Futurist imaginings of what sort of world awaits humanity often embrace extreme scenarios, ranging from George Jetson’s utopia to George Orwell’s nightmare. They also tend to be wildly inaccurate. With that in mind – and not to stray too far into the territory of unrealistic optimism or excessive pessimism – I’d like to speculate on what urbanization may look like in the second half of this century. It’s a new year, so it’s a good time to look forward.
Starting around 2050, urban development will enter a phase of refinement rather than expansion. By that time, human population should level off at around 10 billion, according to data from the World Economic Forum. Also by that time, migration to cities may peak at around 80 percent of the population. Between now and 2050, urban areas are predicted to grow from housing 4.5-billion people to housing roughly 8-billion people.
Navigating that expansion is one of the fundamental challenges of our time. The news is mostly good, however, because immutable resource constraints won’t derail the expansion and improvement of cities. The political choices we make, however, might do so. The key question: How can we assure an adequate amount of usable land, water, energy and raw materials? Land is perhaps the most fundamental, and two factors make it probable – although counterintuitive – that land shall become more available and abundant, not less.
Mainly, the ongoing worldwide – and entirely voluntary – migration of billions of people into cities to access jobs, security and cultural amenities, guarantees the depopulation of vast land areas. Over the next 30 years, the rural population on Earth is projected to dramatically decline, from about 3.5 billion to 2 billion. Land use itself will shift away from agriculture, as technological advances enable 10-billion people to obtain satisfactory nourishment with less farmland than 8-billion people require today. This will happen through a combination of higher crop yields, large-scale aquaculture and indoor agriculture.
Environmentalists cite water availability as the looming and inevitable Malthusian check on humanity achieving universal prosperity, but that, too, is a political choice. Technology already exists to recycle urban wastewater, desalinate seawater, engineer inter-basin transfers from water-rich regions to water-poor regions (Ubangi to Lake Chad, Bramaputra to Deccan Plateau, Ob-Irtusch to Aral Sea, etc.) and more efficiently harvest storm runoff.
Some critics believe the energy required to pump and treat water is a prohibitive obstacle, but this pessimism rests on dubious premises. Assuring adequate water supplies is all about mustering the political will to undertake the necessary water-infrastructure projects.
Energy is not in short supply. For everyone on Earth to consume half as much energy per capita as Americans do, global energy production has to double. We also have to improve energy efficiency by 2050. The good news: Proven reserves of so-called fossil fuels even at double the current rate of consumption are sufficient to last about another 160 years. “Unproven” reserves of natural gas, oil, and coal could extend the supply many times over.
My point isn’t to defy the climate crisis consensus and advocate unrestricted development of fossil fuel but to remind us that one of the most widely accepted pessimistic predictions – the “Hubbert’s Peak” theory of imminent and terminal decline of fossil fuel reserves – never happened. We’re simply not running out of oil and gas.
So much the better if we achieve energy abundance with nuclear fission or nuclear fusion, factory produced biofuels or by improving photovoltaic technologies or even with satellite solar power stations. One may hope that direct synthesis of CO2 exhaust into liquid fuel or inert solids is just around the corner, as recent reports suggest. In the meantime, we can ensure energy security and an expanding economy by using conventional fuel sources and focusing on practical economic strategies and genuine environmental challenges. Again, energy scarcity remains a political choice. It is not an inevitable reality.
There’s legitimate concern about sourcing raw materials for everything from megastructures to disposable packaging. There are indeed hard limits on some of the most essential mineral resources, but there also are tantalizing new workarounds and innovations to compensate for scarcity. Most metals can be recycled, and even complex systems like batteries can be cost-effectively recycled once robotic technologies dramatically lower reprocessing costs.
One of the most promising alternative building materials is cross-laminated timber, a mature technology that is cost competitive with concrete and steel and, in many applications, is a more appropriate choice. Also known as mass timber, it could replace concrete panels and steel trusses and is already used as the primary structural building material in high-rise buildings. Mass timber is a renewable product. Existing forests can sustainably deliver the necessary board feet.
Let’s not forget about perpetual human innovation – whether it’s through next-generation concrete using abundant desert sand or, for low rise buildings, structural blocks with cores of hemp or straw, or virtually inexhaustible new minerals mined from the moon and asteroids. When the political and economic environment favors innovation, the collective lot of humanity will get better and better.
So what will the cities look like in the coming decades?
One may hope that the process will be organic and decentralized, but that will not always be the case. An example of wealth-fueled hubris might be found in “The Line,” brainchild of Saudi Crown Prince Bin Salmon. Envisioned as a single gargantuan building 600-feet wide, 1,500-feet tall, and 100-miles long, this monstrosity is planned to house over 9-million people. Built in a straight line, with a minimal cross-section, it is intended to be locally “walkable,” with quick access to any point along its length via its internal high-speed rail. Predictably, “it will run on 100 percent renewable energy.”
The Line may represent the antithesis of an organic evolution of cities and sounds like a dystopian horror, but it also speaks to the role that megastructures could play in expanding the capacity of cities to nearly double in population over the next few decades. And it brings up an interesting counter-argument to those who decry the inevitable densification of urban areas via so-called smart growth policies. The per-capita quantity of personal interior space available to urban residents may increase, even if their access to personal outdoor space will decrease.
Keep in mind that birthrates in the developed world are below replacement levels and as access to healthcare, reduced infant mortality, education, prosperity, and female emancipation has proliferated across the developing world, this trend has emerged without exception. Once global population peaks at around 10 billion, it will likely begin to decline, and with that, the so-called population pyramid will invert. By 2100, according to current extrapolations, old people will outnumber the worldwide population of youth.
These changes raise serious cultural questions. Will cities keep pace with their ongoing rapid population growth or will billions migrate into existing cities? The latter could incite cultural conflict. Can governments relax building regulations to enable private developers to make a profit while still meeting demand and offering affordable housing? In California, for instance, homeownership is out of reach for most residents because excessive regulations and a failure to invest in infrastructure has created a politically contrived housing shortage.
The good news is global resources are adequate, and rapid advances in robotics technology ensure there will not be shortages of workers, including caregivers. Navigating the path to a future of peaceful, thriving megacities is fraught with peril. But the necessary preconditions for success are present. We often hear dour predictions about the future, but there is an opportunity for cities to expand and innovate – delivering a quality of life that gets better with every passing decade.
Edward Ring is a co-founder of the California Policy Center and the author of “The Abundance Choice: Our Fight for More Water in California.”