Better Cities

At the same time that we’re solving for climate change, we’re going to be building cities for three billion people … If we don’t get that right, I’m not sure all the climate solutions in the world will save mankind, because so much depends on how we shape our cities: not just environmental impacts, but our social well-being, our economic vitality, our sense of community and connectedness.

                                                ~ Peter Calthorpe

Somehow, we evolved to see cities as the centers of things — population, political power, social mores, and basically, civilization itself. The hinterlands were there to provide food, water, new manpower and any other resources needed to keep the cities operating. Unfortunately, our focus on congregation created many environmental, social and administrative issues, such as traffic, pollution, societal stratification, cultural assimilation, and political oppression.

In a TED Talk, Peter Calthorpe observed that concentrating ourselves in cities “segregates people into economic enclaves and land-use enclaves. It separates them from nature. It doesn’t allow the cross-fertilization, the interaction, that make cities great places and that make society thrive.” The solutions, he says, rest in several steps, “One is to preserve the natural environment, the history and the critical agriculture … Second is mix — mixed incomes, mixed age groups as well as mixed-land use.”

The problems are worsened by global issues. Elizabeth Kolbert looks at the bad news, “What’s technically referred to as ‘dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system’ and colloquially known as ‘catastrophe’ is warming so dramatic that it’s apt to obliterate whole nations (such as the Marshall Islands and the Maldives) and destroy entire ecosystems (such as coral reefs).”

“At this point, there’s simply no possible future that averts dislocation. The horrific fires this fall in California and Oregon … serve as a preview of the world to come. As Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A. & M. University, recently put it, ‘If you don’t like all of the climate disasters happening in 2020, I have some bad news for you about the rest of your life.’”

We are, however, seeing local and national efforts to address many of these problems. The Street Plans Collaborative describes a concept of ‘tactical urbanism’ — where change comes from “human-scaled places, where social capital and creativity are most easily catalyzed … Indeed, the development of human settlements has always included, if not required incremental and self-directed action aimed towards increasing social capital, commercial opportunity, and urban livability. In many developing cities and countries, this remains the only way forward.”

Elizabeth Kolbert confirms this, “But to an extent that, depending on your perspective, is either heartening or horrifying, the future — and not just of the next several decades but of the next several millennia — hinges on actions that will be taken by the time today’s toddlers reach adulthood.”

Katherine Martinko in TreeHugger reports on studies that show, “many cities in the United States could grow their own food locally, raising enough crops and livestock to meet the dietary needs of all residents … it is a nice thought to imagine cities surrounded by fertile food production operations that transport freshly harvested ingredients to nearby homes, and then make use of the leftover food scraps as compost to fertilize fields and generate heat for greenhouses in a closed-loop system.”

According to Alex Thornton, “Miniature forests are springing up on patches of land in urban areas around the world, often planted by local community groups using a method inspired by Japanese temples … The idea is simple — take brownfield sites, plant them densely with a wide variety of native seedlings, and let them grow with minimal intervention. The result, according to the method’s proponents, is complex ecosystems perfectly suited to local conditions that improve biodiversity, grow quickly and absorb more CO2.”

Back to The Street Plans Collaborative, “If done well, such small-scale changes may be conceived as the first step in realizing lasting change.”

We can address the problems we face. They weren’t created in one major action, and we shouldn’t expect to solve them with a single effort. It’s dependent on the accumulated efforts of many people in many places over time.

“The longest journey begins with the first step.”

                                                                ~ Ancient Chinese proverb.

Additional information:

Peter Calthorpe, 7 Principles for Building Better Cities, April 2017, TedTalks

Elizabeth Kolbert, Three Scenarios for the Future of Climate Change, October 5, 2020, The New Yorker

Katherine Martinko, Many Cities in the US Could Grow All Their Own Food, September 30, 2020, TreeHugger

The Street Plans Collaborative, Short Term Action, Long Term Change, March 2, 2012, Tactical Urbanism 2

Alex Thornton, People Are Planting Tiny Urban Forests to Boost Biodiversity and Fight Climate Change, 03 Jul 2020, World Economic Forum

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