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Designing Sustainable Urban Futures

Marius Albiez
Gerhard Banse
Kenyon C. Lindeman
et al.

1. Framework

The Human in the City of the Future

The Challenge of Shaping Future Urban Contexts

Armin Grunwald

Texte intégral

1 The Human and the City in Historical Terms

1“The future of humanity lies in cities”, former Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, once said. But maybe this is the way it has always been since the early days of advanced human civilization: A large part of human history is the history of humans in cities. Cities as locations of maximum population concentration were equally fascinating and provocative through the ages: the concentration of power, wealth, education, and creativity on one hand, of poverty, crime, social problems, and hunger for resources on the other. Cities do not balance, they polarize – and this is not only the key to their success, but also a way to express their ambivalence. The concern that the human or humanity might get lost in the city is not new:

  • even biblical Babel was known as a symbol for human arrogance which results in failure;
  • Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (1926) describes the utopian city as an elitist dictatorship per a randomly manipulable mass;
  • the film “Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis” (1927) also predominantly shows humans as a mass, e.g. on their way to work, by analogy with a cattle drive in agriculture; human individuality seems to have disappeared.

2However, history seems to confirm the positive side of ambivalence. Cities remain highly attractive and it is not difficult to predict that this will also hold true in the future. Global trends in recent decades speak for themselves: the share of people living in cities is steadily growing. Futurologists agree: the future belongs to the cities.

3Nevertheless, I want to water down the wine of pompous promises here. We do not really know that much about the future as we are sometimes made to believe. The fact that we currently experience clear trends towards the densification of cities, world-wide urbanization, and mega-urbanization does not imply that this trend will continue for decades. Just one example from the past: in the 1970s the “emptying of the cities”, the suburbanization or escape to the little house in the countryside was a real issue in Germany. The slow death of cities was lamented; especially since the creative and the educated were leaving the cities and only the proletariat and the elderly were left. And these were not only figments of concerned researchers, these predictions were backed by the reality at that time. Suburbanization was a real trend, not an invented one. However, it turned out differently. The fact remains that future knowledge in principle is epistemologically precarious (cf. Grunwald 2013).

4Also other expectations for the future did not occur. It was expected, for example, that the Internet would end the separation of the rural periphery from urban centers; after all, the Internet – and today all other mobile technologies would be included – provides access to global sources of information and possibilities of participation, irrespective of the place of residence. This effect exists – but there seem to be other, more potent effects. The attractiveness of today’s condensed cities with their physical concentration of humans is definitely stronger than the Internet’s power to overcome space.

2 Shaping the Urban Future Instead of Predicting It

5The message of these two examples is clear: we should not overestimate current trends. Even though urbanization is in full swing at the moment, it is just a trend and not a law of nature – and trends can change.

6However, we want to refer specifically to humans in the city of the future here. This was not always the first priority. Just think of the notorious “automotive city”, a guiding principle in the time of the German economic miracle. Not the human but the car was the focus of the city of the future at that time. Or the architecture of huge concrete estates which resemble battery cages (sorry!). Numerous models and plans of past decades reduced the human to a minor character in the cities. Cities were partly considered and planned as functional infrastructures, where humans were only allocated certain roles. To exaggerate it: humans were sometimes downgraded to some sort of “terminal equipment” of a systemic infrastructure.

7Countermovements were inevitable. In line with the well-known Friedrich Hölderlin quote: “But where the danger is, also grows the saving power”. A new form of public spirit arose, the citizens were no longer willing to be subject to the plans of others, but claimed their right to participate and got – and still are – involved, for example, for a “sustainable urbanity”. This observation of movement and countermovement seems to be symptomatic – and goes with the above-mentioned criticism of too much prophecy.

8So let us assume, as mentioned before, that we do not know the city of the future. Let us be suspicious of trend analysts and futurologists who are convinced that they already know everything at this stage. Instead, let us not consider the development of tomorrow’s city as some kind of inevitable fate or law of nature, but as something we can help to shape. This would change the role of the human being in the city of the future – no longer like that in the Delphic Oracle or Richard Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods, where the Norns ask: “Do you know what will become of it?”

