The Future City in the New Normal

bdnews24 desk
Published : 16 Feb 2016, 04:43 PM
Updated : 16 Feb 2016, 04:43 PM

© 2015 Jaime Lerner
Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate

Featured Image:
As nations like China are transformed from mainly rural economies to lands of modern city dwellers, urban planners must focus on quality of life and long-term sustainability. Yanjiao, in Hebei Province, China, is part of a planned megalopolis called Jing-Jin-Ji, which will link 130 million people across Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei with a high-speed rail expansion. Residents walk on a dirt track across the Chaobai River, which has mostly dried up. (Credit: Sim Chi Yin/The New York Times)

Global warming, drought, migration and population growth have put our cities under heavy strain. What does the future hold for them — and all of us — in this scenario?

Cities have a very significant impact on climate change: It's estimated that urban areas are responsible for 75 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Before the climate conference in Paris in December, developed and developing nations alike pledged to curb greenhouse-gas emissions in an effort to reach worldwide consensus. But does this consensus absorb the world's many different realities, cultures and levels of economic development? And is looking at the issue on a country scale the best one to take effective action?

If the majority of the world's population is living in cities, and urban dwellers' activities have such a large environmental impact, doesn't it stand to reason that it's in cities where solutions that will improve people's lives and our relationship with the planet must be sought and implemented?

I firmly believe that cities can help to provide the solutions to the challenges we are facing; that every city, regardless of its size and wealth, can significantly improve in two or three years; and that cities are our society's last refuge for solidarity.

As the list of megacities grows and as more and more people move into cities from rural areas, every city should prioritize three issues that have great impact on the quality of urban life, beginning to find answers that will sustain our society in the long term: mobility, sustainability and sociodiversity.

When planners are working on mobility issues, cities must take priority over cars; people must take priority over cars. Cars have been in production for a little more than a century, but the space they have seized and the amount of infrastructure investment they demand is extremely high. Cars are the cigarettes of the future.

Cars occupy much more space than any human does. An average parking space occupies 25 square meters. If you own a car, it occupies 25 square meters near your home; if you drive to work, it occupies another 25 square meters near your workplace, meaning that a total of 50 square meters are immobilized for parking purposes. In many places in the world, 50 square meters is the size of a family home, or of a workplace. Think of the incredible benefits if at least some of those areas were used to combine home and employment; were appropriated for small, community-building businesses like bakeries, coffee houses, bookshops, flower shops and offices — or for pocket parks.

Our priority in fostering urban mobility should be to provide comfortable, safe, reliable, affordable and easy-to-use public transportation. Every mode (train, subway, bus, tram, taxi, bike) has to operate optimally and be integrated into a transit network. Car shares and bike shares like Paris' Autolib' or Vélib' also have their role.

But it's my belief that the future of public transportation is in systems like bus rapid transit, which some think of as a "surface subway." BRT systems make use of existing infrastructure — changes often involve designating dedicated lanes, making adjustments to right-of-way rules, and targeted technological upgrades to eliminate the delays associated with urban buses. Because of their good performance, cost effectiveness (it's cheaper than building a subway) and flexibility in implementation, BRT systems, which started in the Brazilian city of Curitiba in 1974, are now in place in almost 200 cities worldwide including Bogotá, Seoul, Istanbul, Beijing and Rio de Janeiro, and many more could follow. I see the BRT as evolving to one day become a system of light electric vehicles with rubber tires running on exclusive tracks, re-charging at each stop.

When addressing sustainability problems, the key is to avoid wasting energy, time and resources. Some simple ways to get started are within everyone's reach: Use your car less; live closer to work; recycle and compost. Although more efficient and energy-saving construction techniques and materials are important, it is a city's layout that can make the biggest difference to the effort to create a more sustainable urban environment. The layout is the city's structure of organisation and growth.

A healthy city is an integrated structure of life, work and movement. It requires urban design that respects the land and the area's ecosystem: the topography, bodies of water and vegetation. This design guides investments made by the public and private sectors and must involve the intelligent use of density, compactness and a mixture of uses and income levels.

As the urban economy has shifted toward service, retail and knowledge-based industries, more jobs are now closer to people's homes, and with the help of new technologies, many people can work from anywhere at any time. The shorter the commute between home and work, the more time and energy we save. Cultural amenities and quality public spaces that can be reached by public transit or on foot are also a part of this equation.

On the other hand, fragmenting cities into areas with specialized functions such as suburbs, central business districts and downtown areas condemns these spaces and their infrastructure to be idle during long periods of the day or night. A more compact city that supports a diversity of activities leaves more land for conservation, water catchment and farming.

When you're working on issues arising from diversity, it's important to remember that cities have long been seen as "melting pots" that absorb new dwellers. Much of the New World was built according to this recipe, and we cannot forget the lessons of our past. But now, both the New and Old worlds are fearful of the waves of people who challenge the status quo. Our society is facing problems of identity posed by increasing sociodiversity, and the recent migration crisis brings the need for coexistence front and center.

Cities must offer hope, not desperation. A sense of shared identity, the feeling of recognition and of belonging to a specific place, improves quality of life. A city must provide reference points to which people can relate and connect — rivers, parks, public buildings. Such spaces tell stories and protect memories, much like a diary or a family portrait.

At the same time that a city's identity is preserved, sociodiversity must be fostered. A city cannot condone ghettos, be they intended solely for the rich or the poor, or for people from specific ethnic backgrounds or certain age groups. Walls and fences are illusory protective barriers: Safety and security are a function of the respect and civility that derive from integration and coexistence.

Economic prosperity brings peace and stability. But instead of seeking solutions to generate economic growth mostly through fiscal mechanisms, we should invest in quality of life. Imagine the number of jobs — and therefore income — that could have been generated all over the world if at least part of the billions of dollars that were poured into the banking system and automotive industry had been invested in education, health, culture, good infrastructure.

A useful tool to stimulate rapid change and to help consolidate long-term initiatives is what I call "urban acupuncture." These precise, quick touches can enhance the performance of a whole urban system, or quickly bring new life to degraded and obsolete areas. Curitiba repurposed an abandoned quarry that was depressing the surrounding neighborhoods, in its place creating an urban park devoted to promoting environmental education and discussion. Now known as the Open University of the Environment, or Unilivre, it's an example of urban acupuncture that achieved these three goals at once — one of the city's most cherished picture-postcard spots. The possibilities in every city are endless: Obsolete industrial and harbor areas, degraded waterfronts, underutilised transportation hubs and dilapidated historical buildings are not eyesores, but spaces begging for new uses.

A city's design must be a collective construct, a shared dream, so that a feeling of co-responsibility informs our efforts. That does not mean that consensus must be reached every step of the way: The search for absolute consensus can lead to a state of paralysis. Democracy is not consensus but a permanent conflict that society must arbitrate with great sensitivity. Long-term policies should be adjusted through constant feedback from the people.

The crises we are experiencing should fuel efforts to start building better cities now. A more cohesive and sustainable society arises from its public spaces and landmarks, good streets, squares, parks, memorials, theaters and museums. These are a city's "living rooms," where urbanity happens. A human construct by definition, a city is a setting for people to meet. We must shape its future.

Jaime Lerner is an architect, urban planner and former politician in Brazil. He is the author of "Urban Acupuncture."
Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher