=1 "Are towns obsolete?"

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Are towns obsolete?


In the coming civilization one may well ask why there should be towns at all. In the foreseeable future, thanks to an electronic civilization, all the cultural amenities heretofore available only in towns will be enjoyed also by those who live alone far from cities. Television will bring into our homes the theatre, cinema and ballet, the school and university, and very probably also our business conferences, social gatherings, voting and shopping. So the question arises: why should a human being live in a town? When he can do all these things without ever seeing his neighbours, and when, because of total security, a town is not needed to protect his house or his life, what necessity in a planetary society can induce him to live in a town?

The towns of our past (and this past lasted almost into the 19th century) only rarely numbered more than 150,000. This was large enough to support a university, professional schools, an art academy, a theatre, a symphony orchestra, a ballet company, and luxury shops. There was no reason for going above this number, but if a town remained much smaller it might be deprived of one or several of these cultural foci.

The cities of the future, however, without toiling masses (because all uncreative labour will be automated), without peasants (because the bulk of our food – the amino acids and the carbohydrates – will be produced by artificial photosynthesis in automated underground factories), towns composed entirely of highly educated people with leisure (because everyone will be highly educated) could certainly be much smaller than 150,000 and still have all the equivalent of those amenities. Probably a town of 50,000 would be able to have them all and more.

They would be like the cities of ancient Greece in which, if a play was being staged everybody went to the theatre, if there was a feast everybody went to that. This means that we have to build our towns sufficiently small, or our amphitheatres and stadia sufficiently large so that they will be able to contain all the inhabitants. Such a possibility of converging for public functions gives a town its cohesion and each citizen the feeling of a living civic role, of true participation in the business, government, social and cultural life of the town, and of limitless opportunity for relations with others.

It is certain that on the earth of the future there will be many isolated homes in the beautiful and immense park which our planet will be. Man, now with limitless power, will be able to create lakes and waterfalls and rivers even where there are now only deserts. Even with a world population ten times that of today there will still be solitude for those who desire it. Such people will probably be an extremely small minority, since even the best of electronic communication will never satisfy man's need for relationship, his need to live collectively. He is still a zoon politikon, a gregarious being.

Therefore there will always be towns, towns where one meets others in civic plazas and on waterways, in cafés and theatre foyers, in conference rooms, in laboratories, on playing fields and in political assemblies. There will be real towns, and their principal function will be to

multiply the contact of man with man,

beyond that of an electronic presence. These towns will be small, rarely more than 50,000 in population and not more than a few square kilometres in area; built compactly in the midst of parks and gardens. In these towns leisure, conversation, play or common work will tend to flow spontaneously into their own forms. Spontaneity in such a community will be reinforced and enlarged by the flow of information and thus by the greater areas of choice provided by communal and individual computers. Indeed amongst the free spirits of an =1 city there will be those who opt entirely for the charm and random delight of non-computerized encounters.

But joy will not be regained by urban civilization unless the =1 city provides an environment for a truly intensive and perpetual education stimulating for the thinker, the artist, the seeker, challenging for the research scientist, inspiring them all, through their freedom, to greater creativity. The solitary researcher, the break-away genius, will be served and reinforced as never before by virtue of the scope and intensity of collective research. The isolated medical practitioner, like the one-room schoolteacher, is already an anachronism. In the same way many other of today's solitary professions will become collective with the evolution of our culture. To serve them, electronic network centres will be necessary. For world television, groups of artists will be needed, for world education, groups of educators. All this necessitates new cultural constellations far removed from the gigantism of our 20th-century cities – true centres of concentrated aspiration where nature is ever-present, where life is a fiesta, where all may enjoy that intensity of life which only a true town can provide.

This city of the future, fulfilling its consciously specialized role as a meeting place of man with man, will be a direct descendant of that first town built in some bygone age as a gathering place. This function the all-devouring cities of today have largely perverted and reversed. They have become truly places of isolation, ‘the loneliest place on earth’.