Will technology render cities obsolete? What if the process of agglomeration reversed?
At least two 20th Century visionaries said it could happen: 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? What would they say about virtual reality, social media, and the impact of the borderless economy on cities? These forces are arguably more detrimental than high-speed trains or the automobile to city flight. Agglomeration which is largely driven by the conceptualization of presence, or the physical need to be somewhere (like the workplace), is replaced with an equally efficient and effective form through Google docs, Skype, Fed Ex, Amazon, 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 fails to explain the emergence of global cities where the population is continuing to intensify rapidly in their cores. 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 prefer it.
This was not 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 cannot 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.