Should We Debate The Future of Our Cities

The earliest human habitations were caves, on mountaintops, or inside hastily thrown-up fortifications on open plains. After the Neolithic Revolution caused a shift from hunting/gathering to agriculture/settlement these early habitations grew into walled cities for the rich, with peasants and agriculture outside the gates.

A lot of water went down the drain since then. Modern cities are praise songs to conspicuous consumption. It is if cities do not care about the rest of us. They have become greedy playground bullies keeping the good life for them. Is there an alternative? Should our cities become more self-sustaining?

Ancient Ur of Sumer in Iraq Founded 3800 BC: M. Lubinski: CC 2.0
Ancient Ur of Sumer in Iraq Founded 3800 BC: M. Lubinski: CC 2.0

Ancient Ur of Sumer Founded 5,800 Years Ago

The first European cities emerged approximately 3,000 later than Ur of Sumer with Athens being a notable beginning. Over the centuries, these became increasingly powerful. By the arrival of the Middle Ages some were self-ruling ‘city states’ including Genoa, Venice and Lubeck.

Others like London, Amsterdam, and Paris retained their allegiance to the sovereign, gaining great prestige by virtue of their palace within the gates. High walls surrounded them to defend against foreign invaders. These were sought-after targets, for the wealth within their citadels was immense.

Map of London AD 1300: Grandiose: CC 3.0
Map of London AD 1300: Grandiose: CC 3.0

London 700 Years Ago Tracing Remains of Walls

A period of relative peace followed the Industrial Revolution rendering these ‘city citadels’ largely irrelevant. Maturing democracy clipped the wings of sovereigns. Second World War bombing raids destroyed most remaining mediaeval city walls. Huge urban settlements overflowed beyond their traditional boundaries after the uptick in births when the war was over.

When they ran out of land conveniently nearby, cities invented the skyscraper and reached for the clouds. Historian Robert Osborne born 1932 wrote, “As a kid growing up in a small town in Washington State, my only exposure to New York City was through movies. The town with its towering skyscrapers, fascinating people, and teeming energy absolutely captivated me.”

There was a dark sider to this urbanisation. People moved from rural backwaters into built-up areas and placed intolerable demands on infrastructure and resources. In 2006, the world crossed a defining point where more people lived in cities than the countryside. I fear we are running out of options. Given that city citadels are no longer military strongpoints, have they lost their usefulness? Do they have an automatic right to exist? Do they have a right to keep draining our resources?

Shift of the Urban/Rural Population Ratio: Taylor Luker: Free to Use with Attribution
Shift of the Urban/Rural Population Ratio: Taylor Luker: Free to Use with Attribution

Historical Shift of the Urban/Rural Population Ratio

Cities were not always consumption centres. When I was a teenager in the 1960’s, the maximum height of any building where I lived was seven storeys because the authorities did not want to dwarf the church towers. We could always find a place to park. There were not even parking meters, let alone parking permits. We had our own power station and reservoir. Market gardeners grew fruit and vegetables where the land was fertile. Our city was self-sustaining.

Nowadays this balance is completely overturned. I do not suppose this was intentional but I have severe doubts about the morality of cities continuing to consume a disproportionate amount of scarce resources. I believe they must pay their way by embracing the principles of permaculture. They must move towards becoming self-sustaining enterprises. The trends on this graph are no longer acceptable.

Beijing: Rural and Urban Carbon Footprint: Zhaohua Wang & Yuantao Yang
Beijing: Rural and Urban Carbon Footprint: Zhaohua Wang & Yuantao Yang

A Dire Warning of Worse to Come

Six years after the graph ends, Beijing experienced its first smog red alert as the city buckled under the weight of more than five million motor vehicles, coal burning in neighbouring regions, dust storms from the north and local construction dust. If other cities are cleaner, I am afraid it is just a matter of time before they catch up. Beijing cannot shift the blame to power generation elsewhere. Who do you think is using the energy?

I came across an interesting post about a 4,000m2 solar battery array they are building in South Australia to stabilise the grid. Approximately 85% of South Australia’s electricity comes from gas turbines and wind power in equal quantities. The rest is surplus energy from domestic solar panels. This set me to thinking. Could we build something like this in our cities? How would we do this?

4,000m2 Solar Battery Array: Lyon Group
4,000m2 Solar Battery Array: Lyon Group

The Possibility of Large Solar Arrays

The scope of this technology is phenomenal. South Australia has a population of over six million, yet the Lion Group believes 4,000m2 of solar panels can make a difference in a power outage. Punjab, India is creating a 331,800m2 solar array on the rooftops of multiple university buildings.

Do not tell me we cannot do this on a similar scale in London, Berlin, Paris, and Amsterdam. Please tell me how we can. There is little time left to argue. Every rooftop should do its job. A number are already doing so. If we could just make enough electricity to power our electric cars and taxis, we would be off to a clean start and hope for the future.

Single Rooftop Solar Power Plant with capacity of 11.5 MW: Huffington Post
Single Rooftop Solar Power Plant with capacity of 11.5 MW: Huffington Post


  1. Our cities are toddlers trying on the shoes of their parents. They are restless in their pursuit of growth. They continue thus until they see a sibling wearing shoes with lights on them. When the light goes on there is no interest like before in wearing the shoes of parents. We are growing taller, and wiser too!

  2. The average citydweller has a far smaller carbon footprint than people living in rural or suburban areas. Suburban sprawl, not cities, is the problem–huge tracts of large, inefficient houses that require cars are hugely wasteful, and destroy valuable farmland and wild areas.
    To the author’s question about whether PV solar can make a difference–it already does in Germany, which has the highest proportion of solar electricity than any other country. All it requires is policitical will to incentivize installation, and to challenge the electric utilities who are fighting to retain their profitable monopolies…..

  3. Interesting , there are several ways to look at this…the way the Question is imposed leaves the element for argument….Most cities are Designed an Regimented by rules which do not allow individual families space for gardening…though rooftop gardens an factory inner city gardens are being used by the wealthy ! However the infrastructure design of cities is solely designed for merchants of all necessities to Deliver all goods from elsewhere !…just my thoughts..!

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