Cities For A Small Planet


By Richard Rogers

Formats and Prices





  1. Trade Paperback $22.99
  2. ebook $15.99

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around July 24, 1998. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

Nothing else damages the earth’s environment more than our cities. As the world’s population has grown, our cities have burgeoned, and their impact on the environment worsened. Meanwhile, from the isolated, gated communities within Houston and Los Angeles, to the millions of residents of Bombay living in squalor, the city has failed to serve its ideal functions as the cradle of civilization, the engine of culture, and the inspiration for community and citizenship. In Cities for a Small Planet, Sir Richard Rogers, one of the world’s leading architects and the designer of the Pompidou Center in Paris, demonstrates how future cities could provide the springboard for restoring humanity’s harmony with its environment. Rogers outlines the disastrous impact cities have had and will continue to have on our world, from waste-saturated Tokyo Bay, to the massive plumes of pollution caused by London’s traffic, to the depleted water resources of Mexico City. He traces these problems to the underlying social and cultural values that create them — unchecked commercial zeal, selfish individualism, and a lack of community. Bringing to bear concepts such as that of “open-minded” space — places within cities that serve multiple functions such as markets, parks, and sidewalk cafes — he explains how urban design can be used to give citizens a sense of shared experience. The city built with comfortable and safe public space can bring diverse groups together and breed a sense of tolerance, awareness, identity, and mutual respect. He calls for a new theoretical shift in the way cities do business and interact with the environment, arguing that many products come to market and are sold without figuring their social or environmental cost. Rogers goes on to describe the city of the future: one that is sustainable within its own environment; that can make a positive impact on its surroundings; that encourages communication among its citizens; that is compact and focused around neighborhoods; and that is beautiful, a city whose buildings and spaces spark the creative potential of its inhabitants. As our population grows larger, our planet grows smaller. Cities for a Small Planet is a passionate and eloquent blueprint for the cities we must create in response, cities that provide for the needs of both their residents and the earth on which they live.


Cities for a small planet

Cities for a small planet

Richard Rogers

edited by Philip Gumuchdjian

Westview Press

A Member of Perseus Books, L.L.C.


The beauty of practising architecture is that it is an inclusive experience, an adventure enjoyed with others. I am in debt to many, of whom I can mention only a few here:

To my friend and co-writer Philip Gumuchdjian, who worked with me through the lectures and this book line by line; to Ben Rogers, who made me think and write more clearly; and to Ricky Burdett, who helped define the overall strategy.

To Professors Peter Hall and Edward Pearce; to Herbert Girardet, Roy Porter, Ian Ritchie, Sir Crispin Tickell, Alan Yentob and Ruth Rogers; and to Brian Anson and Dr Anne Power, whose understanding of the problems of the poor has constantly inspired me.

To Pippo Lionni and Bruno Charpentier of L design, who designed the book; to Magnum Photos and Greenpeace, who assisted us in our picture research; and to Anthony Denselow, BBC producer of the Reith Lectures, and Steve Cox. Also to Andrew Wright, Robert Webb, Jo Murtagh, Fiona Charlesworth, Emma England, Martha Fay and all those whose contributions made this book.

Above all to my partners John Young, Marco Goldschmied, Mike Davies, Laurie Abbott and Graham Stirk, whose ideas are freely used in the book and who generously sponsored the work.

by Sir Crispin Tickell

For many people, Richard Rogers’s 1995 Reith Lectures came as something of a shock. He made them see cities - their past, their present and their future - in a new light. Thus the familiar became the exotic. Under his tutelage the daily experience of urban living, or the movement in and out of cities with the morning and evening human tides, seemed almost hazardous. At the same time he opened up prospects of choice for the future, and thereby created a marvellous sense of liberation.

The first and most obvious thing about cities is that they are like organisms, sucking in resources and emitting wastes. The larger and more complex they become, the greater their dependence on surrounding areas, and the greater their vulnerability to change around them. They are both our glory and our bane. We are not alone in the natural world in making them. As Lewis Thomas once wrote of ants, ‘They are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment. They farm fungi, raise aphids as livestock, launch armies for wars, use chemical sprays to alarm and confuse their enemies, capture slaves . . . They exchange information ceaselessly. They do everything but watch television.’

