Cities used to grow by accident. Sure, the location usually made sense—someplace defensible, on a hill or an island, or somewhere near an extractable resource or the confluence of two transport routes. But what happened next was ad hoc. The people who worked in the fort or the mines or the port or the warehouses needed places to eat, to sleep, to worship. Infrastructure threaded through the hustle and bustle—water, sewage, roads, trolleys, gas, electricity—in vast networks of improvisation. You can find planned exceptions: Alexandria, Roman colonial towns, certain districts in major Chinese cities, Haussmann’s Paris. But for the most part it was happenstance, luck, and layering the new on top of the old.
At least, that’s the way things worked for most of human history. But around the second decade of the 20th century, things changed. Cities started to happen on purpose. Beginning with New York City’s zoning laws in 1916, development began to occur by commission, not omission. Laws and regulations dictated the shape of the envelope. Functional decisions determined aesthetic outcomes—not always for the best.
So let’s jump to now: A century, plus or minus, after human beings started putting their minds toward designing cities as a whole, things are getting good. High tech materials, sensor networks, new science, and better data are all letting architects, designers, and planners work smarter and more precisely. Cities are getting more environmentally sound, more fun, and more beautiful. And just in time, because today more human beings live in cities than not.
In this year’s design issue, we’re telling the stories of some of those projects, from the detail of a new streetlight to a sacred city in flux, from masterful museums to infrastructure made for bikes (and the algorithms that run it all). The cities of tomorrow might still self-assemble haltingly, but done right, the process won’t be accidental. A city shouldn’t just happen anymore. Every block, every building, every brick represents innumerable decisions. Decide well, and cities are magic. —Adam Rogers