Page Navigation - Go to: site index | start of page content | links to sections in this module | this section's glossary | links to related material
Stories about the lives we've made

module:Urban sustainability

Cities and the role of technology

page:Distance and technology

In each technological era, the dominant form of transportation determined the form and function of settlements. The compact form of medieval towns, resulting from the animal cart being the main medium of transport, dominated until the advent of the railways of the late nineteenth century and then the motorways of the twentieth century.

Urban sprawl developed based on ‘railroad suburbs' that radiated outward yet were linked back to the centre via transit corridors. The railway as a dominant factor in urban form lasted less than a century and was replaced by the automobile. Suburban sprawl is now a characteristic of all cities in more economically developed countries and increasingly in less economically developed cities such as Marrakesh or Rio de Janeiro.

Click on the + to expand this resource, or on the boxes icon to launch in a new window
The changing speed of transport
  • A pedestrian moves one person at two miles per hour.
  • A cart moves three or four people at five miles per hour.
  • Automobiles move three or four people at ten times the speed of a cart.
  • Trains carry hundreds of people or goods at over 100 miles per hour.
  • Aeroplanes carry hundreds of people or goods at over 500 miles per hour.
  • Computers translate billions of units of information at extremely fast speeds.


    In the twenty-first century there is no real evidence of the decline of the petrol-powered automobile. We have yet to come up with an alternative that is at once appealing to the market forces behind western technological capitalism and less environmentally destructive than our current systems of movement.

    Sustainable cities have to tackle the problems resulting from changes in technology. For example, the Internet represents a radical transformation in the concept and form of transportation. It allows ‘telecommuting', whereby workers can remain at home with IT support and Internet access. This could be a major help to decision makers looking to reduce commuting at least in more technologically advanced countries with a high number working in tertiary and quaternary sectors.

    Changing technology, changing cities

    Cities planned within the twentieth century such as Brasilia, Curitiba, Milton Keynes and Irvine have incorporated the car revolution and to some extent the information revolution in their design and zoning of land uses.

    However, most large cities have a legacy of past systems geared up for walking or possibly train transport – hence the problems of congestion, pollution and health problems from asthma to stress generated by cities struggling to manage the boom in cars and commuting.

    ‘Spread city' is a term often used for cities with large tracts of suburban residential and commercial land uses – seen in the extreme in the United States in Houston or Los Angeles. Such cities are inherently less sustainable as their supply lines are put under pressure. In the United Kingdom since the late 1970s there have been government guidelines for regenerating urban centres and promotion of higher density housing on brownfield sites, especially since the late 1990s.

    Resource Descriptions

    Learning Module
    Learning Module