Like other successful animals, the human species has learned to adapt to new environments. But unlike others, humans made a jump from being successful to being a runaway success. They have made this jump because of their ability to adapt environments for their own use in ways that no other animal can match.

It is an ingrained belief that human progress has been, with just one or two blips, upwards and onwards. In fact few trends go in this fashion. All previous urban societies have collapsed. Perhaps the earliest was that of the Harappa culture in the Indus valley some 3500 to 4500 years ago. The destruction of forest cover and removal of topsoil prevented the rise of moisture, even in summer. With sharply diminishing rainfall, declining fertility of soil and rising population, Harappa society lost its natural resource base, and simply collapsed. The same could well have happened in the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates and in pre-Columbian Mexico, as it is happening in parts of the Sahel belt across Africa today.

The proximate reasons for these collapses are various. But all are subject to three variables: population, environment and resources.

There were perhaps around 10 million humans at the end of the ice age some 12, 000 years ago. The introduction of agriculture, the specialisation of human function and the growth of cities caused rapid proliferation. By the time of Thomas Malthus, when the Industrial Revolution had barely started, our numbers stood at around 1 billion.

By 1930 they had risen to 2 billion. They are now around 5.8 billion, and by 2025, short of some catastrophe, they will be 8.5 billion. At present there are more than 90 million new human beings every year, or the equivalent of a new China (at present 1.2 billion) every twelve years.

The steepest growth rate has been in cities. In 1950 29 per cent of the world’s population was urban. In 1965 it was 36 per cent, in 1990 50 per cent, and by 2025 it could be at least 60 per cent. The world annual growth rate of urban population between 1965 and 1980 was 2.6 per cent; but between 1980 and 1990 it was 4.5 per cent. Nearly all the current increase is in poor countries, by definition those with the least resources and the lowest capacity to dispose of waste.

It should go without saying that the more people there are, the worse these problems will become. Most resources are renewable, and even those that are non-renewable - for example, fossil fuels - can usually be replaced. A prime problem today is that pressure of consumption can render renewable resources unrenewable, or renewable only after long stretches of time.

Environmental degradation has anyway accelerated. The most conspicuous aspect is land use. According to the United Nations environmental data report of 1993/94, 17 per cent of soils world-wide have been damaged to a greater or lesser extent since 1945.

The quality of the air above has also deteriorated. Air pollution has already reduced US crop production by 5 to 10 per cent, according to US government estimates. It is probably having a still worse effect in Eastern Europe and in China.

By the middle of the next century pressure on food supplies will come from many quarters: so far we have been saved by the green revolution, but the prospects for another are dim. Until recently the main food problem was distribution. That is no longer so. With recent perturbations of the weather as well as constantly increasing demand, the world may be entering a period of scarcity.

World demand for fresh water is at present doubling every twenty years. Yet even if we can husband and make better use of water resources, the available supply has remained broadly the same since the ice age. Cities have to reach further and further for their water sources. It is no wonder that conflict over them is one of the oldest in human history and could be increasingly dangerous in the future.

Evidence of the limits to sinks for our pollutants is all around us. Waste disposal may soon become as big a problem as consumption of resources. Bursting landfill sites across the industrial world, transboundary shipment of hazardous wastes, and the increasing prevalence of contamination of the groundwater we depend upon, are all reminders that the capacity of the land to absorb waste products is not unlimited.

In the atmosphere acid precipitation is a problem for those down-wind of industry; but it is essentially local in character and can be solved if there is political will to solve it. Depletion of the ozone layer is more serious. Damage to the human metabolism may seem alarming to us, but the more fundamental problem could be the effects on other organisms, not least phytoplankton in the oceans.

Then there are the prospects of human-induced climate change. Usually change takes place so slowly that we do not notice it. Animals, plants and other forms of life have time to adapt or migrate. The Thames valley is an example. 130, 000 years ago it was the habitat of swamp-loving hippos; 18, 000 years ago reindeer and mammoth roamed the tundra not far from the ice sheet which weighed on the land to the north; and only 900 years ago the French were trying to close down vineyards in southern England which were too competitive.

