Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat

AAAS “Future of Cities” Symposium Sees
Destiny in Density, and Much More
February 15, 2014
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See a New York Times podcast interview with the AAAS Symposium panelists
CHICAGO – Faced with the prospect of a rapidly urbanizing planet, to the tune of one million people moving or being born into cities each week, it’s incumbent upon governments, architects, planners and everyday citizens to consider how we will build and live equitably and productively in those cities.

This was one of the main emphases of the symposium “The Future of Cities: Dense or Dispersed?”, which convened at the American Association for Advancement of the Sciences (AAAS) Annual Meeting in Chicago in February. The panel was a joint effort of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) and the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). Presenters included CTBUH Executive Director and IIT Associate Studio Professor Antony Wood and CTBUH Trustee Bill Baker, structural engineering partner at SOM.

Wood and John Ronan, principal of John Ronan Architects, moderated the panel, which also included Saskia Sassen, Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology at Columbia University; Wiel Arets, Rowe Family Endowed Chair of the College of Architecture at IIT; and Virginia Parks, Associate Professor in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. 
Panelists and moderators (left to right): John Ronan, John Ronan Architects; Saskia Sassen, Columbia University; Wiel Arets, Illinois Institute of Technology; Virginia Parks, University of Chicago; William Baker, CTBUH Trustee & SOM; and Antony Wood, CTBUH.
After the main session, the group was interviewed by the New York Times Science Podcast and answered more press questions at a briefing session.

Wood introduced the panel by setting a context for tall buildings in the larger density question.
“The question becomes, how do we accommodate these million people a week?” he said. “Do they go into denser, more concentrated cities, or the traditional American model of a dense downtown working core and a dispersed suburbia?”

Baker examined those issues in detail during his presentation, which reaffirmed the folly of the post-war American suburban approach to urban development. Every year, the United States consumes 1 million acres of usable farmland and converts it to cities, Baker said. Across five years, this is the same size as the state of New Jersey. And yet, the entire population of the planet, if it were settled at the density of Manhattan, would fit into the state of Colorado, Baker said.

Baker also illustrated his point by observing that it would take 14.5 standard 12-story suburban office buildings of 300,000 square feet (27,871 square meters), plus 900 parking spaces occupying 315,000 square feet (29,264 square meters) for each of them, to equal the 4.4 million square feet (408,773 square meters) contained in the 110 stories of the Willis Tower, which has 45 parking spaces.

Sheer density and height won’t be enough to turn the urban equation toward environmental harmony and social equity, the panelists agreed.
Members of the panel answer questions at a news briefing that followed the session (left to right): Virginia Parks, University of Chicago; Antony Wood, CTBUH; William Baker, CTBUH Trustee & SOM; and Saskia Sassen, Columbia University.
“We can do the best we can do with buildings, and it still won’t be enough,” Wood said. “If we only concentrate on a single building, we will always be a long way from making sustainable cities. It is not about the single building: it’s about the relationship between urban density and infrastructure.”

The subject of urban density and transport is the specific locus of study for Parks, who examines the effects of physical mobility on economic mobility.

“A good accessibility index could be achieved by people living near the core, or in polycentric mini-cores,” Parks said. “What’s critical is the transportation network that connects residences to the opportunities. A very dense neighborhood could still be disconnected from job opportunities.”

The panelists simultaneously called for big thinking and wider government intervention in the urban fabric and more freedom for the underappreciated urban residents to devise their own solutions and preserve the polyglot of cultures that make cities destinations for reasons beyond mere survival. In other words, a consciousness of interdependencies that stretch beyond political boundaries, especially in today’s (and tomorrow’s) technologically enhanced milieu.

“We need to think about the world as one big metropolis and cities as neighborhoods,” said Arets. “While there are global forces, we should also be thinking about the bottom-up local effort.”

“It will take the state to intervene,” asserted Sassen. “There used to be this thick, prosperous middle class, that maintained a lot of the quality of life and infrastructure. That is thinning out. The market alone will not take care of it. It will take some serious subsidies, upgrading degraded areas of cities.”

Even as cities globalize and become more cosmopolitan themselves, they are also reconstituting as economic forces on the global stage where once they might have deferred to the nations that enclose them. Their skylines are part of their arsenals of differentiation.

“We are in the world of city-states now,” Baker said. “I don’t go to China, I go to Shanghai; I don’t go to Canada, I go to Calgary. Successful cities will be the successful states of the future as we move to this kind of new-old paradigm.”
Planning the City of the Future Press Briefing
Asked which cities most closely resembled the future they’d like to see, some turned to contemporary city-states, where the science-fiction future is already happening.

Wood pointed to Singapore, where 80 percent of the population lives in government-built high-rises, greenery and skybridges stretch across the horizon, and environmental codes are stringent. Of course, it also epitomizes the “top-down” model, and individual freedoms are more limited than in most cities of the West.

“What the city has taught us is that there are modes in which top-down and bottom up can-work,” Sassen said. “Look at London and New York. These are working cities. There is a real sense of shared domains, spaces, public parks…it’s not an either/or. We need both.” Sassen also mentioned Medellin, Colombia, whose mayor Sergio Fajardo has invested significant efforts to deliver public amenities such as libraries into slum neighborhoods.

Others seemed to embrace the polycentric, interconnected, globalistic model that modern technology seems to be promising – and in some cases , late 19th-century technology already gets us most of the way there.

Parks described the Netherlands as a model of multi-modal systems, both public and private. One can rent a bike from a local government, hop a train to another city, rent a bike from a private entity, then return that bike to the station and be home for the proverbial “by dinner.”

But even what many planners think of as “utopias” were the result of kinetic and hard-won action by common citizens, private developers and governments. The ubiquitous biking the world attributes to the Dutch only came about because cyclists demanded space for bikes from their government in the early 20th century, Parks said. And for those who picture Holland as a perpetual utopia, Sassen reminded the audience that her family left the country after World War II because of extreme poverty there.

Architecture, government policy, technology , and a collective interest in the quality of the public realm will write the future of cities, panelists said. But none of these will do in isolation.