Working Towards Sustainable Cities
I recently watched two TEDx talks, Peter Calthorpe’s “7 Principles for Building Better Cities” and Vishaan Chakrabarti’s “How Can We Design Timeless Cities for our Collective Futures?” and a lecture given by Rumi Shammin, a civil/environmental engineer and professor at Oberlin College, that made me rethink urban sustainability. From these, I learned that cities are de-densifying as people move from inner cities to nearby suburbs, a process known as ‘urban sprawl’. I knew to some extent that this was happening, individuals and families, mostly white inhabitants, want more space and a backyard while still being close enough to cities to benefit from their attractions and commodities, but I was unaware of the detriments caused by this.
Most suburbs are created for cars. They contain bustling roads without sidewalks, vast parking lots, and driveways. By not including bike lanes, sidewalks, or stores close by to the road, nobody is incentivized to walk or bike and, when destinations are so spread out, there is less of a desire for public transportation. In addition, suburbs are built with sections of single-use spaces, meaning that it is rare to find a house, store, restaurant, and hospital right next to each other, much less in the same building. Typically, there are spaces that are only residential and spaces that are just stores, such as large malls etc. When spaces have multiple uses, not only are more opportunities in walking distance, but they also promote social interactions and community building.
Along the same vein of community building, there are two other deterrents from strong communities in most current suburbs. The first is the surge in wanting a backyard, as opposed to a front porch. While a backyard is nice for children to play in or for privacy, it also is limiting social interactions and engagement within the community. Finally, there tends to be homogeneity in houses. If houses look the same and cost the same, they also attract the same type of people in terms of socio-economic status, race, etc.
Now I’ve talked about a lot of problems, but what are some solutions? How can we improve our cities and suburbs? Well, the good thing is that the solutions are pretty straightforward from the problems, and advancing technology can help us immensely in urban sustainability. Some important things is building sustainable cities:
- Give citizens the opportunities to use sustainable transportation. Build sidewalks, bike lanes, and make room for buses.
- Create mixed-use spaces. Having houses, schools, stores, and workplaces next to each other creates a sense of community and culture in all aspects of life. Also, we can all learn from each other, and promoting a community where students, storekeepers, transportation workers, non-profit workers, restaurant owners, and more can all teach each other and work together is one of the most important steps to building sustainable cities.
- Include non-manicured green spaces. While perfectly mowed lawns look pretty, planting native species and trees in yards and along the streets is far better for the environment.
If after reading this you are dismayed that you can’t do much because you do not work in urban planning or for your local government, that is not true! Do research on urban sustainability and teach your students, friends, or family about what you learn and why it’s important. Plant native species in your lawn. Support local businesses and host local events to foster a sense of community. Have a brainstorming session with your class to think of ways your city or town could be more sustainable or think up inventions that would be beneficial. Write to your local government about initiatives that might benefit your community. Reach out to urban planners to learn more about their job and urge them to make good choices.
Urban sustainability sounds like a big scary topic that we typically feel is out of our control, but it is important and you can still make a difference, if you want to!
How Can We Design Timeless Cities for our Collective Futures?
7 Principles for Building Sustainable Cities