The last 12, 000 years have been a period of relatively stable climate. Even before the Industrial Revolution, and as far back as the Bronze Age, there were variations in local climates due to changes in land use, in particular deforestation. But since the Industrial Revolution began around 250 years ago, we have through our activities brought about the prospect of global changes, or alterations in whole weather systems. Everything is speeding up. Apart from what we have done to the land (in Britain stone, brick and tarmac cover around 10 per cent of the total), humans have been changing the chemistry of the atmosphere through combustion of fossil fuels and living matter, in particular forest burning.

Although some scientific uncertainties remain, we now seem set on a course of global climate change which will have two major effects. First are changes which could cause rain to fall where it rarely fell before, or rain not to fall where it had previously been abundant. It may be warmer or it may be cooler, although the world as a whole seems set for a rise in average temperatures. Such changes have often happened in the past. The second effect is on sea levels. At present sea levels are rising by between 1.5 and 2 millimetres a year. But if current melting of land ice were to accelerate, the rise in sea levels could accelerate with an overall rise of half a metre before the end of the next century.

Last there are the issues arising from the destruction of other forms of life. Such destruction is of an order of magnitude comparable to that brought about by the impacts of objects from outer space. The last major one ended the dominance of the dinosaur family 65 million years ago. When the archaeologists of the future look at the deposits of the last quarter millennium, they will find a biological discontinuity as big as any in the past. They will expose a richness not of fossils but of plastic bags and other human refuse. The effects on the life-support system of the planet cannot yet be measured.

So there is an accumulation and combination of formidable hazards, each driven to a greater or lesser degree by human population increase and urban growth.

In the evolution of human behaviour from hunter-gatherers to farmers and eventually citizens, cities have come to represent a specialisation of human functions. Richard Rogers will show how they represent a value added to human life. Yet cities bring all the hazards together in acute form. Human existence can be at its most degraded in cities and their surrounding shanty towns. Until the last century cities were generally seen as dangerous places. Death rates exceeded birth rates, and cities could maintain themselves only by attracting people from outside. Cities and their support systems create an environment of their own. It is increasingly in peril.

In two of his chapters, Richard Rogers examines the culture of cities and their prospects for sustainability. As collective organisms, they are as vulnerable as any other to change. There are certain obvious pressure points which we could feel very soon, for example supplies of food, water and other physical resources. But lurking behind them are others. Here are one or two examples.

More people, in or out of cities, means more pressure on the environment. It also means more refugees. In 1978 there were fewer than 6 million refugees, on a restricted definition of those fleeing from political, ethnic or religious persecution; by 1995 the figure had risen to over 22 million. These figures do not include environmental refugees, some moving across frontiers, other displaced within them, but depending on their definition the number could be more than another 22 million. Much of the impact of this flow of human beings will be in and around cities.

A rise in sea levels could disrupt the lives of the huge populations living on or near a coastline, or along an estuary. The effect would be compounded by storm surges and the extreme events - storms, droughts, hurricanes and the rest - which we must expect with climate change.

We must also expect changes in patterns of disease. Temperature and moisture greatly affect the life cycles of micro-organisms, from insects through bacteria to viruses. They therefore directly affect human and other animal health. We are already seeing a remarkable return of certain diseases whose agents have become resistant to modern drugs. Populations debilitated for other reasons will be particularly vulnerable. We must also reckon with problems arising from drainage and sewage disposal. Again, the crowded conditions of urban life make cities particularly vulnerable.

A less obvious pressure point is the consequences for cities of the destruction of other forms of life.

Reduction of their diversity affects food supplies (already heavily dependent on a few genetic strains) and medicine (heavily dependent on plant and animal sources). But more important are the ecological benefits: we rely on forests and vegetation to produce soil, to hold it together and to regulate water supplies by preserving catchment basins, recharging groundwater and buffering extreme conditions; we rely on soils to be fertile and to break down pollutants; and we rely on nutrients for recycling and disposal of waste. There is no conceivable substitute for these natural services, and all of them constitute parts of the urban support system. If we tamper with them, the cost could be immeasurable.

