Smart “home” cities for a population in search of prosperity and sustainable growth

En la ciudad de Nueva York

For a city to be considered “humanly habitable” by those who have to live in it, it has to meet much more than simple conditions of health, comfort, cleanliness and ease of transportation. We are gradually realizing, as the latest advances in urban sustainability have shown, that cities must be psychologically and emotionally habitable for all of us who have to make them our home, which is different from making them our “house”, since there is an added component of “stability” and “rootedness” in the home that does not have to be present when we only occupy a space in which to take shelter at night or store our belongings, something that the concept of “home” always fulfills.

What people say

Cities advance at the pace set by the people who live in them, and they are transformed only if those who live in them are involved in their continuous improvement. It is not only those responsible for urban planning, not only those responsible for urban transport, not only those responsible for local government who have to set the lines of general growth of the city they have to manage, but it is the citizens who have to accept, integrate and implement any idea, vision or planning that these leaders and managers decide to implement.

We are at a point in our civilization where we estimate that in a few decades most of humanity will be living in cities. Some of them are running out of physical space to be able to find a place where to continue adding more housing and all the necessary services to deal with the increase of the population that has not stopped arriving, by migration from rural nuclei or towns, towards the capitals and metropolises of the planet.

Although there are many elements that make life in a big city complicated, such as traffic problems, air, light and noise pollution, problems of coexistence, universal access to basic services, etc., in general a city that does not function perfectly 100% in all senses is still preferred to smaller places, depopulated in certain aspects (both in terms of people and minimum services) and far from the neuralgic points of economic growth in the world.

Personal interaction as a driver of prosperity

Since opportunities for development and prosperity tend to be found where the greatest number of people can interact with each other to offer and exchange products and services, the greater the capacity of a city to offer places and opportunities for this type of economic exchange system, the better off the population that makes use of them tends to be. If a shoemaker has to travel 50 km to be able to offer his products to a public that can buy them, he has much less chance of developing and increasing his economic activity in a small town than in a big city, and, although this example is obvious and understood by everyone, it is precisely these opportunities that are subconsciously causing an increasing part of the population to move to the center and outskirts of the big cities of the planet where it is perceived that they will find better and more ways to get ahead.

Although this concept is not always valid in the developed and “richer” cities and areas of our civilization, where in certain aspects the opposite is true, it is true in developing countries, causing the capitals or most important cities of nations in the process of economic growth to concentrate the majority of the population of the region or of the entire country.

Why does the opposite happen, to some extent, in developed countries? Because in these places, a part of the population can afford and has the capacity to leave the city with certain economic advantages that allow them a comfortable and comfortable life away from the crowds, something that is not possible for those who flee the countryside or the town looking for precisely that economic capacity and resources to get ahead.

Those who can, leave

Therefore, in cities of the most economically developed and advanced Europe, America or Asia, or, in fact, anywhere in the world, people who have already reached a certain economic level and are looking for another type of quieter life leave the cities, while people who are looking to start their professional life, advance and raise a family or build a better future, come to them by the thousands.

This apparent contradiction means that the flow of people in and out of the cities is not equitable, with far fewer people leaving to live outside the cities than arriving in them. Those who leave can, and in fact do, look for homes and housing much better than those they had in the city itself, with amenities reserved only for those who can afford to pay a certain price for them, while those who arrive may be exchanging or leaving a huge home in a small town for a tiny apartment in an overcrowded building.

This apparent voluntary loss of quality of life is based on people’s psychological processes related to the fact that always, in the city, you can continue to climb steps in economic, personal and professional development, while in places without this possibility, such as small urban centers, the countryside and rural environment or smaller towns, despite having a huge house and a lot of land and better quality of life, you have a “cap” on your development and growth imposed by the lack of economic possibilities or exchange and interconnection with other groups and communities that are present in the city.

Thus, we see that the villages will not disappear, that rural areas will not cease to exist, but their inhabitants will change their profile as the more developed classes of the cities leave them to settle in them, but without interest in exploring job opportunities or growth that these villages do not offer them, but which they do not need either, since the rural environment is used as a place of “retreat” or as a way to leave the chaos of the city, the stress of the city, and its continuous overcrowding. The village or the countryside become the desired destination for those who have already completed the transition and growth that the city offered them, and now, in general, no longer want to belong to it.

Does this mean then that our cities are going to be only places of passage until everyone reaches an economic level to be able to afford a house or residence outside of them and no longer need to move to build a livelihood or a career path? It is possible that on a small scale yes, for that minority that has grown up and taken advantage of the opportunities and circumvented the problems of the city, but it will not be so for the majority. In general, those who arrive and settle in the city will end their entire lives in the city.

