Research article

The Fifth Age of Cities

The evolution of cities has turned full circle. The latest age involves attracting people to generate ideas and nurture human capital


In the late 20th century, many world cities were characterised by single-use asset classes in zones and on big grids. But there are significant demographic and technological changes happening now that are likely to change this in the future. New generations in the digital age are creating conditions for what we are calling the ‘fifth age of cities’, which looks surprisingly like the first age.


The first age was about the economic, social, political and cultural advantages of humans being in proximity. The second – the early industrial era – was about proximity to raw materials. As trade and markets developed, proximity to markets and ports started to matter for the mercantile cities of the third age. The third age overlapped with the fourth, which was about proximity to capital and the concentration of financial capital in certain cities. The post-war 20th-century city coincided with the age of the internal combustion engine and private transport. Cities in this age were characterised by roads carrying vehicles between the concentrations of capital, not just in cities but in individual, single-use buildings.

We are now entering the fifth age, where the purpose of the successful city is similar to the first age: to attract people, not traffic; to facilitate the flow of ideas, not just money; and to nurture human capital, not just financial capital.

Evidence is emerging that this age involves ‘urban dispersal’. Worldwide, we’ve observed that towns and cities linked to, but not part of, the main city are growing in importance. Where city-dwellers are dispersing to other urban centres (often as a result of high real estate prices) then city clusters start to form, so big-city planning means acknowledging the role of these outlying neighbourhoods, towns and small cities as well, crossing political, sometimes even national, boundaries. The ‘idea of the city’ may be becoming more important than the geopolitical boundaries of an administrative area.

Figure 1

FIGURE 1The five ages of the city


The way that institutional capital has been deployed over recent decades can help to explain why and how construction happens in ways that Saskia Sassen (the academic and author who came up with the term ‘global city’) asserts “can de-urbanise cities if... large corporate complex[es]... erase streets and squares... with a large footprint”. There is a strong link between the nature of finance and investment, and the resulting built environment. ‘Big capital’ deployed by large investors leads to different results to ‘bottom up’, smaller-scale funding coupled with long-term land stewardship.

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