The Future of Cities: Sustainability’s Deceptive Dream

Main Feature / 4th Quarter 2020

The Future of Cities: Sustainability’s Deceptive Dream

by Dr Nikos A. Salingaros

Where do we go from here? Well, that would depend upon whether we have actually learned something from the COVID-19 pandemic. But it seems we have not. The powers-to-be are poised, waiting for improved conditions so as to continue their unsustainable business as usual. Humankind never learns, not even from major catastrophes. Complacent with money and power, the building industry simply assumes that the practice of architecture will continue in a straight line, and that this emergency was nothing but an annoying pause.

Public space with human dimensions will attract use (TRAVEL TAKE PHOTOS/


Two currents—so far, irreconcilable and mutually exclusive—are shaping our cities. On the one hand, we have vast construction projects churning profits for multinationals, local firms, and indirectly, for stockholders. The media is inundated with their exciting images, and the developing world appears as a testing ground for the more ambitious (and pharaonic) among those schemes. But are they good for humankind?

The other design alternative is small-scale, and focuses on human responses to the built environment [i]. It uses proven methods to elicit mental well-being and bodily healing responses. Its products look very old-fashioned, not because its practitioners blatantly copy traditional forms, but because the healing responses rely upon a specific complex geometry that is common to all historical buildings and cities [ii].

The visual contradiction arises because, ever since the great schism of the 1920s, the architectural and planning professions pursued a narrow ‘industrial’ set of rules and images. What is ‘approved’—gets built at great expense and proclaimed with great fanfare as the ‘image of the future’—is gigantic, and utilises glass, steel and sometimes raw concrete, and privileges the automobile in both spatial and temporal scales. Fast speed implies the elimination of detail, ornament and all components of the pedestrian urban fabric.

My friends and I would instead like to see a world made for human beings, fit for children and older persons, where every place is healing and makes us well just to be there [iii]. Is this dream possible? Our only hope is through the marketplace: our cities could become human once again if and when the industry realises the immense commercial advantages of doing so.

Acknowledgment: This essay reuses material from an earlier article published in Meeting of the Minds — The Future of Cities Project, 19 June 2019.


i Christopher Alexander (1979) The Timeless Way of Building, Oxford University Press, New York.

ii Nikos Salingaros (2019) How Mathematics Will Save the Built World!, Common Edge, 28 January 2019.

iii Nikos Salingaros (2012) Beauty, Life, and the Geometry of the Environment, Chapter 2 of Agnes Horvath & James B. Cuffe, Editors, Reclaiming Beauty, Volume I, Ficino Press, Cork, Ireland, 2012, pages 63-103.

iv Nikos Salingaros interviews Léon Krier (2001) The Future Of Cities: The Absurdity of Modernism, Planetizen, 5 November 2001.

v Henrik Schoenefeldt (2019) Glass skyscrapers: a great environmental folly that could have been avoided, The Conversation, 14 May 2019.

vi Kenneth Masden and Nikos Salingaros (2014) Intellectual [Dis]honesty in Architecture, Journal of Architecture and Urbanism, Volume 38, Issue 3 (2014), 187-191.

vii Michael W. Mehaffy and Nikos Salingaros (2019) Building Tomorrow’s Heritage. I. What historic structures can teach us about making a better future, Preservation Leadership Forum, National Trust for Historic Preservation, 26 February 2019.

viii Michael W. Mehaffy and Nikos Salingaros (2006) Geometrical Fundamentalism, Chapter 9 of A Theory of Architecture, 2nd

Edition, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon.

ix Miriel Ko (2020) The biophilic office: Reconnecting nature to the workforce, FuturArc Journal, 2020.

x Nikos Salingaros (2019) The biophilic healing index predicts effects of the built environment on our wellbeing, JBU — Journal of Biourbanism, Volume 8, No. 1 (2019), 13-34.

xi Nikos Salingaros (2015) Biophilia and Healing Environments, Terrapin Bright Green LLC, New York.

xii Paul Downton (2016) Green roofs and walls, in C. McGee, Editor, Your home: Australia’s guide to environmentally sustainable homes, 5th edition, Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, Canberra, pages 299–307.

xiii Nirmal Kishnani (2019) Ecopuncture, FuturArc/BCI Asia Construction Information, Singapore, 2019.

xiv Paul Downton, D. Jones, J. Zeunert and P. Roös (2017) Biophilic design applications: Putting theory and patterns into built environment practice, KnE Engineering – The international conference on design and technology, pages 59–65.

xv Ettore Maria Mazzola (2019) Unsustainable Sustainable Versus Inheritable Development, New Design Ideas, Vol. 3, No.1 (2019), 21-31.

