In 2006 we became an urban world. For the first time, the majority of the world’s population were living in cities, and by 2050, it is predicted this majority will increase to 75%. According to the United Nations, the world population is likely to be 9.2 billion in 2050, meaning our cities will be home to 6.9 billion people. Therefore it is logical to suggest that the future of the box, and the provision of mass accommodation, is the city.
Biologists Joseph Wright and Hellene Muller-Landau consider this mass urbanisation a positive thing. At a symposium held in Washington DC in early 2009, they reasoned that due to the migration of population towards cities in tropical regions, there has been less pressure to cut down rainforests, allowing regrowth on land previously used for logging. If populations continue to migrate towards our cities, the resulting regrowth of the rainforest could not only minimise the global extinction crisis, but could also begin to reverse the global warming phenomenon.
As the world population increases we can accommodate it either horizontally or vertically. The densely populated city associated with vertical growth is not without its controversies. Transporting the many people who exist within a city results in pollution worse than non-urban areas. Economic and social pressure can result in homelessness and the formation of ghettos. However, the urban sprawl associated with horizontal growth is equally controversial. It increases our reliance on fossil fuels as it encourages dependence on automobiles, which also indirectly contributes to the growing obesity problem. Infrastructure costs are also increased. Provision of roads, water, sewers and electricity is more expensive per household in areas with a lower population density.
Despite this, American suburbs are experiencing greater growth than American cities, but as they continue to grow they are beginning to function more like urban areas. In the past, immigrants to America would traditionally settle in cities, but they now make up over 25% of the suburban population. Shopping malls are being re-developed to function like city centres, and developers are building more densely, simply because it makes financial sense. The evolution of the American suburb became obvious in 2005, when, for the first time, more people were living below the poverty line in suburbia than in city centres.
But even though suburbia continues to grow and evolve in America, urbanisation is the future of the planet, and as we have explored in this series, the box plays a key role in creating an efficient city. Box-like design can be tessellated infinitely, meaning it can be repeated without gaps or overlap in every direction, and it seems that the skyscraper is the box tessellated to its logical conclusion. Architecturally, we can’t build infinitely high, but the modern skyscraper is constantly stretching these limits, repeating the box in an upward direction. Cass Gilbert, architect of New York’s Woolworth Building, described the skyscraper as a device to ‘make the land pay’, a deliberately ambiguous expression. Only a tall building could offer a financial return on the significant cost of a plot in New York, and Gilbert was no doubt referring to this. However, he was also suggesting the large, imposing structure of the skyscraper was a symbol of victory over the land.
However, the opposite of this is also true. Despite having a similar economy and population to London, New York occupies half the amount of land. Restricted by its geography, it has been forced to build upwards, creating the densest city in America, and one of the world’s most environmentally efficient. As the planet urbanises, vertically dense, box-like architecture will become an increasingly common site, and as shown by the environmental efficiency of New York, the skyscraper is not necessarily a victory over the land, but a victory for both man and nature.