The scope of urban ambition today ranges from new business districts to special economic zones to entirely new cities never before on the map. Sitting down recently at a construction site on the banks of the Elbe River, I spoke with Jürgen Bruns-Berentelg, CEO of Hamburg's bold new HafenCity project. A veteran of Berlin's futuristically redesigned Potsdamer Platz, he has resuscitated Hamburg's neglected industrial waterfront and turned it into an efficient, job- and family-friendly island, seamlessly integrated into this revitalized German city. "We've moved from arbitrary to curated urban design," he told me confidently. Just as Hamburg was once a powerful trading linchpin of the medieval Hanseatic League because of its proximity to the Baltic Sea, HafenCity's ample new port terminals look to capitalize on changing trade patterns to capture a larger slice of the massive global shipping market. But HafenCity is also designed to house 21st-century industries. Global companies such as Procter & Gamble have moved their regional headquarters into buildings that are so ecoefficient that their toilets don't use water. "For both businesses and residents," Bruns-Berentelg pointed out, "moving to HafenCity is more than a rental decision -- it's a lifestyle choice." Officials from Rotterdam, Toronto, and other forward-thinking cities are coming to learn from HafenCity, whose residents are in a way the pioneers of urban renewal for the Western world, which doesn't have the luxury of building cities from scratch.
Africa, however, does -- and that's precisely what Stanford University economist Paul Romer is pushing. His "Charter Cities" initiative aims to help poor countries leapfrog into the urban age by embracing an idea much like charter schools: Set aside a plot of land, give it special administrative status and flexibility (as China did in leasing Hong Kong to Britain), and then step out of the way and let experts run it. Romer is in discussions with countries in Africa to find a candidate willing to provide the land for a pilot project; his plan has the potential to transform an entire country's fortunes. Whether or not his utopian and, to some, neocolonial dream goes anywhere, some places have already successfully experimented on their own: China's Guangdong province has had special economic zones for decades, meant to cut out hidebound bureaucracies in favor of business-friendly parastatal governance. Enclaves from King Abdullah Economic City in Saudi Arabia to Binh Duong in Vietnam are now copying the model.
Charter cities are a poor man's version of South Korea's $40 billion Songdo project, which promises to stand in a class of its own upon completion in 2015. Touted as the most expensive private development in history, Songdo is more than a new business district or economic zone; it will be the world's first sentient city, using advanced communications technologies to make life seamlessly interactive, from homes to schools to hospitals. Each wave of new residential and commercial blocks that comes on the market sells out almost instantly in connectivity-crazed South Korea. It also represents Asia's chance to turn its demographic concentration and burgeoning consumption from a threat to the planet into a model that can be re-exported to the developing world. The estimated 300 new cities that China alone has planned are a huge market opportunity for green developers like Gale International, which leads the Songdo project, to deploy ecofriendly city plans.
Indeed, Songdo might well be the most prominent signal that we can -- and perhaps must -- alter the design of life. Cities are where we are most actively experimenting with efforts to save the planet from ourselves. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton has brought together mayors from 40 large cities to build a network of best practices for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Vertical farming, long in vogue in Tokyo, is spreading to New York; the electric mass-transit system of Curitiba in Brazil is being copied in North America; Cisco is embedding sensors in Madrid's traffic signals to make the city traffic-free. The consulting firm McKinsey recently estimated that if India pursues urbanization in an ecoefficient manner, it will not only make the country a healthier place, but add an estimated 1 to 1.5 percentage points to its GDP growth rate.
In this way, a world of cities can spark a cycle of virtuous competition. As geographer Jared Diamond has explained, Europe's centuries of fragmentation meant that its many cities competed to gain an edge in innovation -- and today they share those advances, making Europe the most technologically developed transnational zone on the planet.
What happens in our cities, simply put, matters more than what happens anywhere else. Cities are the world's experimental laboratories and thus a metaphor for an uncertain age. They are both the cancer and the foundation of our networked world, both virus and antibody. From climate change to poverty and inequality, cities are the problem -- and the solution. Getting cities right might mean the difference between a bright future filled with HafenCitys and Songdos -- and a world that looks more like the darkest corners of Karachi and Mumbai.