Starting with those first small farming villages, people have flocked to cities in ever increasing numbers. Urban environments offer the promise of a higher standard of living. Most of the great technological innovations that make our lives what they are came out of the exchange of ideas that result from so many people and ideas being concentrated in one area. This concentration of ideas facilitated rapid, global improvements in living standards which allowed the human population to grow at an unprecedented rate. In 2011 the world population flew past 7 billion people. In recognition of this milestone, the National Geographic society produced a spectacular feature series on the global implications of 7 billion people. The series is packed with interesting articles, engaging videos, and beautiful graphics.
In many ways, cities can be compared with living organisms. There are initial reasons that they come into being, key ingredients contribute to their growth, and occasionally cities meet their demise. The industrial revolution of the 1800s ushered in the age of manufacturing. With the advent of the assembly line came the need for workers and the provision of jobs. Beginning in the late 1800s, people flocked into cities in search of a better life. No city was more emblematic of this pattern than Detroit, MI. In the early 1900s the burgeoning auto industry provided jobs for hundreds of thousands of workers. Soon the city swelled to a population of well over 2 million residents. Unfortunately, the oil crisis of the 1970s ushered in an era of smaller, more fuel efficient vehicles. The American auto industry began to decline, and along with it the city of Detroit. Much ink has been spilled about the rise and fall of Detroit and cities like it. “The Historical Roots of Detroit’s Ruin” by David Lepeska is a good starting point for an investigation into the rise and fall of great manufacturing cities.
Crumbling industrial centers offer a unique opportunity for reinvigoration, redevelopment, and reimagination. Around the world brave pioneers are slowly moving back into the ruins of forgotten city centers. This new wave of creatives is interested in breathing new life into areas of a city that were long ago abandoned. Projects such as New York City’s High Line are shining examples of forgotten parts of a city being redeveloped into spaces that draw people and commerce from far and wide.
As artisans and entrepreneurs bring life back into urban areas, many experts are beginning to talk about the environmental benefit of city life. A cursory consideration of city life might lead one to believe that it is much less sustainable than an existence lived out on a farm in the country. Upon further examination, however, one might realize that city dwellers inhabit smaller spaces, drive far less, and procure goods from nearby shops. In the TED Radio Hour, NPR spent some time investigating the future of cities and National Geographic contributor Robert Kunzig went so far as to suggest that cities are the solution to many of the challenges currently facing humanity.
The fact of the matter is that the future of cities lies in the hands of the students that currently fill our schools. It only seems logical that they should start thinking about the unique challenges of cities now with an eye towards developing unique solutions. This lesson from Lab207 places students in the role of city developers. Ultimately students will create a fictitious city centered on a specific industry, engineer the demise of the city, the reimagine and redesign the future of their metropolis.