Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Is Tokyo the City of the Future, or of the Past?

Tokyo, famously, feels like a city out of the future, as lampooned by this Onion article. But despite the rapid urbanization of the developing world, is the model of giant, tightly packed city still a glimpse of the future?

Certainly, there are factors that would seem to point towards an ever-greater concentration of humanity in cities. Around the world, people are having fewer children, making it more possible to invest in smaller urban spaces. Rising fuel costs and global warming concerns make areas close to business cores more attractive and efficient, as mass transit needs dense concentrations of people to pay off. And, as David Brooks points out in this column, cities serve as creative incubators, as people seem to think better when they are physically connected.

As a New Yorker (although one who will soon decamp to the nearby New Jersey suburbs), I see all the benefits of city life. But I still think cities like Tokyo are not likely to represent the future of humanity, at least not as presently conceived, for one reason: transportation technology is likely to improve again, and grant humans much more flexibility to craft the lifestyle they want.

Imagine you could get from, say, the Hamptons to New York City in 30 minutes. Or from the Sierra Nevadas to LA in 45. Wouldn't those places become attractive mini-clusters for the talented and the wealthy, instead of where those folks have summer homes or ski cabins? There would be a number of people around you who you could network and create with live, while still accessing the full value of the city when needed. Large cities would still have their place, but they would, to some degree, be transactional: the places where everyone comes together before they go apart again. Young people would probably still swarm there, to meet romantic partners and drink too much.

Cities were small when transportation was problematic. They grew, and sprouted suburbs, when the rail and then the automobile allowed greater movement in and out of the core. But if a transportation technology enabled convenient, not too expensive movement between our current big cities and the nicest outlying areas, the attractions of space, scenery and exclusivity might overwhelm the advantages of city living.

If that technology doesn't emerge, though, then the foreseeable future will be dominated by ever-denser, larger and higher cities, and Tokyo will remain the city of tomorrow.

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