Yesterday we welcomed the 7 billionth person into the world. This is why (Dutch) newspapers were flooded with charts, statistics and analysis about the United Nations report predicting the world’s population growth. It seems experts agree we shouldn’t agree with experts (in this case the United Nations’ researchers). Many questions were raised. But none of them questioned the United Nations’ prediction about the percentage of people living in cities. Which, according to the UN, continues to grow on every continent. No exceptions. And let’s be fair, all data (and most experts) suggests the same. So it makes sense to assume this actually will be the case. But…
Do people really want to live in cities?
You might say this is an irrelevant question. Don’t we all have to live in cities? Won’t we run out of space otherwise? Ehm. No. We’re not about to run out of space any time soon. We could however run out of resources, but this has not so much to do with cities. So let’s get back to the question raised before. Do people really want to live in cities? In order to answer this question we have to ask ourselves another question.
Why do people live in cities?
For matters of simplicity we’ll divide the people who live in cities in two categories. There are (1) people who love to live in a city, because of their social life, the buzz, entertainment and services. And there are (2) people who need to live in a city because of their jobs and/or education. They might not have had a job otherwise, or pay is higher, the job is more interesting, et cetera. I bet if you’d ask any urbanite (a person who lives in a city) he or she wants a bigger house with a garden and a safe neighborhood for their kids (if they have any). Instead, changes are big they live in a small apartment in a generic suburb of a city. Some of them love cities so much, they’re willing to make the tradeoff. Others just need to live there because of their job. They simply have no choice.
The situation described above (which I simplified quite a bit) is basis for the current urban model. This urban model is used by most architects, urban planners and also researchers like the ones who crafted the United Nations report. Since these researchers predict the percentage of people living in cities will continue to grow, they assume the current urban model will continue to exist for many decades to come.
But what if people don’t need to live in cities anymore? If this would be the case, the current urban model becomes irrelevant. Right?! And that’s exactly what’s happening today. Slowly we see a new way of working emerging. Because of technological innovations like smart phones, laptops, tablet computers, video conferencing and data storage ‘in-the-cloud’, employees can work wherever and whenever they want. As a result employers can cut costs because they need less office space for each employee (they’ll work from their houses more often).
These developments suggest a new urban model. Distance becomes less relevant since house equals workplace. Employees don’t need to live as close to their offices anymore allowing them to live wherever they want. For some people this will continue to be a city. They simply love to be there. But for others, their dream house could be located in a small town near a lake, in a forest or maybe in the mountains. More companies will adapt to this new way of working (which is already happening) thus speeding this development.
This new urban model creates major possibilities for (rural) areas which currently face a population decline. For them it is important to invest in education, health care and other services. But most importantly, they should invest in the best (Internet) connections possible. If these (rural) areas succeed in doing so, don’t be surprised the percentage of people living in (mostly western) cities will decrease in time. After all, do people really want to live in cities?