Most of us have been in one. Most of us live in one. According to the UN, 54 percent of the world’s population live in urban areas this year. By 2050, 66 percent of people in the world will. But what does that mean, anyway – “city”? It’s not as straightforward as it seems. In my quest to build future cities for SFT, I come across some fascinating and sometimes hair-raising ideas about these magnificent urban organisms.

Relatively Large Human Settlements

“A city is a relatively large and permanent human settlement.” (Wikipedia citing The Penguin Dictionary of Human Geography and the Routledge Social Science Encyclopedia.) But how large is “large”? Different countries and states have different definitions of what a “city” is.

In the Philippines, an administrative unit can become a city if it’s big enough (population or territorial size) and generates a certain amount of income locally. For some authorities, size doesn’t matter. In New York State, a community of any size can incorporate as a city. As a result, some villages in New York have bigger populations than some cities. In the State of Massachusetts, some cities are called towns: “The City known as the Town of Greenfield” is a real, official name.

Robert Bevan gives an excellent explanation of just how confusing things are in his piece on what makes a city a city. This complexity is tricky to sort out for statisticians, especially those who are counting how many people live in urban areas versus rural areas. What areas are “urban” and what are “rural”? So be careful how you interpret the statistics I shared at the beginning of this post.

There doesn’t seem to be a unified technical definition of what constitutes a city, and the generic statement, “relatively large and permanent human settlement,” doesn’t really tell us much. At the very end of his piece, Mr. Bevan starts to get to the core of the issue when he writes:

But above all, a city, rather than a village green, is a place, as the writer Richard Sennett put it, where strangers meet; where new ideas are formed in a public space. A common ground. …True cities are dense, messy, uncontrolled and cosmopolitan.

Some science reinforces this poetic and philosophical view and takes it to another level. Geoffrey West tells the astounding story of the mathematics behind cities so deftly that it is worth taking 17 minutes to watch the whole TED Talk. It’s as if Professor West were waving a Magic Blow-Your-Mind Wand around. He does exactly that – several times. Watch “The Surprising Math of Cities and Corporations”:

Of the many things Professor West illuminates, the one I pick up for this post is this: the population and development trends in urban areas occur identically in all cities in the world. Without giving the rule away, I quote:

This… rule is true no matter where you are on the planet — Japan, Chile, Portugal, Scotland, doesn’t matter. Always, all the data shows it’s the same, despite the fact that these cities have evolved independently. Something universal is going on.


And this, he says, happens because of the one common factor in cities – us:

The universality, to repeat, is us — that we are the city… [Cities] are networks, and the most important network of cities is you. Cities are just a physical manifestation of your interactions, our interactions, and the clustering and grouping of individuals.

This is what it means when we talk about cities. At the very heart of it, underneath the physical layers,

cities are networks of people.

The Last Piece: Past, Present and Future

But something’s missing. Physical manifestations don’t just manifest out of nowhere (although it might have seemed so in Ordos, Inner Mongolia). Someone needs to build cities, and then the cities need to work – to support those networks of hungry, idiosyncratic, creative and fast-moving people.

In other words, cities are not only about the interactions of people, but also about the need for a continuous stream of resources.

One of the first, if not the first, cities in the world existed during the New Stone Age: the Sumerian city of Eridu, located in modern-day Iraq. (Bairoch 1991) It sat between the Euphrates River and Hammar Lake, at the crossroads of global trade routes.

Eridu is at the bottom right, near Hammar Lake and the Euphrates River (blue arrow). The red arrow points to the Tigris River. For reference, I included Baghdad (to the northwest) and the ancient city-empire of Babylon (outlined in purple). Both are between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Eridu is at the bottom right, near Hammar Lake and the Euphrates River (blue arrow). The red arrow points to the Tigris River. For reference, I included Baghdad (to the northwest) and the ancient city-empire of Babylon (outlined in purple). Both are between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Throughout history, cities (settlements, really) have typically existed where people can gather safely and have access to resources – especially water. If cities don’t have particular resources, they should be able to get them from somewhere else. Athens, Troy (west coast of Turkey), Edo (Tokyo), Palembang of the Srivijaya Empire (Indonesia) were situated just so.

The same remains true for cities today. With more people, today’s city needs more resources. Christopher Barnatt puts it very nicely:

The modern city can be thought of as a gigantic creature that depends on resources fed to it from around the planet.

Sometimes we take these resources for granted. Professor Barnatt points out that “most cities would descend into anarchy in 48 hours without a constant supply of food, energy or clean water.” I wouldn’t be surprised if they did. It hurts when cities don’t work. Thankfully, there is sensible thought going into how to make cities smarter (like the BSI PAS Smart city framework, 2014) and more resilient (like the Rockefeller Foundation/ARUP 2014 City Resilience Framework).

Problems are not likely to go away in the future. We need to think of better ways to run things, at a faster rate, to avoid that terrible catch of which Professor West speaks. Professor Barnatt gives a good overview how cities may be able to face these difficulties with the help of some awesome technology. Check out this thought-provoking and entertainingly delivered video on future cities:

How I’m Thinking about Cities

To build cities in the world of SFT, I adopted the following tottering mashup of all of the above:

A city is a common ground for a gigantic network of people

that depends on resources fed to it from all over.

This handily reflects what cities are (interconnected people) and what cities need (resources). From this mashup, I’ve thrown together two frameworks for thinking about cities in the future that, I think, strike the right balance between philosophical and technical:

  1. First, to survive. What basic resources do we need to keep persons, as biological organisms, alive?
  2. Then to live. What resources do we need for meaningful lives?

In this conception, surviving and living are two different things. So here are the frameworks with their different dimensions:


What keeps persons as biological beings alive?
What keeps persons as biological beings alive?


What supports a meaningful life?
What supports a meaningful life?

Each of these dimensions is part of the SFT future and has roots in science and technology today. My world may not be plausible, but I want it to be as possible as… possible.

Next week, I’ll start writing about one dimension from Framework 1 (such as supertall buildings for “Shelter”) and roll on from there.

Cities produce love and yet feel none. A strange thing when you think about it, but perhaps fitting. Cities need that love more than most of us care to imagine. Cities, after all, for all their massiveness, all their there-ness, are acutely vulnerable. – Junot Diaz

By Emmanuel Huybrechts from Laval, Canada (Manhattan Skyline Colors  Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Emmanuel Huybrechts from Laval, Canada (Manhattan Skyline Colors Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


Bairoch, Paul. “Cities and economic development: from the dawn of history to the present.” (1991).

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