Taking the sin out of the city

By Mary Baucom

“Density is not enough to have a city. The future of density is well assured. It is the future of cities that is more ambiguous,” said Saskia Sassen, a professor of sociology at Columbia University in New York.

Chicago/New York
William Baker, a structural engineering partner for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, addressed the issue of density versus height in urban areas. Chicago, the city of the big towers, contrasts to New York City, the city of the high-rise.

Panelists representing the fields of architecture, engineering, sociology, and urban discussed the growing urban world in “The Future of Cities: Dense or Dispersed?” at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting at the Hyatt Regency Chicago Saturday.

“The most important statistic you could possibly keep in your mind is this: There are more than one million people urbanizing on this planet every week,” said Antony Wood, executive director of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.

Cities are expanding rapidly because the number of opportunities available in these areas is growing.

“Commuting or employment is the primary reason why most people are in cities,” said Virginia Park, an associate professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. “We don’t ever travel just to travel. In our everyday lives, travel is a demand.”

Park said there is more accessibility in denser cities. Accessibility is measured by “an individual’s relative access to a set of opportunities rather than a single opportunity.”

The rhetorical question posed during the panel was how the world will accommodate these one million individuals—should cities become denser as is seen in Asia or should cities become more dispersed as is seen in America?

William F. Baker, a structural engineering partner at Chicago architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, said, “although we are urbanizing, we are not densifying.”

“In the U.S., almost one million acres of farmland are converted to development each year,” he said. This is the equivalent of losing New Jersey every five years.

Besides rapid development, buildings themselves are changing: They are getting taller; they are being constructed out of concrete rather than pure steel; and they are being used more as residential spaces rather than office spaces.

But while buildings themselves are transforming, “all cities of the world are becoming homogenized,” Wood said.

“We have to think much more interdisciplinary,” said Wiel Arets, dean of the Illinois Institute of Technology. “Young people are thinking about different solutions for what is possible today.”

Because 53 percent of the world is urbanized, finding a sustainable, long-term solution to accommodating this growing sector is a challenge. Over the next 30 to 40 years, a new city needs to be built or expanded every week.

“We need to think about the world as one big metropolis,” said Arets. “The world is in fact one big city with neighborhoods.”