Bulletin, 18 January 2000, pp. 30-32.

Cities are system for managing the costs and benefits of time and space. Their size and shape, along with their relationship to the countryside, will be more crucial than ever in determining how well various sections of society fare in the coming century.

During the past the hundred years, the internal combustion engine and electrification have transformed the dynamics of urbanization. Cars, trucks and buses filled in the expanses between the railways and, to beat the rising costs of land, business expanded vertically. With artificial lighting came around-the-clock production and the 24-hour city the briefer the interval between investment anti-dividend, the more profits are made. The title of Bill Gates’s book, Business@The Speed of Thought, [p. 31] repeats a phrase from Karl Marx who, in the 1850s, had recognised that, as capital expands, “time conquers space”.

Productivity rates still rely on the principles introduced by Josiah Wedgwood around 1750 when he laid out his pottery as a continuous flow of material from barge through kilns and workshops back to barge. From the 1890s, cities have grown around ever more integrated production. Similarly, by concentrating economic activities, cities cut the time needed for exchange. But that intensification can turn in on itself to clog the movement of goods and services, workers and shoppers.

Elsewhere, the pursuit of economies of speed and scale is narrowing the distinction between agriculture and industry. To exceed the cycles of nature while using less land, corporations are grafting pharmacy onto farming. What Jeremy Rifkin (in The Biotech Century) calls “Pharming” will conjure food and fabrics from factory vats.

Long before bio-tech had been named, Australians had hoped to achieve to balance between town and country with the houses and gardens of suburbia. Rezoning made that idyll possible, but also increased the distance between work and home. Fifty years ago, my father walked to his laboring job in five minutes. After my parents bought their own house in an outer suburb, he took a 30-minute bus trip each way. Ten years later, urban planners closed that inner-city tannery and he found a job on the outskirts of Brisbane. He then had a 40-minute care journey each way. Getting to and fro ate up the eight hours that had been cut from his working week, but by public transport, the traveling would have taken twice as long.

To reduce the time and energies lost in such journeys remains urgent. One solution tried in the US in the early ‘80s was to build housing around office complexes. No sooner had this happened than the firms were restructured, leaving the homes far from the work sites. Reduced expectations of job security further strains the connections between a worker’s outlay on domicile and a corporation’s investment on plant.

New transport methods are needed before the population of megalopolises can double as predicted. Smaller cities are more likely to expand several-fold, with Brisbane passing 2 million before Sydney exceeds 10.

The net promises to make propinquity as obsolete as the typewriter. People can work from home, we are told, designing something in one hemisphere while manufacturing it in another. This change will slash the costs of office space and eliminate the time lost on travel. Yet, if place has lost its prominence, why has Apple CEO Steve Jobs brought a helicopter to get to the office? The answer is that computer whizzes cluster together in Silicon Valley because they still need to talk their creativity through over a beer at the country club. They appreciate that knowledge is absorbed and acted on through human networks as much as via electronic ones. Similarly, the exchange of physical goods lags behind the e-commerce of their ordering. Only intangibles are being delivered “@the speed of thought”, and a virtual pizza assuages no hunger.

Thus speed cannot eliminate place. Most production and consumption still happen in cities – indeed, core centers are attracting service industries, not shedding them. Nonetheless, we are about to emulate the Federation in Star Wars by completely covering our planet with a citadel of bureaucrats.

Misapprehension about the nature of change is prolonged by out lack of apposite images. Two hundred years ago, observers resorted to classical similes, referring to the Mersey as “the Styx of this new Hades”. Against such phrase-mongering, the 1837 remark that “Manchester is the chimney of the world” came as revelation, not cliché.

Once more, we lack the vocabulary to [p. 32] clarify the significances of acceleration and contraction. The mantras of millennium and globalisation point up the difficulties we have in comprehending continuous revolutions in the control of time and space. Talk of Globalisation is as unhelpful today as Hades was for understanding factory towns, Capitalism reached across oceans centuries before it became an industrial system. Manchester’s cotton mills were possible only because of the trade of slaves from Africa to the plantations of the Caribbean.

Yet, Globalisation is adding layers to this foundation. The chairman of the Coca-Cola Company, Dough Ivester, talked about time and space in novel ways. He wanted “viral growth” into China as each sales office spawned several more, instead of relying on a linear process of adding one plant after another. He also referred to a sales territory as “geography” to indicate that markets have to be treated as topographies marked by mountains and oceans. Coke can outsell Pepsi only by having the means to scale those peaks and cross that vastness. Ivester’s resort to virology and geography spotlights the perplexities through which executives must chase growth.

Apt terms, however, can be crafted out of such uncertainties. Parameter, to take one example, has not always been synonymous with perimeter. The Greek peri means “around” whereas para means “beside”. Until the early 1980s, a perimeter was a boundary and a parameter was a constant which limited the range of variations. That distinction has now been lost.

At first, this blurring exemplified the Frenglish being mumbled by post-modernists. But their jargon has become accepted the more we experience life as a friable mosaic. Mobile phone beeps during a concert, for example, indicate that boundaries between self and society are being redrawn. Simultaneously, most nations are losing their old boundaries as trade borders become porous. Customs, in both senses, are being dismantled.

Cities are re-emerging as mini-states. Some thousand years ago, the city-market-states provided nodes for the mergence of nation-market-states. Now cities are fracturing these formations: in China, free-trade zones are more amendable to foreign investors than in the central government in Beijing.

Hence, for both the individual and of the state, the fixed perimeter has become more like the variable parameter. That transition confirms that the crucible for social and international conflicts will be control over the dynamics of space and time. For, as the Spanish urban theorist Manuel Castells observed: “People live in places; power rules through flows”.