The upcoming weeks and months, supported by recommendations from scientists to narrow down the effects from the new COVID-19 virus, should be used to understand how much potential there is to really become part of a critical mass which wants to contribute to make the city of the future a more resilient, a more culture -based and - most of all - a more life-affirming environment. Based on the current rate of global urbanization, by the year 2050 cities will harbour nearly 70 percent of humanity. That translates roughly to 6.8 billion urban dwellers. For nearly 90 percent of our existence, we were apparently content to wander about, seeking refuge in temporary shelters, hunting game animals, and harvesting wild fruits, grains and nuts. This all changed around 10,000 years ago when we invented farming. Thereafter, agriculture of many types rapidly spread across the globe, affording us the luxury of not having to hunt and gather for a living. Cities soon rose up adjacent to farmland. Animal husbandry gained in popularity much earlier that the first farms but became part of the agricultural landscape when the cultivation of crops arose. Together, these two activities held the promise of providing human populations with a sustainable food supply and an animal labour force to make it work. Whole civili- zations evolved from these early days of food security.
But as we steadily progressed into the modern era, urban cultures exploded into an astounding number of activities not related to growing food. As the physical area of the built environment increased to make room for these new activities, farms were forced to relocate outside the city limits. Most cities grew helter-skelter into rabbit warrens of densely packed buildings, meandering narrow streets, and a passel of bazaars, back alleys and dead-ends. Inadvertently, they became very unhealthy places in which to live, and many still are. Today, the situation is even more exaggerated, with most farmland located hundreds to thousands of miles away from densely populated areas, creating daunting logistics challenges whose sole intent is to provide a reliable, steady flow of food items for city dwellers. In addition, many countries do not have enough farmland to feed their own people and are forced to import the majority of their food from other regions of the globe. For example, most countries of the Arab Emirates import over 90 percent of their food, and many of them obtain most of their fresh water by distilling it from the ocean using oil or natural gas to generate steam that is then condensed and stored for use.
Planning the growth and development of the built environment was within the purview of landowners, for the most part, and that is still true today. As alluded to, life was precarious for most urban inhabitants. Ensuring that their health and well-being were part of basic municipal goals and mission charters did not manifest until the advent of public health in the middle to late 1800s. Commerce was the economic driver that came to define the evolving urban landscape. Chronic illnesses specific to urbanites impacted by exposure to solid and liquid industrial and municipal wastes, as well as being forced to breathe polluted air is commonplace throughout the less developed world, largely because maintaining a clean environment under the current configuration of centralized grids is labour and technology-intensive, and hence expensive.