Cities also face problems from within themselves. Richard Rogers well brings out the main factors. Nearly all cities were once towns, and nearly all towns were once villages. The bigger communities become, the greater their loss of social coherence. Such cities as London, which is still in many ways a combination of villages with a grand centre, are better to live in than the agglomerations divided by function and lacking human dimension. Los Angeles has been rightly called the Nowhere City. Clusters of huge concrete stalagmites are deeply oppressive to the spirit. Some planners still long to create ghettos in the shape of commercial districts, industrial districts, dormitory districts, shopping districts and the rest without realising the social cost for the individual. I sometimes think that the good mental health of citizens suggests that we should go back to the notion of city walls to preserve the coherence of urban life within and prevent the destruction of it from without. But the gates must always be kept open.

If these factors are not enough, cities are now suffering from the dagger wounds caused by the intrusive, splitting effects of roads to carry everyone’s favourite and most convenient toy, the motor car. Richard Rogers examines the necessary balance between public and private transport, the corrosive effects of the priority we have given the car over the last fifty years, and the nature and variety of our dependence on it. Government research has shown that 19 million people a year in Britain are exposed to air pollution levels in excess of international guidelines as a result of the growth in traffic and industry.

This accumulation of issues raises huge problems for governance. We are already undergoing a kind of crisis of authority. Increasingly we have to ask ourselves, can governments cope? Certainly national sovereignty is not what it was. World-wide there is a switch in authority: upwards to international institutions to cope with global problems (even if most remain poorly equipped to do so); downwards to local authorities, local organizations and communities; and sideways to citizens in direct communication with each other through the marvels of information technology anywhere in the world.

Yet we still live in a world in which governments are the critical factor. Public awareness of such issues has greatly increased over the last quarter century, but few people have yet drawn the kind of radical conclusions which are now needed. Most change comes through an accumulation of small steps, followed by an occasional stumbling, then a big step, followed by more small steps. Progress is therefore slow. As Lord Keynes once remarked, it is far easier to take in a new idea than to get rid of an old one. We have a lot of old ones to get rid of.

Certain, mostly economic, principles have become common currency. It is for example agreed at least in theory that the polluter should pay. There is likewise agreement on the precautionary principle, which means that we should not only take care but also not allow uncertainty to obstruct preventive action when it seems necessary. There is also a kind of woolly agreement on a third principle: that environmental considerations should be at the heart of decision-making at whatever level.

Application of these principles should persuade governments to do what makes sense for reasons other than any single factor. Leadership in this respect is essential. But so also is pressure from below from a public educated in the issues and intolerant of shabby compromises.

Sometimes I am asked whether I am an optimist or a pessimist. My reply is that I am an optimist of the intellect because there are ways of managing or at least mitigating the severity of most of the problems that confront us. But I am a pessimist of the will because I doubt whether mere reason is enough. Sometimes we need a jolt, even a catastrophe, to focus our minds and make us readier to accept change. Catastrophe is not the ideal precursor of wise policy making. But without it, it is sometimes hard to see whether we are capable of the changes in fundamental values and aspirations which are indispensable.

Richard Rogers’s book is a message of hope. He shows how the equitable - above all, compact -city is pluralist and integrated, diverse and coherent. All of us know that there is something wrong which could become more wrong if we do not look towards a different kind of city in the future. If the ants can work out the right size, character and function for their cities, we should be able to do the same for ours. The result should be, in Richard Rogers’s words, a dense and many-centred city, a city of overlapping activity, an ecological city, a city of easy contact, an equitable city, an open city, and not least a beautiful city in which art, architecture and landscape can move and satisfy the human spirit. Richard Rogers shows how it can be done.

previous page

Man made

Evidence from space of man’s physical impact on the planet’s surface. We are now literally shaping the face of the planet. With 20 million residents, the metropolitan area of Tokyo forms the world’s largest city.
Science Photo Library

1 The culture of the cites

To begin our position-fixing aboard our Spaceship Earth we must first acknowledge that the abundance of immediately consumable, obviously desirable or utterly essential resources have been sufficient until now to allow us to carry on despite our ignorance. Being eventually exhaustible and spoilable, they have been adequate only up to this critical moment. This cushion-for-error of humanity’s survival and growth up to now was apparently provided just as a bird inside of the egg is provided with liquid nutriment to develop it to a certain point.

Buckminster Fuller,
Operation Manual for Planet Earth



On Sale
Jul 24, 1998
Page Count
196 pages
Basic Books