9Instead, we reverse the question: how do we picture the human being – us – in the city of the future? Which expectations and fears do we have and what can we do to realize these expectations and make sure that these fears do not come true? This is a planning perspective and not a prophetic one. In this perspective, we do not assign the development of the city of the future to its own dynamics, dark forces or laws of nature, which might allow prognoses but, apart from that, only adapt to what is said to come anyhow. Instead, we take ourselves up on our promise and assume responsibility for the city of the future and the human’s role within. Within this perspective, we should look for areas of conflict or problematic trends, but also for opportunities and new possibilities; for movements and countermovements, for wishes and visions. We should explore the options of how the city of the future could and also should look like (note: the singular is quite misleading here since we have to assume a large plurality of cities of the future). And we should not ask how the human being will appear in it, but rather: which kind of development of the role of the human in the city do we want and strive for? It is just a triviality, but one that is nevertheless often forgotten: cities are there for the humans, not the humans for the cities.

3 Challenges and Pathways to Shaping Urban Futures – Open Questions

10So I would now like to come to the questions that are essential for shaping the cities of tomorrow and the role of the human beings within, or at least those questions that I consider essential:

  • The question of the city resident’s relation to nature: City and nature are regarded as opposites, the city as downright counter-nature. However, there are counter-movements, e.g. “urban gardening”. Does this only mean taking a share of rural romance into the city or does it imply a new form of awareness of nature of the city residents?
  • The question of sustainability: Cities have a hunger for resources and activate vast material flows of water, food, energy, feedstock and other materials, all at the expense of the surrounding areas. How can we create stable and fair relations between the city and its surroundings, especially in megacities (cf. Yanarella/Levins 2011)?
  • The question of exclusion and inclusion: Who gets access to the resources of the city and who is barred? Which kind of governance can allow for the best possible inclusion? Which methods of participation can allow for a democratic partnership of the humans in the city of the future? How are freedom and authority balanced?
  • The question of urbanity: The European history of the city gave birth to urban visions – Athens, Siena, and Florence represent certain models of human coexistence in a cultural collective. Urbanity is more than living in an urban agglomeration. Are these visions of the city and the humans in the city taken into account in the plans for the future?
  • The question of diversity: Cities of the future will be characterized – like today’s cities – by an extreme diversity: Scandinavian cities, luxury cities on the Persian Gulf, South American cities full of contrasts, the lively chaos of many African cities, authoritarian cities in South East Asia – this variety shows how options for shaping future cities depend on the context. It is not about the human in the city of the future, but about a large variety.
  • The question of the relationship between humans and technology: This question influenced the image of the human in the modern city long before Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”. Infrastructures are an especially important topic. They are omnipresent in our cities and determine their rhythm of life. The question of whether the human being is the designer and gears the infrastructures to the standards of human needs or whether humans are forced to adapt themselves to infrastructures designed to meet technological, economic, or political requirements still seems to be unanswered.
  • The question of human individuality: Urbanization and mega-urbanization do challenge the ideal of individuality. To what extent can this ideal be maintained or even developed further and can we counter tendencies of human collectivization? This applies especially to digital connectivity which, on the one hand, opens up new ways to keep our individuality and establish individual networks, but, on the other hand, fosters collectivization by adjusting to digital infrastructures.

4 Conclusion

11Cities are places of contradiction and for that very reason are also focal points of creativity and places for experimentation. What these contradictions will look like, how they will be considered in decisions on future development and which forces will prevail cannot be predicted; it remains to be seen, but should also and above all be actively influenced. The human in the city of the future is not the product of laws of nature, but is the result of developments in which we can participate today.



Grunwald, A. (2013): Der prekäre Status von Zukunftswissen zwischen hoher praktischer Relevanz und drohender Beliebigkeit. In: Banse, G.; Hauser, R.; Machleidt, P.; Parodi, O. (Hg.): Von der Informations-zur Wissensgesellschaft. e-Society – e-Partizipation – e-Identität. Berlin, S. 343–360

Yanarella, E. J.; Levine, R. S. (2011): The City as Fulcrum of Global Sustainability. London/New York

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Professor Dr.; Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), Head of Institute of Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis (ITAS), Karlsruhe, Germany;


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