It is said that when Romulus and Remus began the process of founding the ancient city of Rome, they first delineated the pomerium, the sacred boundary of the city. Using a heavy plow, they would press down lines in the tall grass to designate this boundary. Where there was to be a road entering the city, they carried—‘portare’, in Latin—the plow to create a space along the boundary. Thus, the word ‘portal’, meaning a door, gate, or entrance, was born into our lexicon. The portal and the boundary have since maintained this symbiotic relationship.
Though this boundary was merely a symbolic one, the brick and mortar walls that surrounded Rome were soon to follow. We may now look back on this practice and see nothing more than an abstract ritual, but we, too, find ourselves in changing times struggling to impose order on the world around us.
Whether around cities or nations, borders today, though sometimes represented physically, are also inherently abstract, and this limitation results in their being expensive to maintain, inefficient and burdened down by bureaucratic red-tape. Consequently, they often fail, and almost always introduce impediments to efficiency and productivity that otherwise would not exist. With increasing globalization and distances being rendered null and void by technology, borders—at least their physical forms—will in the future, become a thing of the past.
Take for example the world’s most crossed border, the United States-Mexican border, which in 2012 cost the US government $17.3 billion dollars in support of immigration and customs enforcement as well as customs and border protection. The EU has already taken a more streamlined approach when it removed its internal borders to citizens of the Union. Though people physically crossing a border remains one of the most common headaches for governments, the internet is linking people across boundaries like never before.
In the US, freelancing is on the rise with about a third of the population no longer reporting to traditional 9-to-5 positions, and studies suggest this may be the most productive way to work. The increase in cyber warfare, which took down one of Iran’s nuclear plants with a computer virus, reveals that physical borders can no longer be relied upon to keep a nation safe or separate people.
So what does this mean for the future of cities and how can they respond?
Just as the portal to a city has devolved physically from a massive gateway in a wall, to a network of roads and rail, and eventually for some, an airport, the boundaries of a city have followed suit. Cities of the future would benefit from tapping into the ‘connect the dots’ framework, which will bypass borders and nations and instead connect points of interest directly. Forward-thinking cities, the ones best poised to excel, will make the process of moving ideas and people easy and fast, thus offering a massive boost to productivity.
With more people now living in urban environments for the first time in human history, we have a tremendous opportunity to harness the productive capacity of a city. Money saved from no longer maintaining physical boundaries could be better spent on developing the urban fabric of future cities. High density, multi-functional spaces, and interconnectivity are paramount. Investing in renewable energies as well as innovative food sources would further the autonomy of the city.
Lastly, cities must keep a beat ahead of the overarching trend discussed, which is the continued abstraction of the world around us. For example, once scientists figure out how to instantly teleport more than a quantum state, i.e. people, across distances, cities all over the world better be ready for the next phase of portal evolution and what it means for the continued dissolution of boundaries.