Cities have concentrated people and wealth for thousands of years. That is both a boon and a curse. If people wanted to trade, shop, or make a living, they were best off going to the city. Ergo congestion. The first congestion management was tried in ancient Rome, where wagons were banned from the streets in midday.
Cities were exhilarating objects of limited choices. You had to go to the city to do everything that could be done. That monopoly has been eroding since the beginning of rail, however. That which could move out of the city, did.
As the premier location of wealth and population, the politics of cities have become lazy with the easy money. The political apparatus of cities know that the many people live there because they could not have it any other way, and they accordingly abuse their trust. Services in cites have gotten better over the last century, but they still have a rich tradition of machine politics, of deeply bureaucratic services, and of slow to no response. Once transportation and telecommunication allowed people to leave cities, the most wealthy and the most aggrieved did just that.
As always, technology and laws advance to protect those in power. Over the millennia, that set of people has expanded with some contractions. Development remains the province of those with enough money to pay for it. The rest still make do, as always. We think apocalyptically about declining labor force participation, but I assure you this has happened before. Ever since the first farmer put the first hunter-gatherer out of work, or the first machine replaced a farm or piece worker, the spectra of doing things better has threatened the livelihoods of those who do lots of things.
As predicted, walkable and even bikable cities have become an asset; a bankable real estate premium.Families and households of means are moving to these once destitute valhallas, and demanding top dollar and better services from their governments. Never mind where all the people who work in retail and back office might live, that remains their problem. There’s nothing about newly exorbitant rents in cities that a little creative use of space can’t solve. Jacob Riis showed us how 125 years ago.
Its not all that bad, because we have mush better stuff today than we did then. From building, heating/cooling, and water, to food, drugs and communications, it is easier to live comfortably on less money than ever before*.
Physical contact is becoming more and more optional for authentic experiences. The medium of communication is becoming more diverse and more optional. Don’t feel comfortable with face-to-face conversation, like me? There is text. Enjoy face to face but not body language? There are teleconferencing ways of doing things. Even for those who enjoy the old glad-handing , the march of transportation and communication technologies makes these meeting easier to arrange and attend. Some introverts, like me, enjoy the blanket of crowds to work within, others need total solitude, like that found in my putative study at home.
If you’d told a Hunter Gatherer in Syria 14 thousand years ago, a farmer in Iowa a century ago, a Stevedore in Los Angeles 70 years ago, or a banker in New York today in that their job was soon to be irrelevant, they would look at you like you were crazy. They were all continuing a proud and growing tradition that had never been more widespread successful, or advanced. Until it wasn’t.
Urbanists, smart growthers, and flanneurs should be humble to the fact that our cherished walkable cities are the artifacts of a particular marriage of technologies and laws. The form of our cities can and will change with those technologies. As before, and as always, to serve the interests of lucrative consumers.
One speculation is on a far more polycentric model, with housing dispersed much closer to the places people work, and home ownership much less prevalent. The office and workplace will become much more localized and specialized. People will still congregate, but they probably will change homes to move closer to work, then move again with other work. Itinerancy will become the norm. Fixed services like retail, food, and construction, operations and maintenance will be the only sure bets. Everything else that we now cherish as career paths to wealth, like finance, law, and medicine, will be automated and better managed through big data. Project management and engineering will be some of the last recognizable human thought skills to go, as the back-and-forth of design review and public involvement is hard to to automate.
There will be little to no reason for skyscrapers, as people will not all need to concentrate in the same places to get work done. There will be little to no need for freeways or even heavy rail transit, for much the same reason. Space will becomes optional, and local. Why bother moving when so much is already close at hand?
Schools will not reward rote memorization of received facts, nor teach discipline and attention to elders. They will instead teach working with peers to get things done. Kindergarten may begin with teams of children locked in rooms and challenged to figure out their escape. Ideally, they would also teach a thirst for knowledge and communication, but those will not be the most adaptive traits in the future. A thirst for safety will be, instead.
Everyone will sing for their supper, but we will be happier doing it, because more will be demanded of us as humans, and not as automatons.
That’s just a speculation, and I know it is wring, but it is worth not thinking of the city, the highways, or buildings as fixed. They are anything but. Technology and money are melting them already.
* Not that I’ve deeply interrogated that number, but I intend to.