How can administrators, policy-makers, politicians, market parties, designers, and citizens understand something as huge and as apparently chaotic and incomprehensible as the city? And what does urban development mean for Reynaers in terms of things like acoustics, fire safety, energy use, and sustainability? According to the British theoretical physicist Geoffrey West, a scientific approach is necessary in order to properly understand and control the city and the future. In 2002 he began researching data on cities from all over the world – everything from the number of petrol stations, coffee shops, and murders to residents’ personal income levels – and reached a remarkable conclusion. When the size of a city doubles, the income, consumption, and productivity all increase by about 15 percent. This explains why people around the world are drawn to cities as iron to a magnet. Big cities mean bigger chances – for work, for a better existence, for a bigger, more interesting life. Cities are responsible for 90% of our wealth. And apparently, the bigger the city, the bigger share of the wealth each resident has on average.
Of course there are two sides to this story. West also discovered that when a city’s population doubles, it’s not just the wealth and innovation which show a 15% increase. Crime, pollution, and illness increase at the same rate. Rampant urbanisation creates major socio-economic and ecological problems. It’s clear that if cities continue to grow unchecked, these problems will get out of control. It’s also clear that cities will need to be the ones to find solutions for the major issues of the twentyfirst century. This is because cities are also the source of human creativity and innovation, leading to an increase in wealth. As the organisation of the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam states on its website, ‘... our cities can only take us to a better future if we do a better job of designing, planning and governing them.’ But what is better? Scientists, designers and politicians are engaged in conversations about where the focus of urban innovations should be. ‘I have no doubt that the city is where it will be happening in the future,’ says Alexander D’Hooghe, associate professor of Architectural Urbanism at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). ‘But there’s a misunderstanding as to what is contained in the city. Usually it’s reduced to its historic centre. Architects are obsessed with ultraurbanism and denseness. “Condensing” seems to have become a sort of synonym for “sustainable construction”. But the capacity of the existing urban web is limited. And in all honesty, it’s easy to say that we should all be living close together, but seventy or eighty percent of people don’t want to live that way and choose to live in an environment with more space, more greenness, and more quiet – in other words, in the suburbs. That’s why I think we are heading towards a mixture of the city and the countryside. That will be the trend: continuing to build up the edges, the remaining areas. That is the city of the future.’