Building a City is Not for the Faint of Heart

The speed at and extent to which the world is urbanizing is unprecedented, with over half the world’s population currently living in cities. By 2050 this will have risen to two-thirds. In China, 300 million people will move to cities in the next 15 years and the equivalent of the built infrastructure of the entire United States must be built by 2028 to keep pace. There will soon be 250 million new urban residents in India and 380 million in Africa.

Strategies to manage rural-urban migration and massive urban growth have been diverse: slum improvement programs, densification, urban infrastructure upgrades, expanded suburbs and satellite towns, brownfield developments and the creation of new master-planned cities.

Building a city is not for the faint of heart. It requires laying out a vision and the resolute determination to achieve this vision.

The creation of new cities is the most ambitious response to the urban revolution. Ideally, new master-planned cities can offer the benefits and opportunities of city living without the pollution, traffic and inefficiencies of many existing cities. New cities offer the unique possibility to learn from the wisdom and functionality of existing cities and to avoid mistakes of the past, while allowing us to re-invent the way we use cities. Ambitious city-scale projects are vulnerable to multiple risks related to economic feasibility, livability and a lack of dynamism, as has been demonstrated by many post-World War II and post-colonial new cities.

New cities offer unparalleled opportunities to experiment with innovative ideas, learn from past mistakes, reproduce the beauty and energy of established cities and integrate technologies from the earliest stages. Starting from scratch means that new cities have the potential to address and improve upon problems of existing cities, be smarter and less wasteful, and more socially inclusive and creative.

In recent years, the potential of new master-planned cities to act as economic engines has caught the imagination of leaders around the world. Eighty percent of the world’s wealth is now created in cities, a fact that has been seized upon by governments, entrepreneurs, scholars and NGOs.

It is estimated that there are currently hundreds of new cities being built or planned across Asia, the Middle East and Africa. The tremendous scale at which resources are being invested in this trend warrants a thorough examination of new cities and their potential and limitations to solve problems associated with massive urbanization.

U.S. Senator Daniel Moynihan once said that to create a great city, ideally you must “build a world-class university and wait 200 years.”  Embedded in this comment is the belief that time and organic growth combined with research universities are still the optimal ingredients for creating an ideal city. The key challenge facing city-builders today is how to replicate the vibrancy and dynamism of the world’s great cities on an accelerated timeline to accommodate the explosive urban growth of the past several decades.

Cityquest – KAEC Forum

The Cityquest – KAEC Forum 2013 provided an extraordinary opportunity for key decision-makers, thinkers, entrepreneurs and builders of nine of the most ambitious new cities in the world to come together for a dialogue on new cities. Organized by the New Cities Foundation and hosted in King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC), an ambitious urban mega project in Saudi Arabia on the shores of the Red Sea, 132 participants from over twenty countries and four continents gathered for two days to discuss urban issues and strategies.

As the first event of its kind to bring together global leaders to focus specifically on new cities, the Forum was a unique opportunity to critically examine emerging patterns in new cities from a transnational comparative perspective. It was also a chance for new cities to compare notes and learn from one another’s successes and failures.

This post is part of a series tied to Cityquest – KAEC Forum, our leadership event on new cities. Each week, we’ll publish extracts from the report from our inaugural Cityquest event in 2013. Access the full report here.