Former Academy chairman, Kevin Murray AoU, looks to the future of urbanism and its potential complexities.
If the nature of urbanism is an intricate ecological mixing of human activity in a specific geographic place, then the future of urbanism across the UK, and indeed the world, must surely involve increased complexity and intensity, across greater areas and at greater scales, at least while the planet’s population climbs towards a mobile mass of 8 billion souls. A useful metaphor for the complexity of meta-cities might be the specialist biodiversity of the rainforest, as against the more limited ecological range of temperate forests and grasslands, representing the more limited range of smaller cities, towns and the countryside.
What might this extended dynamic ecological range mean for, say, a future cities scenario across the current UK? Imagine it is 2040, (equivalent to 1992 backwards time) and there have been massive shifts of population as a result of climate change and wars, making large parts of the planet virtually uninhabitable.
A London of 20 million, moving at a rapidly different economic and cultural pace, has become a different legal and political entity, separate from the old UK, and led by a network commercial of oligarchs, employing a low tax, highly individual mercantilist philosophy, unconstrained by the former EU or UK cultures or their constituent nationalities. It is commercially-led by highly motivated people, some of whom have escaped the worsening conditions in the old Middle East and North Africa.
London’s split from the UK in 2024, after the removal of its capital city status as an ‘unrepresentative city’, precipitated a further divide in RUK. The medium-sized commercial cities of the former South, South East and Midlands regions forged the Free Trade state of New Anglia, with Milton Keynes as its capital, and many of its residents commuting daily across the border into London for business, but without the legal status to live there, due to the strict residency constraints imposed in 2026. New Anglia’s population has been augmented by millions from East Europe, Russia and the former USA, all attracted by the commercial, libertarian ‘can do’ culture.
The northern and western conurbations of England, Wales and Scotland, which already had a different outlook in terms of policy and trade relationships with Ireland, Scandinavia and Canada, formed a new federal polity, Atlantica Celtica. With additional strong trading and cultural relationships with Iberia, South America and the Hispanic break-off from the old USA, now known as Nova Cuba, formed after the cities of Miami, New Jersey and New Orleans were all substantially destroyed by two major tsunamis in 2027.
Less diverse than either the London or New Anglia states ecologically, and with different economic resources, this loose Celtica federation has evolved a more communitarian approach at a slower rate, but with strong technology, innovation and social support added pragmatically in each political cycle.
There is outward tension between the three modes and their political counterparts across the world, at least in media terms, but they co-habit and trade well, with complex exchange agreements, and also interchange talented students and workers through restrictive ‘transfer protocols’. Each of the different approaches has generated diverse urban types over a generation, in terms of buildings, but particularly public spaces and modes of transport. What might these look like?
You might think this is all fanciful, even a little frightening. Whatever the future of our urban systems may entail – and the constituent places within them may appear superficially familiar – there is little doubt in my mind that it will be more complex, fractured and ecologically diverse. This will be a result of the interplay between many factors outwith our control. The challenge will be how we deal with these by judicious deployment and adaptation of those variables and instruments that are within our control.
To better understand the issues we face, and debate the solutions we might apply, you really need to attend the forthcoming AoU Congress 2016 on The Future of Urbanism, where there are some fantastic speakers, creative workshops and educative visits.
Hope to see you there.
Kevin Murray AoU
Director, The Academy of Urbanism