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The Growth and Demise of Cities

"In many ways, if cities did not exist, it now would not be necessary to invent them."

Naisbitt and Aburdene; Megatrends 2000

At first glance it may seem somewhat preposterous to suggest that communications technologies will radically alter the shape of our cities. Yet, that is exactly what is happening. In this article we explore the factors that have influenced the growth of cities as we know it, and their current demise.

Industrial Growth


In the early part of the Mediaeval period the majority of workers, the craftsmen, merchants and farmers, lived at, or within walking distance, of their place of work. The development of the horse harness lead to the common sight of the four-wheel wagon in the middle of the 13th century. This immediately allowed for greater loads to be carried, and more significantly, it changed the nature of town life through making it possible for the peasants to commute to the fields each day.

As mechanized production was developed the demand for labour to work in the emerging factories was established. This necessitated the growth of urban populations. To enable the employee to be within walking distance to his workplace, higher densities of housing were developed, notably the terrace house, common throughout England and later Australia.

The Suburb

The development of the horse-drawn bus and streetcar increased the distance from home to the workplace, further extending the growth of the city. The impact of the railway, as a faster mode of transport, enabled greater distances to be covered in equivalent time and gave birth to the suburb. This allowed the worker to retreat from the urban to the suburban. The growth of the city became concentrated around the railway station, until the arrival of the motor car dissolved this emphasis.

Modern Cities

The growth pattern of our modern cities derives from the effects of different modes of transporting the worker to the workplace.

This pattern was facilitated and reinforced by a range of inventions that created a new breed of housing, notably: indoor plumbing; the light bulb; the electric trolley; steel frame buildings; elevators; the automobile; the subway and the telephone. As John P. Eberhand, points out, all of these basic elements were invented in the 17 years between 1876 and 1893.

Effectively, the most significant products of the Industrial Revolution are the great cities of Europe, America and Japan.

The Information Induced Decline

"Their decline may be slow; but we no longer need that great achievement, the central city, at least not in its present form and function. The city ... might resemble the medieval cathedral where the peasants from the surrounding countryside congregated once or twice a year at the great feast days; in between it stood empty except for its learned clerics and its cathedral school."

Peter Drucker; The New Realities

In direct contrast, a reversal of this pattern is occuring in the Information Age and is already well underway. In the United States, for the first time in 200 years, many more people are moving to rural areas than to urban zones. Jack Lessinger names this phase as "Penturbia" since it is the fifth big historical migration in American History, and he notes that population growth stopped in suburbia in the 1970's. As Naisbitt suggests: "They are abandoning cities for quality of life reasons: low crime rates, comparatively low housing costs, recreational opportunities, and, perhaps most of all, a return to community values."
Perhaps this transition is even overdue, for as Peter Drucker suggests:
"... the city ... has already outlived its usefulenss. We can no longer move people into and out of it, as witness the 2 hour trips in packed railway carriages to reach the Tokyo or New York office building, the chaos in London's Picadilly Circus, or the 2 hour traffic jams on the Los Angeles freeways every morning and evening."

The key to this transformation is the shift in resource value and the growth of telecommunications technology.

Shift in Resource Value

The most valuable resource of any business is the means by which production is made. In the Industrial Age, the emphasis on the creation of physical goods meant the production equipment was the most valuable asset of a company. The role of the worker was essentially to respond in accordance with the demands of these machines and many managers were paid to supervise this process.

In contrast, in the Information Age, the knowledge, expertise and experience of the labour force are the key to production. Machinery now responds directly to the actions of the worker and the supervision of 'knowledge work' is impossible, since the majority of it happens in the mind of the individual.

This fundamental shift in emphasis is the generator behind the demise of the city structures, as we know them today. As discussed earlier, the growth of our cities was based upon bringing the worker closer to the workplace. In the Information Age, the workplace comes to the worker.


The technological means of bringing the workplace to the worker occurs through the development of electronic communications devices, such as the modem, computer, telephone, fax machine and answering machines. In combination with the use of a video-camera, to allow video-conferencing, it is possible to do the majority of tasks formerly performed in the office, at home.

For the Architect, many firms already network their computers in different rooms within the same building and even between their various offices in different cities. Computers on the building site, with a direct link to the main office are also becoming more commonplace.

Furthermore, since all of these devices are fuelled by electricity and their signals can be digitalized, soon, the 'home office' will be available in a single package at a cheaper cost than providing office space in a building in a city. If high real estate prices in major cities created the skyscraper, this trend will surely limit the need for these structures in the future.


This scenario is called telecommuting. Whilst the loss of face-to-face meetings with workmates will deter some, the possibility of increasing the quality of life through; flexible work hours; greater family contact; morale boost; and time saved commuting; will sway others.

From the employers stance, the benefits include cost savings on: equipment and space, childcare provisions, fewer supervisors, increased productivity ; and a reduced need to provide car parking.

The latest telecommunications technology means the information worker is no longer dependent on location - commuting time and the distance from the home to the place of employment has been made irrelevent. In preference to the rigours of city living, many will choose the option to stay home in a peaceful rural setting ... and our cities will never be the same again.


  • Naisbitt and Aburdene; Megatrends 2000.
  • Peter Drucker; The New Realities; Heinemann Professional Publishing; Oxford; 1989.
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