Today, most of Earth’s population lives in a city. The trend towards urbanization dramatically impacts our planet. While cities provide economic opportunities and social interaction, they also create unique challenges. American cities, for example, are full of avoidable problems. Car-centric American cities suffer from sprawling low-density suburbs with traffic-related fatalities, remnants of historically segregated zoning, and ongoing ecological damage. In some of the same sprawling cities, portions of the population lack access to fresh produce, healthcare, social services, and parks for recreation. The pandemic has exacerbated the problems of poor planning. A burgeoning tiny house movement and the van life culture are rebukes to contemporary American urbanization.
Globally, progressive thinkers are searching for new models of city development. Multi-disciplinary thinking can blend research from the siloed insights of engineering and social sciences to improve city life. Well-planned, sustainable cities can proactively address the challenges of urban life: traffic congestion, issues of access and equity, and environmental degradation. Moreover, urban life can become more socially, politically, and ecologically sustainable through innovative design and responsible uses of technology.
American planners can improve city life by studying examples abroad and applying local solutions. By marrying data and social sciences, complex systems science can shed insight into better traffic flows. Participatory governance can work to rectify the history of racialized zoning. Ecologically sound design can address environmental degradation and waste management. While American cities are newer than their European counterparts, global insights can make sustainable cities economically and socially vibrant. Consider these problems:
(1) Car-Based Planning
Car-focused city planning has shortened lifespans and increased noise pollution. In addition, current city design often isolates individual communities and stratifies economic isolation. Abroad, when China adopted a car-focused city, it backfired. Urban towers on streets without sidewalks created dense air pollution and more social isolation.
American car-dependent cities leave people in the suburbs surrounded by similarly-minded individuals. Enclaves of like-minded congregate to create NIMBY-ism and social isolation. Furthermore, car-based design is economically unsustainable for certain cities. The case of public transport and infrastructure is now a wake-up call to cash-poor cities.
(2) Impacts of Historical Segregation
Historically, American city planning marginalized communities along racial lines. Consequently, even today, we have inequitable use of city resources within neighborhoods and communities. Yet, access to housing, health services, and reliable transportation encourages a full blossoming of human potential. To begin to remedy the problem, urban planners must be aware of zoning history and actively work to improve the well-being consequences of these past injustices.
Collaborative approaches to place-making are a start. Readily available technology can improve citizen involvement with consultative democratic participation. Collaborative governance projects are ongoing in Spain, Germany, and Brazil. They bring new approaches to city planning, integrating information from the citizenry to identify utility service needs, the location of pollution emissions, and problematic traffic patterns. In American cities, the intelligent and socially responsible use of data can empower transformative zoning changes. As citizens work towards creating better cities, their participation and dialogue can diminish social problems rooted in xenophobia and ‘othering.’ By bringing in the voices of community stakeholders, participatory governance can channel city resources to the public good.
(3) Ecological Concerns
Metropolitan areas invariably effect the surrounding natural world in a variety of ways. Two-thirds of global carbon emissions come from city dwellers. Urban transportation infrastructure and waste management require precious city space. All of this can strain local flora and fauna. On the other hand, ecologically sustainable planning can make city life more desirable. In Denmark, for example, pro-cycling city planning helped reduce Copenhagen’s carbon emissions while attracting new residents.
While the United States sends most urban residential waste to landfills, governments must use resourceful and imaginative solutions in countries with smaller land masses. Separating inorganic and organic waste allows many countries to divert substantial waste from landfills. Waste management centers and better public education can help bring organic waste into community gardens. In Japan, some appliance retailers are responsible for processing various metals in their products. Through different progressive policies, the rural spaces around cities need not turn into landfills.
Urban centers are here to stay. The traditional and reactive style of dealing with growth has created too many unsavory results. A world of city-design style and experiments is ongoing. Insights from research and applications can help improve our American urban centers. Bringing new ideas together can help improve the urban experience. Modern city design can bring together urban planners, communities, and environmentalists. Innovative design and socially-responsible data can help build healthier cities through transparency and collaboration.
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