xvi Nikos Salingaros (2017) Neuroscience and Preservation: Measuring the Healing Properties of Places, Preservation Leadership Forum, National Trust for Historic Preservation, 24 October 2017.

xvii Michael W. Mehaffy and Nikos Salingaros (2013) Why Green Often Isn’t, Resilience, 5 April 2013.

xviii Nikos Salingaros (2019) Beauty and the Nature of Matter: The Legacy of Christopher Alexander, New English Review, 1 May 2019.

xix Richard Florida (2019) The Beauty Premium: How Urban Beauty Affects Cities’ Economic Growth, City Lab, 15 May 2019.

xx Christopher Alexander, S. Ishikawa, M. Silverstein, M. Jacobson, I. Fiksdahl-King and S. Angel (1977) A Pattern Language, Oxford University Press, New York.

xxi Nikos Salingaros (2018) Design should follow human biology and psychology, Journal of Biourbanism, Volume 7, No. 1 (2018), 25-36. should follow human JBU_VII_1_2018.pdf

xxii Marco Aresta y Nikos Salingaros (2020) La importancia del espacio doméstico en tiempos de COVID-19, Plataforma Arquitectura, 6 de Mayo de 2020.

xxiii Michael Mehaffy, Yulia Kryazheva, Andrew Rudd and Nikos A. Salingaros (2019) A New Pattern Language for Growing Regions: Places, Networks, Processes, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon, 2019.

xxiv Nikos Salingaros (2015) How Do We Create Healing Spaces?, Metropolis, 25 November 2015.

xxv Michael Mehaffy (2012) The Real Reason Cities Can Be So Much Greener Than Other Places, City Lab, 22 February 2012.

xxvi Kongjian Yu (2017) Green Infrastructure Through the Revival of Ancient Wisdom, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Summer Bulletin, 2017.

xxvii Mumtaz Soogund interviews Nikos Salingaros (2013) Energy Advice: Think Long Term and at the Local Level!, Permaculture Research Institute, 25 March 2013.

xviii Jack Airey, Editor (2019) Building Beautiful, Policy Exchange, London, UK.

xxix Michael Mehaffy, Yulia Kryazheva, Andrew Rudd and Nikos A. Salingaros (2019) Pattern 2.3: PUBLIC SPACE SYSTEM, in A New Pattern Language for Growing Regions: Places, Networks, Processes, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon, 2019, pages 48-51.

xxx Ann Sussman and Nikos Salingaros (2020) Biometric pilot-studies reveal the arrangement and shape of windows on a traditional façade to be implicitly “engaging”, whereas contemporary façades are not, Urban Science, Volume 4, Issue 2: article number 26, May 2020, 1-19.

xxxi Nikos Salingaros and Pietro Pagliardini (2016) Geometry and life of urban space, Chapter in: Back to the Sense of the City, 11th Virtual City & Territory International Monograph Book, Centre of Land Policy and Valuations (Centre de Política de Sòl i Valoracions), Barcelona, Spain (2016), pages 13-31.

xxxii Michael Mehaffy, Yulia Kryazheva, Andrew Rudd and Nikos A. Salingaros (2019) Pattern 6.1: PLACE NETWORK, in A New Pattern Language for Growing Regions: Places, Networks, Processes, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon, 2019, pages 97-100.

xxxiii Nikos Salingaros (1998) Theory of the Urban Web, Journal of Urban Design, Vol. 3 (1998), 53-71. Chapter 1 of Principles of Urban Structure, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon, 2014. of the Urban Web.pdf

xxxiv Nikos Salingaros (1999) Urban space and its information field, Journal of Urban Design, Volume 4 (1999), 29-49. Chapter 2 of Principles of Urban Structure, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon, 2014.

xxxv Nikos Salingaros (2012) Fractal Art and Architecture Reduce Physiological Stress, JBU — Journal of Biourbanism, Volume II, No. 2 (2012), 11-28.

xxxvi Nikos Salingaros (2018) Socio-cultural Identity in the Age of Globalization, New Design Ideas, Volume 2, No. 1 (2018), 5-19. N.pdf

xxxvii Maddalena Iovene, Nicholas Boys Smith and Chanuki Seresinhe (2019) Of Streets and Squares, Create Streets, Cadogan, London, UK.

xxxviii Jay Walljasper (2019) How a Florida beach town changed how we live: 12 Ways that Seaside revolutionized how we think about cities and towns, Public Square, 14 May 2019.

xxxix Nicola Maggi (2013) Quer Pasticciaccio Brutto de La Spezia, Collezione da Tiffany, 22 August 2013.

xl Nikos Salingaros (2017) Design Patterns and Living Architecture, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon.

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