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Why City futures? 

Sohail Inayatullah

Professor, Tamkang University, Taiwan, Sunshine Coast Uni, Australia, Queensland University of Technology, Australia.


 Recently the Mayor of Seattle stated that even though the Federal government did not sign the Kyoto Protocols, Seattle would do its best to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The former Lord Mayor of Brisbane, at the onset of the Iraq war, raised the UN flag  above city hall. These two events should not be seen per se as challenging federal sovereignty but more of evoking the agency of the city. 

Cities are beginning to imagine alternative futures for themselves, going beyond the tradition of only supplying roads, rates and rubbish. With many of them bursting with growing populations and with citizens feeling overwhelmed, even exhausted, by the roller coaster of globalization and associated systemic crisis (financial, health, natural), the local has become even more important.

 In this context, cities have begun to plan their future. Often this is a shallow adventure of merely purchasing the used futures of other cities. For example, while many American and Australian cities have moved away from the "big city" model of Los Angelization (sprawl, size and money with associated problems of loss of place, crime and health) and toward creating urban , most Asian cities remain locked in the battle for the tallest building (see villages

 In contrast is the emergence of  the healthy cities movement. Healthy city futures are predicated on  the physical determinants of health (the quality of water, air, efficient transport systems), the social determinants of health (social inclusion, walking areas, ie city design that enables individual and group health, and community making) and more radically, as I argue the spiritual determinants of health (issues of meaning, medical research on the impacts of meditation, diet on individual and collective health).

 From the days of roads, rates and rubbish, city issues are now associated with the triple bottom line prosperity, environmental sustainability and social justice and now perhaps the quadruple bottom line, spirituality as the organizing and the depth factor (see spirituality_bottom_line.htm) 


Is the spiritual city next? Perhaps, in the meantime the classical definitions of the city (city beautiful, city efficient, city radical) are being challenged by emerging issues. These issues include:  

(1) Smart Growth, especially,  urban husbandry creating civil spaces

(2) Transforming Transportation Planning, rethinking the role of the car in the city (car free cities and dual-model transportation systems) and rethinking the role of transport (from a Car to all to Mobility for all)

(3) The Smart City, wired city, moving to the intelligent city, even imagining the E-topian city.

(4) The Green City, moving from recycling to green architecture to deep sustainability (sustainability as the operating paradigm)

(5) The Community and Healthy City, moving from creating community through appropriate design to a community bill of rights to new indicators of economic development that are community matched. And:

(6) Globalization. This last issue is fraught with tension and diversity, between the grand super cities (in size, postmodern) and global-local variations.


Taking these trends further, we can speculate on some possible macro trends of city futures? 

The city defined by geography (by a river, for example) to city defined by temporality.  While cities have focused on land use policy (spatiality) the next wave is likely to be temporal policy. Cities are caught in, and part of, multiple temporalities industrial 9/5 time; cyber 24/7 time, slow time and the slow city movement; and hyper time (the quickening of time). Developing temporal policy will be an important challenge as more and evidence comes out from the health costs of industrial 9/5 time (deadlines and heart attacks - and postmodern 24/7 time (the frazzled family)

 City as one space (vertical) to multiple space (flat) to desired space (vertical plus horizontal). Imagining and creating desired city futures is becoming a new, while not core, certainly an important activity (See the work of Steve Ames - Of course, there is resistance here, not from citizens but from local counselors. Staying within traditional notions of representative democracy, they question the role of citizens in visioning broader city futures. Is that not the role of the local counselor. More forward looking politicians, however, are likely to see this as a way of enhancing the efficacy of their role and the role of local government, not diminishing it. To do, the counselor will need to rethink their fundamental role as that merely of representing their constituents to that of leadership, brokering ideas and mediating disputing visions 

The city as "neutral" arbiters of interests groups to city as ethical space. With triple bottom one, a long term orientation, cities more and more are challenged to do the right thing, to be central actors in creating and modeling the good society. They are no longer merely facilitating in a neutral manner various interests (developers, community groups), they have their own meta interest. See, for example, Galtung, Cities for people, cities for peace, cities for the future.                                                                                          

The city as a place where public policy occurs to city as public policy 

Cities, particularly, the postmodern city is now seen as policy, its actions (naming of streets, for example) iconic. Public policy is not a political process but a representational process essentially this means that the city itself is a global brand, not only a place where people live. Economy policy is now moving to the notion of a dream economy (Korea as the Wave of a Future:The Emerging Dream Society of Icons and Aesthetic Experience, ). At the very least, creative policy is becoming a crucial dimension in being a global economic player. 

5.         The city as infrastructure roads, water, bricks to the city as living. The city is moving to biological notions of what it is, not merely industrial ones. This may lead to the  gaian city sensing the needs of inhabitants (technology becoming invisible), that is, a convergence of smart technology with green values.

 6. The city as essentially secular to the city as a spiritual node in planetary consciousness. This perhaps is the most challenging macrotrend. This is the notion that the city, and the thoughts of its inhabitants are becoming part of a noetic transformation of our collective consciousness (, Daffara, Macrohistory and City Futures.


Can we then imagine a world future where along with nations, corporations, nongovernmental organizations, cities will be full players. Are we entering a spiral turn with the return of the City-State (is Singapore a leading indicator). It is far from clear if this is the case, certainly as the nation-state loses its relative importance, other actors are moving in. Cities are crucial in this transformation of global space.

 Along with global changes are local changes. Citizens are far more active. E-democracy, neighborhood mediation centres, community visioning and even local community consultation are changing local politics.

 From above and below, cities are influencing what is, and what can be.

For more on city futures, including access to City Futures: A Scan, email (

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