A Short Note on Demographics and Urban Design

29 March 2009


Over the past couple of days in The End of the End of the World and Symbolic Protest I emphasized the dependence of urban populations — which now constitute the bulk of the human population, as we are now an urban species — upon current economic infrastructure.

The fact that a contemporary urban center — or a megalopolis, if you prefer — is dependent upon an economic infrastructure that far exceeds the boundaries of the city does not mean that cities of even the largest size could not be made independent of supply and service chains that extend around the world.

Buckminster Fuller has been quoted as saying, “…the entire population of the earth could live compactly on a properly designed Haiti and comfortably on the British Isles.” I am in agreement with this claim, but there are a couple important observations that need to be made in this connection:

1. it would be expensive to do so, and…

2. to do so would change the culture (if not the civilization) of a human population so domiciled.

In regard to item 1, we have the technology at present to build food production tower blocks within urban areas, which was discussed in this forum in The Future of Food. This would be a high tech way to go about it, and, if handled properly, it could be done in an aesthetically pleasing manner, retaining the feeling and density of an urban core while also producing local food for local consumption. Furthermore, intensive solar and wind power mounted on the tops of buildings could probably (perhaps with future technological improvements) supply the electrical needs of the population. In extreme circumstances, even the water could be treated and recycled.

All of this is possible, but all of it is expensive. The reason we trade — whether between city and countryside, or between nations — is because it is in everyone’s economic interest to do so. That means, to put it simply, that you get what you want at a cheaper price. It is much cheaper to produce vegetables in rural areas than in a downtown urban core. For starters, in cities land is very expensive. If that land can bring a better return on its investment as an office tower than as a vegetable patch, then the owner of that land is going to get the best return possible by building the office tower.

In regard to item 2, any change in living arrangements that affects everyone or almost everyone is by definition revolutionary. To change the way the vast majority of people live is to come full circle and to start over. Housing everyone one compactly on Haiti or comfortably in the British Islands would mean starting over for most people. That is revolutionary.

The Netherlands houses almost seventeen million people on less than 34 thousand square kilometers of land. The population density works out to about 493 persons per square kilometer. At this rate of population density, the current world population of about six billion could be similarly accommodated in the area comprised by France and the Iberian peninsula. But what would it be like for everyone to be living as people live in the Netherlands? Not everyone is fitted for a society of this kind, while others would take to it like a duck to water. Selection pressures would act, and a future society would exhibit descent with modification.

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