Six city archetypes
Every city is unique, but there are certain features that many of them share. We researched over 500 cities and discovered cities can be grouped into six categories we’ve called archetypes.
What makes an Urban powerhouse?
These cities are both densely populated and wealthy, a relatively rare achievement by today’s standards. The product of successful and controlled urban development in recent decades, they now enjoy an influential position as major commercial hubs in their region.
Location: Many urban powerhouses such as Hong Kong have developed on island locations, and this relative isolation tends to keep them immune from the negative impact of wider political, economic and social turmoil in the region.
Energy: Although greater prosperity means energy consumption is high, this doesn’t impact global energy needs too much due to the relatively small number of urban powerhouses (eight, to be precise). The large professional population uses a lot of energy on heating and cooling homes and offices.
Mobility: Public transport systems in these cities tend to be modern and well-developed, with complex networks of trams, trains and buses serving millions of people every day. However, the roads are often gridlocked with heavy traffic due to high levels of car ownership amongst the population.
Housing: Urban powerhouses tend to be most densely populated in their core, with compact and efficiently designed housing. Although the size of suburban areas is considerable, sensible planning policies continue to keep suburban sprawl in check.
Economy: Most city centre jobs are dominated by service industries like finance, and there’s also likely to be more specialised and highly skilled industry bordering the city.
What makes a Sprawling metropolis?
These huge cities occupy a vast land mass, and are to be found in many developed countries around the world. With typical populations of between 3 and 5 million, their citizens enjoy high incomes and large homes, with the majority living in large low-density suburbs.
Location: A number of sprawling metropolises - like Los Angeles and Houston - are model US cities, featuring prosperous suburbs that are spread out over a large area. But in reality there are many of these worldwide, typically in developed countries with modern industrial economies.
Energy: Because of their vast size, low-density housing and relative wealth, these cities use a tremendous amount of energy. In fact, a 2010 study found that sprawling metropolises use 38% of the world’s energy supply, most of which goes towards powering people’s cars and homes.
Mobility: Although modern public transport systems are in place, cars are how most people get from A to B. Driving is made easier by the extensive and well-maintained road networks and by the fact that for most citizens, car ownership is easily affordable.
Housing: Although there are some higher-density areas downtown, the majority of citizens live in vast suburbs that stretch on and on. Greater prosperity has led to a desire for more living space and this - combined with relatively relaxed planning policies - contributes to ongoing suburban spread.
Economy: These cities are typically based around high-value services like technology and finance, with industry either outsourced or pushed outside the city limits altogether.
What makes a Crowded city?
As the name suggests, crowded cities are heavily populated, with densely packed housing and often extensive slums. Although their citizens are underprivileged compared with their developed world counterparts, these cities are growing fast. And with the right planning and management, these cities could be the urban powerhouses of the future.
Location: Crowded cities are mainly to be found in the developing world across Asia and Africa.
Energy: Energy use is relatively subdued in crowded cities due to low average incomes and underdeveloped infrastructure, with unreliable power a reality for much of the population.
Mobility: Many crowded cities have expanded quickly without effective planning, so roads and public transport tend to be inadequate and overburdened due to the sheer number of people.
Housing: Many people live in dense slum areas without the basic infrastructure that many of us in the developed world take for granted. Despite this, it is possible to find patches of better-quality housing dotted around these cities, which are usually the product of private investment.
Economy: Industrialisation has yet to take hold in these economies, which are mainly focused on trading, agriculture and traditional manufacturing.
What makes a Prosperous community?
Like sprawling metropolises, the people who live in prosperous communities have high incomes and lots of space to live and work in. However, populations in these cities are considerably lower, typically between 750,000 and 3 million.
Location: Prosperous communities aren’t just a feature of the ‘West’ - many exist in developed countries around the world like South Korea and Japan.
Energy: Largely due to high overall wealth and living standards, these cities use a great deal of energy. In fact, a 2010 study found that prosperous communities consume 26% of the world’s energy supply, most of which is used in powering people’s cars and homes.
Mobility: Although most prosperous cities have a well-established public transport system, most people prefer (and can afford!) to drive cars thanks to an extensive network of well-maintained roads and low-density housing.
Housing: Although there are some higher-density areas downtown, the majority of citizens live in well-maintained, low-density suburbs. Homes tend to be large and spacious, making these cities some of the most pleasant places to live in the world.
Economy: Prosperous communities are often based around specialised industries, and it’s not uncommon for most residents to be employed by one or two large companies.
What makes a Developing mega-hub?
These fast-growing and densely populated cities could become the urban powerhouses of the future. However, because of their rapid rise - usually as a result of recent and aggressive industrialisation - they face many important challenges in the coming decades.
Location: These mega-hubs are to be found in the developing world. Many are based in China, one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.
Energy: These cities are quickly becoming regional commercial hubs, but energy use is still fairly modest, mainly because most citizens are low-paid. Energy use is pretty evenly split between housing, transport and industry.
Mobility: In many mega-hubs, public transport leaves a lot to be desired as a result of inadequate planning and development. Most people will need to use their cars to get around.
Housing: Although income remains relatively low across the population as a whole, living spaces are getting bigger as prosperity gradually improves. The lowest-paid live in densely-packed housing near the centre, with those who are better-off living in more spacious accommodation on the outskirts of the city.
Economy: The rapidly changing identities of these cities means their economies tend to be mixed across services, manufacturing, agriculture and tourism.
What makes a Developing urban centre?
These less populated, relatively spread out urban centres are more numerous than any other type of city. Many of them are ripe for development and rapid urbanisation in the coming decades, yet face important ongoing challenges.
Location: These smaller urban centres are spread across many developing countries worldwide.
Energy: Residents in these cities don’t use a great deal of energy, as living spaces are usually small and electricity is not as widely used as in richer cities. Industry soaks up a lot of the power supply.
Mobility: Public transport and road systems typically leave a lot to be desired, and are in some cases are practically non-existent. Most people are happy to walk or hop on their bikes and scooters to get around.
Housing: Homes in developing urban centres tend to be small, and often don’t have electricity. Because large-scale urban development has yet to take place, low-density suburbs radiate outwards from the centre.
Economy: A far cry from the service-based economies of larger and more prosperous cities, most residents here are employed by just a few large manufacturing companies.