Future Cities – Part 2: Living in the future city

The previous post introduced the Future Cities conference held by Leeds Social Sciences Institute on 4 February. There is a lot to say about the day, which will be dealt here in separate posts – there are more concise notes with weblinks posted by Dr Andrew Turner of the University of Leeds School of Geography

Professor John Urry’s is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Lancaster University, and introduced his talk, “Living in the future city” with Paul Pry’s “March of Intellect” from 1829. This is an illustration that our ways of thinking about how technology might change cities perhaps hasn’t moved on all that much in the last 200 years or so.

“March of Intellect” (1829)

With cities now home to just over 50% of all humans, they are responsible for around 75% of energy use and CO2 emissions. Dealing with this requires attention to habit, scale and systems, particularly in terms of how habits are formed and re-formed.

High carbon urban systems have been ‘locked in’, which were characterised in terms of ‘miles’ for different purposes:

  • food miles – resulting from production being distant from consumption
  • commuting miles – from the distance between home and work, particularly by car
  • freight miles – not only from manufacturing now being more distant from consumers, but also mediated by the move of retail further from where people live
  • electric power miles – resulting from large, centralised power generation away from urban areas
  • human relationship miles – resulting from and exacerbated by telecommunications, but also patterns, for example, of University attendance and jobs, which lead to the formation and maintenance of relationships over longer distances, which then creates a travel demand for face-to-face meetings
  • leisure miles – from the locations of leisure sites (leisure centres, travel and tourism, following sports teams etc.)

In addition, with energy being a precondition of all other commodities (including food, in a high carbon food system), and the exponential growth of economies, cities can be thought of as energy burning systems. Following from the ideas of E.F. Schumacher, putting a ceiling on energy use is seen as the only thing which can lead to high levels of equity.

John then outlined four scenarios, which have some connection to Alan’s from the previous talk. He presented these as plausible visions from which policy could be arrived at through backcasting

High Tech City

In the High Tech City, patterns of extensive mileage travel become more enhanced and elaborated, there is more rapid and frequent movement, social status is maintained through travel and consumption, cities are physically characterised by verticality, and constraints in resource use are overcome by technologies such as large scale renewables and nuclear energy

Digital City

The Digital City is one where digital communications substitute for physical movement, where technology has developed beyond the ‘smart cities’ agenda, and where there is reduced mobility of people and goods, in which, for example, 3D printing leads to a focus on local manufacturing

Fortress City

The Fortress City is described as the “Mad Max 2” scenario, where there are many forms of exclusion, both physical and digital, the exporting of pollution from wealthier to poorer areas, and resource strategies which lead to a fortress mentality in wealthy regions.

Liveable City

The Liveable City is based on powering down, with less energy use per person, the reversal of socioeconomic systems which currently have a lot of momentum, people’s lives being more focused on small-scale neighbourhoods in fragmented cities, open source, self-organising and iterative processes, social interactione being part of “hidden wealth”, and social status arising from local contributions.

Dealing with shocks

Ultimately, another issue which needs to de dealt with is one of resilience, particularly to resource shocks and extreme weather events. This was mainly in reference to Jonathon Porritt’s “The World We Made”, which discussed responding to shocks in a constructive way.


While the data referred to suggests that cities and urban life are around 3 times more carbon intensive than non-cities, this is more in terms of consumptive lifestyles in comparison to subsistence lifestyles – the carbon intensity of rural areas in Europe and North America is likely quite different from, say, sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia. In addition, as intimated in the scenarios, there is potentially a large difference in the energy consumption of cities, which means the question of whether cities are inherently more or less carbon intensive than rural areas remains contentious, and also subject to change as a result of serious energy shocks, as Cuba’s well documented experience attests.

The scenarios themselves appear quite biased in the way they are presented – why would only one be presented as “liveable”, for example – what’s inherently wrong about any of the others? There is also likely to be a degree of overlap, in that ‘smart’ technologies and the high tech Maker culture (which includes 3D printing as a major part) are highly connected to relocalisation, and the technological processes behind the High Tech and Digital Cities are quite parallel. Much of this comes down to talking about dominant attitudes and practices in society, and, while there is more talk of values and narratives here than in the previous presentation (see Part 1), there still does not seem to be a connection back to policy. Is policy always to follow social attitudes and maintain the status quo, and if so, which social attitudes is it to follow?

Next time…

In Part 3, we will investigate how Leeds is beginning to see its own future, from the perspective of the Chief Executive of Leeds City Council, Tom Riordan


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