The Future of Cities

01 Rural 02 Informal 03 Aged 04 Microbial
05 Nerves 06 Arteries 07 Mind 08 Heart
09 Hypercity 10 Inequality 11 Borders 12 Singularity


If you trace a simple graph showing percentage of the world’s population living in cities over the past 10,000 years of post-ice-age civilisation, the line moves from almost zero to majority urbanised in just three centuries starting in the 1700s, and by the end of the current century to something approaching 100% urbanised. Map the same line over the 200,000 years since modern humans first emerged in Africa and it becomes a ‘step’-function: for most of history it is flat at almost zero and then suddenly a transition to almost 100% in such a short space of time that the transition appears as a vertical line.

Enlarge photo: world urbanisation

The 21st century has been called the ‘urban century’ for good reason. In it we will reach a point that has never been reached before, with the vast majority of humans freed from the tyranny of subsistence farming and working in urban jobs that one way or another connect with each other across the globe. The process is the culmination of what, looking back, has been an inevitable phase change in social evolution, which although beginning in the Iron Age, took only about 0.15% of human history to achieve. What will become of us in this new world? The 20th century made commonplace the one to 10 million people city. The 21st century will be known for the 10 to 50 million city and by the last quarter there are likely to be multiple 50 to 100 million cities. Will life carry on as usual as cities get bigger and denser? What will become of us as an entirely city-dwelling race?

The Future of Cities is 12 three-minute films provoking speculation about such questions based on what we know now. Each film focuses on a theme that is practically significant, theoretically rich and existentially important to the future of civilisation. Each has links to research currently or recently undertaken in HKUrbanLabs at the University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Architecture. The films do not promote specific research projects. They promote awareness and discussion about big issues being addressed by HKU researchers and our partners around the world. And yes, they are influenced by the location of much of our research. Hong Kong is at the epicentre of the world’s greatest ever urbanisation experiment. It is also one of 11 cities in what is now being called the Greater Bay Area (GBA) of the Pearl River Delta: an ultra-dense polycentric city region connected by high speed transport corridors. Unofficial population figures make GBA the first 100 million strong city region. What can we learn from it?

Professor Chris Webster
Dean, HKU Faculty of Architecture
Director, HKUrbanLabs