Picture a city. Start with spectacular towers of gleaming glass reaching high into the sky. Think of another city or the same one, with dwellings made of reeds, wood and plastics, along a stream filled with merchant boats. Walk with me through streets and alleys, tread on dust roads and mud. Listen to the hum of traffic on the ring road, the blearing radio from an open window, chattering girls on their way to school. Sirens, the bleeps and blips of locks and lifts. Notice the rabbits on the soft shoulder, the rat that shoots away on an empty pavement. Fend of monkeys. Smell the exhaust of long lines of cars in only a few dull colours (the seriousness of grey and silver, black and blue and white of course, especially vans). Look at dozens of vibrant trucks adorned with shiny little mirrors, detailed decorations and gods and aphorisms, all parked together not far from the train station. Think of a city with droves of people queuing for simple services or think of one where they wait in messy bunches to get on busses, buy mobile phone credit, send a parcel or collect stamps from public administrators. Weave your way with me from point A to B where bicycles rule the asphalt, the tidy roundabouts and stretches of old cobbles. Look at the human scramble for seats on trams, for Black Friday sales, celebrity concerts, a soccer match or a job for the day. Study underground transportation maps or use the spires of mosques and churches for orientation. Take me to the market, let’s grab a bite to eat. Check out the multiplex cinema’s or the makeshift film screenings elsewhere. Visit museums or galleries and if there are none, find the patios of arts centre where painters and photographers hang out with musicians and writers.
So many cities, so many distinctive sights and sounds. How can the characteristics by which we even recognise a city be pinned down? Cities are many things to many people. African cities are not like cities in Asia. European cities are unlike American cities. Newly erected cities are not the same as those that have evolved gradually over centuries or millennia, growing outward from an old town centre. There are so many variations, that it seems parabolic to bundle them all together and pretend that we are talking about just one kind of environment for which we can study what futures may lie ahead.
To get over this hurdle, let’s begin by looking back before looking forward, as is common practice in futures studies. Where did cities begin? Several of today’s cities claim to be the first in history but there is no consensus on which one really deserves the title. A likely candidate is Aleppo, now for the most part bombarded to pieces in Syria’s recent years of violence. I walked through the central neighbourhoods of this city in 2001. At the time it was the largest in the country. As I mourn Aleppo’s beauty and the people who looked after me then, I recall the smell of its many bakeries and nargile parlours (shisha bars), the search for New Year’s presents among the many wares sold in its pedestrian shopping street and the heat of the hammam beneath the walls of its ancient citadel. Rubble and dust remain. Reflecting on the futures of cities, this image of ruin persists.