"The City Concerns Us All"

Urbanization is and continues to be a megatrend: Over two billion more people will live in cities by 2055. However, the design of these cities remains uncertain. On the occasion of the World Cities Day architect and urban planner Vanessa Miriam Carlow talks about her "Open City" project and her vision of sustainable urban development.

Eva Wolfangel | October 2017
Photo: C3 Visual Lab

An increasing number of people will live in cities. But it’s almost impossible to predict which cities are going to grow, and to what extent. Together with an interdisciplinary team of experts, architect and urban planner Vanessa Miriam Carlow has developed a concept for the future of sustainable urban development: Sponsored by the Robert Bosch Stiftung with the program "SPIELRAUM - Shaping Urban Transformation", the Open City project starts from the premise that, despite uncertainty as to what the future might hold, sustainable urban planning is not only feasible but also necessary to make future cities livable for all inhabitants.

Photo: Tobias BohmVanessa Miriam Carlow at the SPIELRAUM workshop

Vanessa, experts claim that the struggle for sustainable development will be won or lost in the cities. Would you agree?

Vanessa: Absolutely. Already today most people live in cities and their catchment areas, and this trend is going to continue in the future. According to current estimates, there will be ten billion people on Earth in 2055, and three out of four will live in cities. In other words, by then, cities for another two billion people will develop, be it planned or not.

How open is this future?

Very open, I’d say. Berlin is a good example of how difficult it is to predict with a high degree of certainty which type of urbanization will occur in which specific places and cities. Right after German unification, everybody expected Berlin to start growing massively but what happened was the opposite: The city’s population declined. Now, however, the speed of growth there has really picked up. Urbanization is a megatrend. And in 2055, those additional two billion people living in cities will be spread very unevenly across the planet. The only thing that’s clear today is that the focus regions of exponential urban growth will be Asia, Africa, and Latin America. But as to the exact distribution, we have no idea. There are too many factors involved.

Nevertheless, the idea is for everybody in a city to have a "good life." Is it even possible to attempt to work toward that goal without knowing what the future will bring exactly?

To resolve this issue, it is important to take an interdisciplinary approach. In today’s urban planning projects, it’s become routine to bring in not only urban planners, architects, and engineers, but also economists, ecologists, sociologists, and cultural scientists, to name a few. We intend to widen this basis even further. After all, factors like climate change affect these issues as much as social factors do. The city concerns us all!

In your Open City project, you work on the assumption that the future is open, also in full recognition that "open" can mean unpredictable. How should academia and society handle this notion?

This is indeed our starting point: "Can we plan the city of the future without knowing how this future will look?" Our answer is yes. It means, however, that we will have to plan a city in a way that can be adapted to different development scenarios. Urban planning is a slow process: We still use roads planned 300 years ago, live in neighborhoods designed 150 years ago, and have buildings that are even older. This is why, for us, "open city" also means that a city must be open for future developments, open to and for new things.

How could that look more specifically?

To develop a more specific idea of this is the objective of our project. A city must be adaptable. This will require us to rethink certain issues, such as infrastructures. A good example in this context is water supply: How would a water system look that is suitable for a greater or smaller number of people? The same applies to other infrastructures and architectures and whatnot. This is why we are working closely with municipalities and lawmakers as well, basically to expand their view of things. In everyday life, they are concerned with what is happening right around them. They are aware of the critical issues, but often lack the time and means to dedicate themselves to this kind of broader outlook. It is for this reason that projects such as ours are needed.

Unser Magazin zum Thema Stadt