Can we decide the future of cities – or will technology decide it for us?

Festival of the Future City

Rapidly expanding cities, fast-changing technology and brilliant ideas for making urban centres more sustainable were just three of the topics discussed at the Festival of the Future City last week.

During three days of lectures, debates and events, Bristol welcomed leading politicians, academics and campaigners to debate the future of cities, a question which looks increasingly urgent. The number of city-dwellers is set to double over the next 40 years, from 3.5 billion to 7.2 billion. In this context, how we build cities will be critical to sustainability of our species.

And it’s not just about growth. Cities are changing in other ways. New technologies could revolutionise things for the better – or degrade the environment.

Over the 20th Century, city planning was dominated by one technology: the internal combustion engine. This was most evident in the United States, as cities sprawled outwards and elevated highways cut through the heart of of urban centres. This model continues to be a popular around the world, according to Gil Penalosa, former mayor of Bogota speaking at the festival. “We can’t do more of the same over the next 40 years,” he said.

Changing the course of cities will not be easy. Penalosa spoke about what he calls CAVE people (‘Citizens Against Virtually Everything’), standing in the way of progress. However, it is not about the money, he stated, emphasising that good planning is more a social and political question. As mayor of Bogota, he brought in several initiatives which richer cities have tried to emulate, including creating hundreds of parks and protected cycle paths.

Another perspective came from a debate on the future of driverless cars on Wednesday afternoon. “The technology is already here and unlikely to go away,” Peter Alchorne from DAC Beachcroft said.

All the panellists agreed that there are many possible benefits, including convenience, fewer car parking spaces needed and more efficiency. But most were also cautious –  driverless cars may be so convenient they lead to even more congestion and pollution, and may increase inequalities.

If driverless car technology comes to dominate our roads, cities may be transformed to accommodate them, potentially pushing cyclists and pedestrians further out of the picture.

As Charlene Rohr from the RAND Corporation said, “we need to think what our cities should look like. We shouldn’t let these changes just happen to us.”

Despite these concerns, the Festival of the Future City shows that our growing, changing cities are a huge opportunity to become more sustainable.