Recently, I had the pleasure of picking up the September issue of Scientific American. How could I not? It is an issue nearly entirely devoted to the modern city and its ecological, sustainable way forward.
It shames me to admit that I haven’t read nearly as much of it as I would have liked by this point, but at the same time, I thought it would give me an opportunity to give you, fair and faithful reader, my own feelings on the subject. After that, I can tell you whether or not SciAm agrees with me…right?
Cities are inevitable. For the past century or so, people have slowly moved more and more into the city from the rural life and areas. Many people are born into these urban areas and have no idea what it is like to raise your own food or tend to a farm — myself included. Countries like Brazil and India are experiencing incredible growth in their cities, and in North America, suburbs keep reaching outwards away from city centers. Old cities, like Boston, New York, and Toronto, found that the key to their survival was to revitalize areas that fell into ruin after the decline of certain industry, and re-market these areas to a new generation.
Cities aren’t going away. So, how do they proceed? Populations of urban areas are simply going to keep growing, but it’s not in any way feasible to keep expanding the urban area outwards. Not only does this infringe on important farmland on the outskirts of the city, it also destroys sensitive areas that are habitats for native birds, bugs, and animals that are important to the ecosystem as a whole. The city needs to start focussing on growing smartly so that not only are the areas themselves sustainable, traffic and transportation doesn’t become overwhelming, and sensitive environmental areas are protected from further damage.
To do this, cities have to approach further growth from an entirely different perspective. Since the beginning of time, cities have simply developed the land, and implemented transit later. The result has been what we are all familiar with: suburban areas that are difficult to navigate and poorly serviced by transit due to the many, and winding, roads. Instead, the new development should be built to facilitate transit, walking, and cycling, instead of cars. Transit routes should be planned prior to the building of the houses, as well as raised and separated bike lanes and prolific amounts of sidewalk. In this way, alternative transit is integrated into the neighbourhood from the beginning to be accessible and safe. Residents do not have to rely on personal vehicles, or develop modal choice habits that will be difficult to change once the transit route is implemented, because transit is the focus of the entire development.
This is generally called “smart neighbourhood” development in the literature, and describes a number of other features of the neighbourhood that I personally am unsure of their importance. These things include multi-use zoning such that residences can be legally established above stores, and the inclusion of shared spaces like small playgrounds and parks sprinkled throughout. In my experience, suburban neighbourhoods don’t have a lack of parks or play spaces for children. I suppose the idea with the “smart” neighbourhoods are that the high density residential doesn’t allow for everyone to have their own personal yard space, making the parks and such essential. That I would agree with. As with everything, things like the exact layout of the neighbourhood should be context and environmentally specific to best meet the needs of those for whom it is being built.
Personally, I also feel that the core of cities will become more and more densely populated as those who grew up in the suburbs or outlying areas become jaded to the idea of having to take care of a house and a yard in favour of being able to get by without owning a vehicle and simply using the nearby park to satisfy the need for green space. Therefore, while the outlying areas continue to be developed in this sustainable, ecologically favourable manner, the downtown must not be ignored and revitalized accordingly. If all the focus is on building new neighbourhoods and ensuring those in the suburbs are happy, those who live in the core or would plan to will, of course, feel slighted and if they are able, will move to where their needs are best met. That might mean moving into one of the new developments — favourable for the city in question — or to an entirely different area all together, which would not benefit that city at all.
At this point I suppose you aren’t surprised that my take on the future of cities relies heavily on the investment into and emphasis on transit, and with any luck I have demonstrated why I feel that way, not just in this entry but in previous ones as well. I am looking forward to reading more into that special issue of SciAm and publishing my response on this blog. My hope is that you are interested in that response as well!