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Opinion: It’s Time to Rethink Cities

Guest submission by Exavier Wells

Erdos China — City residents walk by an urban agriculture plot

“Radical Urban Eco-Geography’’— a way to change the nature of cities so they work for all people and the environment. By 2050 almost 70% of the earth’s inhabitants will live in an urban setting, which could potentially create a worrying outcome. The world’s urban centers are already hotbeds of poverty, injustice, and pollution (2/3 of all carbon emissions are from cities); these are trends that will only increase with more people being added to the mix. These darker sides of modern urbanization are not remotely the fault of mere citizens though, the injustices contained within cities are simply a consequence of how most modern cities are constructed. These urban centers are set up to provide workers for corporations to turn a profit from, as opposed to being designed specifically for the humans that call these cities home. Architecture and urban planning based on economics, as opposed to human lives, leads to the continued construction of fossil fuel plants, the defunding of social services, an increase in policing and persecution of minority populations, food deserts, housing insecurity, and so many other social ills that they alone could fill an entire book. As the 21st-century rages along each of these problems will compound upon each other further, either leading to a more dystopic level of inequality or the complete collapse of urban areas altogether. The only way in which we can avoid this fate is to completely reorient the way that we imagine cities, and who they are built for. The grand extent to which we need to redesign cities to function more symbiotically within the natural world extends much further than simply planting trees and shrubs wherever possible (though that is a piece of the puzzle). Rather, the cities themselves can be shaped to resemble nature itself, thus creating a more sustainable environment not only for local flora but humans as well.

Designs for skyscrapers are being pioneered to use a mass of timber (a cross-laminated fire-resistant wood building material that can handle weights similar to concrete and steel) and integrate vertical gardens into the design to increase the ecological diversity of the land vs a typical skyscraper by 1000%. Another problem that these sustainable designs would solve is our reliance on concrete and steel for urban construction, which is accountable for up to 16% of global carbon emissions. If this trend of utilizing mass timber were to become the standard in urban construction, the very structure of the buildings themselves could become like the trees from which they were made, they would be carbon sinks and provide habitats for local species (humans in this case).

Building materials are only half the battle though when it comes to sustainability as urban planning as a whole will need a major sustainable human-centric overhaul. People should be able to walk out the front doors of their apartment and access all necessities (such as food and education) and social needs (places of worship and hobbies for example) within a short walk or ride on zero-carbon public transportation. Cars and roadways will be removed and in their place will be public green spaces, bicycle infrastructure, and universal green high-speed public transit. The pavement throughout the city that has not been converted into green space or public infrastructure could be replaced with a semi-permeable material that would allow for water to pass directly through, effectively eliminating urban runoff (which causes flooding and pollution) and provide more pathways for mobility throughout the city. A short commute required for everything in daily life combined with an atmosphere filled with lush greenery, flowing streams, and local bird species chirping overhead will maximize leisure time, environmental enjoyment, and the ecological diversity necessary for an urban system that functions in a sustainable manner similar to nature itself.

In most modern cities (especially densely packed ones such as New York, London, New Delhi, or Mexico City) the social needs of citizens are put along the wayside and corporate developments are given precedence. To counteract this doctrine of corporate preference, a majority of cities should have their land and buildings relocated to social services. The city would be divided into small divisions in which services such as plentiful food distribution, universal healthcare, crisis de-escalation/social worker specialists, firefighters, universal employment programs, guaranteed housing authority, and everything else a person needs on a day-to-day basis could be accessed within their own division. This structure would allow for more accurate and plentiful social services if they are targeted and run by their specific communities.

Now, to the obvious social inequities that are left to fester and corrupt our cities. Inequality is cancer that could break this whole urban system of sustainability and social service apart. If these humanistic-minded principles of organizing our cities are not applied to the entire population equitability, the foundation of the society will still be an injustice; just as it is now.




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