

A greying Europe

Urbanisation has been linked to improving welfare and wealth, as goods and money tend to move towards areas of concentrated population. Meanwhile, adverse side-effects will also grow. Crime will escalate, the cost of living will rise, and inequality will intensify as people concentrate increasingly in urban centres.

— The biggest challenges for European cities have to do with the ageing population and migration, but increasing inequality between districts is another danger, believes Michael Batty.

Digitalisation is already happening, but it cannot radically change people’s lives overnight.  

Cities will keep their looks

—  In the future, cities will continue to look as they do now, says Michael Batty. Nobody is about to tear down historic buildings or change the architecture of old cities.

Batty, a long-term pioneer of urban studies, does not believe in utopias. Utopias come and go.  A totalitarian system seeks to control all factors that influence development, but history has proven that this is impossible in the long term.

Cities are planned from the top down, and efforts are made to direct development, but in reality, much of the development happens from the bottom up.

The allure of real-time data

It’s fascinating to watch a city’s heartbeat.   The paths of people using Oyster Cards to move through London’s public transit system are recorded in a database and can be viewed in a real-time image.

—  The city is not a machine, nor is it a living organism, even though you can watch a city’s heartbeat in an image generated from huge masses of data,” says Michael Batty, who participated in the modelling project for London.

The image looks like an aggressively spreading cancerous tumour, or a vascular system. Michael Batty points out that nobody designed the city to look like this.

—  This kind of data can help focus our discourse and provide tools for city planning, says Michael Batty.  The data can be used to estimate the impact of a new high-speed railway or to see how a strike on the underground can disrupt people’s lives, but it cannot tell us the future.

Complex Urban Futures

The Urban Academy is a cooperation network operated by the University of Helsinki, Aalto University and the City of Helsinki, intended to promote the interaction and co-design of urban planning, urban development and multidisciplinary urban studies.

The Advisory Board of the Urban Academy held its meeting and organised the Complex Urban Futures seminar on 16 February 2017 in Helsinki. Participants included Mike Batty, Professor of Planning at University College London, Simin Davoudi, Professor of Environmental Policy and Planning at Newcastle University and Sako Musterd, Professor of Social and Urban Geography at the University of Amsterdam.