Shaping a Usable Future

Frtiz Lang’s “Metropolis”

We have tried here in the last months to describe how our cities, where more than half the world’s population now lives, (80% of all Americans live in cities) are obsolete, and are failing and will more acutely fail to operate as usable human communities in the years ahead. This obsolescence and failure is no longer subject to debate. We face increasingly serious shortages of water, energy, and food. We face changing climates coupled with rampant pollution. And in the US, these facts are combined with unacceptably high levels of resource consumption. All these certainties suggest that we urgently rethink and reimagine our cities. The way we live in our cities must change, we must make these changes now, and at the speed of light.

What revisions do we need to consider as we imagine the next city? If we can talk about what needs to be done, perhaps it will be easier to envision some of the changes we must make in order to shape a usable urban future. Maybe some kind of plan or approach can begin to emerge, with lists of options and sequences. And if we begin to make suggestions, perhaps our readers can naysay, rebut, fill in the blanks, and show us all better ways to make our urban futures.

And so I have been making lists, creating outlines, drawing doodles, and doing research to try and find some means by which to understand, and then articulate in words and images, some of our needs. To begin sketching out the next city, here are ten objectives we can say that the next city should achieve:

Paris, and a Smart Car. Image from flickr.

1. First, and perhaps foremost, the next city must be for people, and not cars. We have to get rid of cars. A geometric increase in transit options is absolutely required, scaled from the very local to the national and international. Build no more roads, or parking – we will need this land for other things. We must cure ourselves of the notion that an emerging technology will suddenly pop up to allow us to continue to drive cars – cars are obsolete. Even hybrids. Buy a Segway, and a new raincoat.

Las Ramblas, Barcelona. Image from flickr.

2. The next city must be very dense, with mixtures of uses, where we can easily walk or bike to work, to shop, or to sustain our social and cultural lives. The density comes with the walkability. We advocate the 1 mile walking circle – for most folks, that’s 20 minutes – as a good measure of an urban neighborhood. What makes the center of a neighborhood? Transit, markets, other shops, library, churches, food spots and cafes, some office spaces for the local health care folks, and perhaps one or two city-wide attractions or institutions.

3. Anything that is old stays. When we build, we embody our buildings with the energy and materials it takes to create them. Energy is precious. If it’s there already, we need to alter it perhaps, change its use or modify its configuration. But let’s not throw anything away. And it should go without saying that anything new must be built to the highest levels of sustainability. Beyond LEED platinum – all the way to zero. If the new can’t measure up, don’t build it.

The Straus Building (r.) and the McCormick Building, Chicago. Both built as offices, both now residences.

4. We will need to understand that with increased density will likely come scale shifts to smaller homes, in perhaps unexpected places. Most of us will work in our homes, instead of in the office buildings that fill our cities. We will need to convert most of those buildings to live/work residences, a process that is already underway in most US urban centers. And strip malls?

Danish wind farm, near Copenhagen.

5. The next city must generate its energy in a sustainable fashion. Perhaps this will mean some form of distributed generation, where energy is created on a much more localized scale. Using a combination of sustainable techniques, in concert with one another, we can take best advantage of local and regional characteristics: sun, wind, tides, seasons, even perhaps our own walking could be turned into energy assets. We could combine, say, solid oxide fuel cells, thin film solar panels, wind if we have it, and other techniques, and we could do so in polygenerational ways: a single local plant could generate our power, heat, and cooling. And perhaps this happens at the scale of a neighborhood instead of an entire region.

6. We must also quickly alter the ways we manage what is becoming our most precious resource – water. As with energy, perhaps we can do this at a local scale, using distributed water treatment systems. We must begin to imagine our water resources as existing in a closed – not an open – loop, where nearly all of our water is used, treated, and reused indefinitely, and we replenish the system for evaporation only. And we can disconnect our toilets from this open loop, and compost human waste, perhaps combined with table scraps and other compostable natural waste, and recapture the nutrients and organic matter and return them to the soil.

7. Food must come from very near the city. We cannot afford to ship food across the country, or the world. ‘Eat local’ is a trendy mantra, but for a variety of very good reasons, ranging from conserving energy to improving our health, we need to substantially increase the percentage of our sustenance that comes from each urban region. Food costs have risen 50% since last October, mostly due to rising petroleum costs.

Community garden, Boston. Image from flickr.

Community gardens can sprout up on unused parking lots. Increasing numbers of local markets can share locally grown fare. Community supported agriculture (local farms – known as CSAs) will increase exponentially. And we will all begin to relearn what it means to eat seasonally, regionally. In Hanoi, as Dr. Lester Brown of the Earth Watch Institute tells us, 80% of the fresh vegetables come from farms in or adjacent to the city, as well as 50% of the chicken and pork and fish, and 40% of the eggs.

8. Non-organic solid waste must cease, or be substantially curbed. Not only because this uses enormous amounts of land, and takes enormous amounts of energy to create, but also because much of this waste ends up in the ocean, or takes such a long time to degrade that it represents a very serious long term pollution source. All packaging must be bio-degradable. No plastics. Only soy inks. You get the idea.

9. Expect, and consume, less. As Jared Diamond, Professor of Geography at UCLA, tells us: “If India as well as China were to catch up (to our rate of consumption) world consumption rates would triple. If the whole developing world were to catch up, world rates would increase elevenfold. It would be as if the world population ballooned to 72 billion.”  Feeling a bit crowded? How much of what we buy on a weekly basis is really required to sustain a decent life? Eschew Wal-Mart.

Pusan, Korea. image from flickr.

The new image of an idea – a CFL.

10. Change all the next city’s light bulbs. If the world replaced all incandescent bulbs with CFLs (compact fluorescent lights) we would reduce electricity consumption by 75%. Shocking but true. Said another way, if every American home acquired one CFL, the electricity saved would power a city of 1.5 million. Or said yet another way, installing one CFL is equal to removing 1.3 million cars from the road.

And while we’re at it, let’s replace all streetlights and traffic signals and outdoor lighting with LEDs (light emitting diodes) – this technology has had some remarkable breakthroughs, and LEDs consume 10% of a streetlight’s energy, while lasting 10 times longer.

Ten objectives for the next city. What are we missing? Besides how to pay for all the changes, generate the national will to make these changes, and then accomplish them. Other than that?

These goals require a fundamental rethinking of our national infrastructure, our industry, our economy, what we spend and how we tax, and how we live and work. Ready? Go change your lightbulbs.

4 thoughts on “Shaping a Usable Future

  1. Hi,
    I think we have to start believing that our existence on this planet is a luxury product. Certainly as far as energy and non recyclable materials are concerned. As whoever said “When it’s gone, it’s gone”

    Not turned into an anarchist yet! but I am feeling a real sense of unease about how far off the tipping point is!

    My own personal tipping point is when I realised that I have spent more on petrol than on food one week. I will be attempting to go to college on the bike for at least the majority of the next academic year! Should save at least £1500!

    Great comments! I wonder who will read them…


  2. Eat less, drive less and you have more money for wine – the low carbon alternative!

  3. I’ve been searching for an old ratty strip mall space for a studio–I think especially the older, smaller strip malls could become interesting places–clusters of activities. Nice –tho scary–post. I heard yesterday on the radio that China’s economy will have surpassed ours by 2035 (the show was urging more mandarin taught in schools!!)

  4. Greg – bottoms up!

    Bon – they are teaching Mandarin in the Chicago public schools – I guess they got it.

    If we take an old strip mall and fill the storefronts with artists and cafes and a book store, and then build places to live or community gardens in the parking lot, perhaps we’ll have something.

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