EarthMatters
     
 
Urbanization
Program Notes

We live on an urban planet.  For the first time in history, a majority of us live in cities.  How we grow those cities, how we build neighbourhoods, how we provide housing, how we choose to get around, how well we incorporate nature into the places we live – these are the challenges that will largely determine our future.

Those challenges loom large.  In the metropolises of the Global North, we face legacies of neglect and pollution, traffic jams, housing shortages, aging infrastructures, and suburban sprawl.  Meanwhile, in the booming megacities of the Global South, the problems can seem massive and unsolvable: exploding populations, crippled local governments, poverty, need, and collapsing systems.  And with millions and millions of people moving every year from the country-side to the city, all of these difficulties seem even more insurmountable.

Appearances, however, can be deceiving.  For, along with the boom in urbanization, we’re seeing a boom in urban innovation.  Simply put, we’re getting better at building cities.

But are we getting better fast enough?  Are the problems getting worse quicker than we can imagine solutions?  Cities are the key to a better future, and in order to ensure that future, we need to understand them, to consider why they matter, and to try to make them better.

If we could deconstruct a city like we could strip an engine, we’d be stunned by how many moving parts a city has.  Leaving aside the most interesting part of urban life – the people and their relationships to one another – we’d find a mass of large systems: the power lines strung out in a patchwork; the branching pipes that carry water; the spun glass of telephone lines and radio waves and satellite signals.  Everywhere we’d find the overlapping grids and weird root-like structures of flight paths and train tracks and roads and sidewalks and trails.  These physical systems of large cities make for the most complicated machines we have ever built.

Urban living, especially in compact communities, is a powerful tool for reducing our ecological footprint.  Growth that is concentrated preserves farms and forests outside of the city, and helps facilitate the adoption of new technologies and techniques for building green cities, which will have a great impact on the planet’s future. 

Much of the power to direct our cities’ future rests in the hands of politicians, planners, and powerful interests, but it’s increasingly the case that we citizens hold the tools, models, and ideas to demand better solutions, and even to begin implementing them ourselves.  We are the visionaries and collaborative architects of the cities we inhabit.

  Source: ‘World Changing: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century’, Abrams, New York (2005), Edited by Alex Steffen.

   

Copyright Lawson Hunter & Associates.
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