As I have travelled around the world extensively, I feel that perhaps I am able to spot patterns that elude many other people. One such pattern is the rapid development of developing countries, and especially their cities.
The more I travel, the more a lot of these places start to look the same, and the more I start to appreciate just how beautiful many parts of Europe are, even if it is just a historical accident.
I get the feeling that in the rush to develop the cities of the future, we have forgotten the fact that these cities need to be fit to be lived in by human beings. Of course, you cannot compare Florence to Phnom Penh, but there is probably more money going into development in Phnom Penh than there is in Florence right now (where it is difficult to build anything new anyway).
The developing cities of the future will be large and probably quite wealthy, but will they enable a high quality of life? Or, will they become another Bangkok or Jakarta, where traffic clogs the streets and you cannot breathe in clean air?
And this comes to a discussion on the amount of government regulation that should or should not be allowed with regard to construction permits. The new developing cities are a pure expression of the free market. Anyone, anywhere, can build whatever they want in any style that they want. While this is great for the individual, they get the precise house or shopfront that they need at the budget that they can afford, we may end up over-optimising for individual freedom at the expense of everyone’s quality of life. There is no coherence in these new cities, nothing that provides a specific “style”, and so they are objectively quite ugly. Buildings are rushed, things that will stand for the next fifty or one hundred years are built overnight, with little thought on how this will affect the communities around them or the second and third-order consequences of the changes in population densities.
But then again, perhaps this is just my priority as a European who was born in Venice. The priority for many people in developing countries is not the beauty of the architecture but having an affordable place to live. Governments need to approve building projects as fast as they can purely to keep up with the projected population growth and ensure that everyone can find a place to sleep. The populations are not yet concerned with aesthetics, because they are more pressing problems.
The only problem is that eventually, once the basic needs of life are met for everyone, they will be concerned about living in a place that does nurture the human mind, and these places will be seriously lacking.
So should we artificially slow down the development of the world’s cities to ensure that things are beautiful and fit for true human habitation? Is it right to keep more people in poverty in the present moment to safeguard the lifestyle of people that have not even been born yet?
Should the government regulate construction and building styles, or should we let the free market reign supreme? It is fine to knock down a historical villa to build a pizza place?
One thing I have noticed is that everywhere one goes, there is an attempt to emulate the European lifestyle in some ways. The outside coffee culture, the facades, and so on. This does not mean that European culture is superior, but perhaps, at least in some areas, Europe has done a good job of mixing the old and new together in a way that works for human beings.