The rapid pace of urbanization over the past two decades has produced megacities of staggering size and complexity. Most are located in the developing world: in China alone there are 5 cities with populations over 10 million. Architects are fascinated with the megacity phenomenon, and have produced vast amounts of documentary research. But the reality is that the discipline of architecture has been powerless in the face of the complex economic, technical, social, political and environmental forces shaping the megacity. Two questions are worth asking: Does it make sense for architects to persist in the naïve belief that they could ever have a meaningful impact on the megacity? And is the proliferation of megacities actually a viable solution to the problems of global urbanism?

Zipf’s law tells us that in any country, the number of very large cities is going to limited. The Microcites research project at the CAUI suggests that architects and urban thinkers might more profitably turn their attention to the opposite scale of urban development: successful small-scale cites with a productive regional presence. The United States Office of Management and Budget has defined 536 micropolitan statistical areas: urban aggregations of between 10,00 and 50,000 population, with at least one urban core and a positive social and economic integration of core and surrounding area. At a time when the small size and agility have become watchwords for innovation, it seems strange that architects would persist in their preoccupation with bigness.

This research sets out to document and understand viable small cites in the US and abroad. Our focus, unlike the OMB, is on the urban core. The research examines how the proliferation of digital technologies and 21st century infrastructures has blurred conventional relationships between city and countryside. Beyond scale, what are the essential characteristics that define a city? What is the smallest viable urban unit? Is it possible to imagine a series of dynamic microcities as a viable response to the social, economic and environmental challenges of global urbanism today?