Transforming our Cities for a Better Urban Future: Can We?



Lance Jay Brown June 4, 2023 New York


The history of cities goes back easily 10,000 years. Early cities exist on most continents and are recorded and defined by both myth and reality. And, early cities exist in a wide variety of climate contexts from the hot and dry to the cold and wet. The prodigious work of our global archeological community has helped us to see and understand the underpinnings of these early urbs and in doing so help us to understand the pure and simple activities of our human family.

Many, if not most, classical older cities still survive. They may go dormant for decades, or even millenia, but then for one reason or another, they resurface, revive. Cities are hard to kill. Ask the Romans. And new cities are built, all around the world. But now, in the post-industrial age, in the 21st century, threats to the survival of cities old or new are, in a host of ways, greater than ever. While in the past, and currently, wars and conflicts between peoples and nations have decimated our cities, especially since the advent of modern munitions and aerial bombardment. Wars eventually end and we reconstruct as did Europe, Japan, and elsewhere after the Second World War . All told, a terrible waste of life, resources, and energy. Now, climate change, man being at odds with nature, is a whole new ball game of an entirely different magnitude. As noted in the recent report of the IPCC, it is now code red time.

While we are now very aware to the threats, the shocks, the stressors we face we are also looking at new and creative ways to respond to our current challenges. We seek to mitigate and adapt in ways not previously contemplated. There are the big ideas like E.O. Wilson’s Half-Earth Day and Sir David Attenborough’s numerous compelling messages about the preservation of biodiversity, and the general notion of biomorphic urbanism. The respect for, and value of, nature at large and within the urban context including urban wilding and agriculture, and incorporating indigenous methods, are all surfacing in response to the unintended and unpredicted consequences of our unbalanced and inequitable way of life over the last 150 years.

Transforming our cities for a better urban future will require both hard and soft approaches. However, in the final analysis, the experiential city will remain a physical reality. We can only hope it remains a democratic one.

The big issues we face are now being confronted daily. Energy, its source and use is paramount, and the need to reuse and reduce grows more urgent each day. While wind and solar are the most obvious sources of non-polluting energy they are not without longer-term drawbacks and nuclear options are back on the table. Housing for all remains a challenge and was recently examined by a major UIA conference in Madrid entitled “Affordable Housing Accelerator”.

Urban mobility and urban public space, often entwined, ate transforming globally. The new mobility, cultural, and educational transportation hubs of Curitiba’s BRT innovation, to the cable cars connecting Medellin’s informal communities, new means and methods are improving the lives of millions. Claiming, or reclaiming, our urban cores for pedestrian dominance and quality of life is famously evident in Pontevedra, Spain; Masdar City, UAE; Songdo City, Korea; Ghent, Belgium; Oslo, Norway; San Gimignano, Italy, and in other increasingly car-free and/or pedestrianized cities around the world. Just google “car-free cities”! This trend, combined with a move towards the use of bicycles and other micro-mobility systems, is measurably reducing our energy consumption, cleaning our air, improving our health, and promoting our sense of well-being and community, transforming our cities for a better urban future. No short discussion can include all the conditions we need to address in order to transform as needed. Water, sea-level rise, and sinking cities, threaten hundreds of coastal cities around the world including Bangkok, Thailand; New Orleans, Miami, and New York in the USA, and Jakarta in Indonesia. Cities are mitigating, adapting, and even migrating in the face of this phenomenon. Extreme heat is yet another climate condition that asks we transform, and we are. Greening of cities, altering quotidian schedules, and of course, again planning for migration are all potential strategies to be used going forward.

All these changes rely on equitable and diverse social and political action, education, sound leadership, and good science. They rely on good communications and the use of effective data management and tools management. Of difficulty is the fact that some nations are not yet equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary for positive transformation. Some of these nations contributed the least to our current challenges and are paying the highest prices. They need support. Climate change does not respect political boundaries. We are all in this together and we must work together to ensure, guarantee, that no one is left behind.

While some may still question the origin of our current predicament there is general agreement that the planet will continue to urbanize and increase in population and that it is the role and responsibility of cities to provide and ensure a sustainable and resilient future. This is not to deny the peri-urban or rural, but to recognize all the areas where the solutions need to be applied.

Organizations, agencies, and institutions, global and local, are helping cities in their pursuit of this better future. I am intimately involved with two of these and am aware of, and benefit, from numerous others. The two: the Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization (CSU) and the Habitat Professional Forum (HPF) each have resources to share. The CSU has an ongoing Green Cities series where cities around the world share their positive actions and the HPF will unveil its report Roadmap at WUF11 for all locales to use as a tool for the betterment of cities around the world. Add to these the well-known value of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the New Urban Agenda, the developing Voluntary Local Reviews, the World Resources Institute and the World Economic Forum offerings,

Theresa Williams’ Rio -based Catalytic Communities and Ann Rubbo’s grassroots Local Project Challenge awardees and many, many more sources of research and knowledge, and we can see the ground swell of good intent and creativity towards a better life in cities. There is little time for us to meet the most challenging deadlines but there is great hope that we can do so. Let’s work together at WUF11 to pursue our better urban future and let’s act, NOW!

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