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What Will Make Our Cities Obsolete?

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

If we study technology and cities we can find the answer


It’s in vogue to discuss if and when the city will die. This isn’t just a “today” thing. Through time people have wondered when the end will come for our greatest invention.


The Black Death

Also known as the plague was one of the most fatal pandemics recorded in human history. Estimates range 75–200 million people were killed d0s.uring the mid-130


Healthy people did everything they could to avoid the sick. With many looking to get out of dense urban areas and move to the countryside. It was the only way to survive.


The mortality rate was high. No one knew how it spread and there wasn’t a vaccine developed for 100s of years. Multiple waves of the Black Death plagued Europe, Asia, and the Islamic world through the 1840s.


And still, despite the odds, cities thrived.


Industrial Revolution


What we think of when we hear, “Industrial Revolution.” Image source: DM Magazine


While the Black Death was becoming less of a threat to cities. The industrial revolution was in full swing. It began in Great Britain and quickly spread through the British Empire and the new United States.


In the late 1700s to the early 1800s society began to shift from being primarily about farming to about working with technology. Fewer people working in fields and more people working factories.


Since reliable transportation was difficult to come by, people moved closer to where the work was. The rapid increase in density combined with exponential burning of coal quickly led to an equal and opposite reaction.


The air isn’t clean. It smells and the crime is out of control. It’s better in the countryside. This is the end of the city.


Invention Of The Telephone

So the black death couldn’t do it. Industrialization couldn’t do it. Maybe technology will?


The first telephone calls started in 1876 and quickly everyone speculated how impactful this technology would be. Why live next to someone when you can just pick up the phone?


Anyone can live anywhere and still get in contact with whomever they need. This is the end of the city.


Mass Production Of The Automobile


Image source: Assembly Magazine


Large-scale production of the automobile started in the early 1900s. Refined by Henry Ford, cars were available and affordable to the working class.


Cars granted freedom to travel at your own schedule and cover greater distances in less time. The first major gains toward reliable, personal transportation.


Now people could travel on their own schedule and access one another in ways that weren’t possible before. And if you couldn’t make the trip, you can pick up the phone and call.


This is the end of the city.


Invention Of The Internet

The internet we know today manifested itself in the early 1990s. Computer programmer Tim Berners-Lee shared the idea of the World Wide Web which led to the connection of people and machines in new ways.


Now we have computers that can do more than talk to each other. They can access a web of information that anyone can retrieve. They are connected. If that doesn’t work get in your car or call me on the phone.


This is the end of the city.


COVID-19



Once again, it’s dangerous to be in proximity to other humans. People are leaving the dense cities for the countryside (now the suburbs).


We have the internet and improved apps. We have cars where we can safely transit without being exposed to anyone else. And if that doesn’t work we can call each other on the phone.


This is the end of the city.


The City Is Still Here

For more than 700 years regardless of medicine, technology, or available transportation, it has been impossible to defeat the human need for face-to-face interaction.


When there isn’t a benefit for being close to our neighbors that’s when the city will die. When we can’t get access to roads, food, clean water and we have better odds alone in the countryside, that’s when the city will die.


Density is essential to our existence. It’s socially essential. It’s essential for businesses.


And if I can’t convince you of that fact here on Earth, think about how we’ll build communities in outer space. Granted the environment is significantly more hostile but will we sprawl across the face of a new planet? Or will we build tight clusters and nodes to converse energy, and leverage our resources?


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