Friday, April 09, 2010

Laboratories for the urban age

URBAN TRENDS. Urbanization is a must for economic growth and social development, according to a new UN report on the state of the cities of the world.
With cities growing faster than ever before and in some places generating growth at a pace hard to imagine, one of the great challenges of the future will be to plan and design rapidly expanding metropolitan areas around the world.
That future is already here in many major cities.
The best example is probably Shanghai, a city that has gone through monumental changes over the last 10-20 years.
“It is a city moving so fast that it is possible to see the impact of theory on practice like nowhere else in the world”, writes Deyan Sudjic, Director of the Design Museum in London, in “The Endless City”.
The book documents “The Urban Age Project”, a look at urban development through the examples of six global cities by the London School of Economics and Deutsche Bank’s Alfred Herrhausen Society.
Shanghai is getting ready for its moment of glory – the Expo 2010 that begins next month with its giant exhibition on the theme “Better City, Better Life”. In some 200 pavilions, countries and cities from around the world will showcase their best examples of life in the Urban Age.
In “The Endless City” Shanghai is called “the urban laboratory”. Change has been so fast that things that were built ten years ago are already ancient history. Shanghai is also the symbol of China’s new wealth, with its skyscrapers telling the story.
Shanghai has gone through the greatest transformation of a piece of earth in history, according to an American architect who is quoted in “The Endless City”. Since the early 90’s, the city has experienced a yearly growth averaging about 15 percent per year.
The city is now a major player in every aspect.
Not all cities in the developing world are as blessed as Shanghai, something underlined in UN Habitat’s report “State of the World Cities 2010/11: Bridging the Urban Divide” which was released recently.
But many cities have become more important than the country they are located in. According to UN Habitat, the top 25 cities in the world accounted for roughly 15 percent of the world’s GDP in 2005. This share increases to 25 percent of the world’s GDP when the top 100 cities are included.
Tokyo alone accounts for almost two percent of the world’s GDP, while London’s GDP is higher than that of Sweden or Switzerland.
Major cities in smaller countries often dominate their country’s economy completely. Seoul, for instance, accounts for over 48 percent of South Koreas GDP.
This will continue to draw people to the world’s cities and by 2050 three out of four human beings will live in cities.
In dense places like Shanghai, a city that in particularly crowded places has a density nearly ten times that of London, this will be a challenge.
“The question is this: how do we create cities that are not just containers for tightly-packed populations, but pleasant and equitable places to live?”, writes Justin McGuirk in an interesting piece on the subject in the Guardian. Part of his answer is this:
“Now that city-making has become a priority, politicians need to have faith in designers.”
Perhaps urban planning is the answer to many problems of the future.


Photos from Shanghai by Hanna Steinvall
Imagine if you could take a crowded, run-down city like this...


...just clean it up a little bit and then transform it into a spectacular...


...modern metropolis like the Pudong district that symbolizes the new Shanghai.

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