The magnetism of living in community

It has been explained to us ad nauseam that we are social beings by nature, that we live in communities and that only communities allow the development of the individual under the protective umbrella of the group to which he belongs. This concept being somewhat abstract, it is not present in the conscious mind and daily thoughts of those of us who have to get up in the morning and take the car to go to our workplace thinking about the thousand tasks of the day, while patiently enduring traffic jams, unconsciously breathing polluted air and saturating our senses with noise and excessive information from the radio, news, advertising and billboards. For these, the advantages of living in a community are not always obvious, since, in fact, it puts us in a much worse mood than the simple fact of getting up in a house in the country where we have to walk to work in a nearby field or in a local business. But, nevertheless, we see that we do not thrive as much as we would like to in this environment that, a priori, seen from the outside, provides much more quality of life than the regular obligations of every urbanite.

Why then do we not realize this and continue to prefer, in general, the hustle and bustle of the city and its permanent stress? The answer most people would give us is related to the opportunity to have more services at hand, so having a hospital 30km away vs. having one two subway stops away, having 10 schools to choose from or only one 40 minutes from your house, being able to go to the movies every Saturday across a couple of streets or having only one bar to go down for a drink, is what makes us prefer, again, in general, the city to the rural environment, but, on the other hand, it is not entirely correct, or, at least, it is only a reason on the surface of a deeper and apparently complete reasoning.

The real reason for migration to the huge cities is their magnetism, the attraction that the big city with its millions of inhabitants exerts far beyond the limits of its physical space. This magnetism, so to speak, provokes a “call” effect, based on a collective psyche that reinforces the belief that whatever does not happen in the city or cannot be done in the city, cannot be done anywhere.

Who has generated and why does this collective psyche and “urban magnetism” exist? It has been generated over time, since the times of those first founders of simple settlements centuries ago who arrived at a point and settled there, made it grow and consolidated it, establishing in the mentality or perception of the newly created community that that place was going to be their “particular Eden”, in the sense that they had founded, and were making prosper, the geographic location where they were going to be able to build “their home”.

A growing sense of belonging

Since “home” is what we all need, as these small settlements attracted more people, a greater number of human beings secured in that geographical space the necessary “energy” to make it more attractive to others who might come from outside, promoting the settlement of more people, as if it were a subconscious marketing campaign, since they showed those “foreigners” how they had been able to turn a “basic” settlement into a common “home” for larger and larger communities.

This process that started centuries, if not millennia ago, is the psychological basis for the “magnetism” and attraction of the huge metropolises of the planet, because of the concept of “if everybody is in the city it will be because it is the best place to live”, something that when you analyze it consciously you know it doesn’t have to be true, but that, nevertheless, when you look for ways to prosper and grow on a human, economic, professional and relational level, is the basis of the subconscious thoughts that push us to make the decision to leave our town and move to the city.

Over time, we have seen how the city has grown without stopping, and since there is no longer physical space in many of them for horizontal growth, the city has to grow vertically. By transforming the space in a positive and architecturally pleasing and healthy way, we transform the lifestyle, and by transforming the lifestyle we transform the collective psyche, and thereby make even more attractive the idea that big cities are the most suitable point and environment to live in.

But, as many of us have already seen, when we have already spent a lot of time inside them, and we see that life in them is not as easy as we thought, then, if you have the right economic position and material resources, you leave and go back to the countryside, or to areas far away from the urban centers, but with another profile, other needs and another vision of life as we have mentioned before.

A place to spend one’s life

Therefore, the challenge of our cities is to make the common psyche that they support a psyche of “home” for all those who wish to come and live in it, but at the same time a city where life can go on from beginning to end without thinking of fleeing and moving away from them when we have the possibility to do so, There are few people who, if they had the chance to go to a quieter place with a better quality of life, would refuse this offer, which is telling us that, at some point, a part of our psyche wants to return to healthier, less polluted, less stressful and less overcrowded environments. Just what we left behind where we came from when we migrated to the city.

Therein lies the challenge of the new cities, of the SmartCities, of the cities transformed to make the lives of their inhabitants as comfortable as possible, to make living in them as pleasant as living outside them, so that everyone finds a home and not just a house, and so that their uninterrupted and sometimes uncontrolled growth does not prevent people from feeling an integral part of them and seeking their own transformation through the transformation of their environment and the opportunities it offers, to avoid that at some point we are wishing to leave it, transforming in turn that psyche and that common collective unconscious into a huge protective umbrella of social and human life that all of us seek incessantly as an engine of our own transformation and growth, in pursuit of greater prosperity, happiness and personal and family welfare.

By the IDHUS Institute

The Institute for the Development of Human Societies is a think tank shedding light on the complex interplay between demography, human development, the impact of technology on society and global population dynamics