How Big Can Cities Get? A look at the ecocities of the future

Sometimes we spend so much time looking at the challenges that cities face today, that we forget to look forward into the future and imagine what cities could be.

This week What Matters, is running a series of interesting thought pieces under the banner "How Big Can Cities Get?" Contributors include Richard Register, founder of Ecocity Builders; Dr. Dickson Despommier, from Columbia University and president of the Vertical Farm Project; and Stewart Brand, co-founder of The Long Now Foundation. Not all of their ideas will be entirely new - we've all heard about "global cities" for example - but extrapolated 50 years into the future even old ideas open up interesting questions. Some of the best moments in these essays are the glimpses they provide of how cities could become - not just "less bad" - but truly positive forces both socially and ecologically. [An idea that I explore in my earlier entry on The Living City Challenge.] I've posted a few of my favourite excerpts after the jump.

From Let’s build cities for people (not cars)
By Richard Register

Today’s cities have dense urban centers ringed by ever-expanding, car-dependent, undifferentiated miles of inefficient urban and suburban sprawl. This structure is environmentally unsustainable and not conducive to pleasurable human activity. We need to break up that sprawl into a galaxy of cities, towns, and villages. Doing so would free up vast swaths of land for parks, agriculture, and wildlife, all of which would be easily accessible to people without having to resort to long, slow, polluting car rides.
Welcome to healthy shrinking cities. We in America may be at the turning point in that wave of urban sprawl that began to engulf the countryside after the Second World War, powered by US government policies including subsidized single-family housing, massive highway-building and very cheap gasoline. Over the following decades, cities sloshed ever outward, in California for example, right up against the Sierra Foothills.

A city that is designed around the dimensions of the human body [rather than those of the private automobile] and its need for clean air and water as well as healthy food holds tremendous potential to improve the lives of its citizens as well as the health of the planet. Most environmentalists believe the best we can do with cities is to make them less damaging. In fact, well-designed cities could be net contributors to soil building and biodiversity, making them a benefit to people and nature simultaneously.

From  Cities alive!
By Dickson Despommier

What is needed, in my opinion, is a radical change in urban philosophy; one that is based on natural processes and mimics the best that nature has to offer with respect to balance. The balanced ecosystem is often referred to as a “closed loop” entity: everything the system needs to thrive—water, food, energy, et cetera—already exists within it (rather than being trucked in!) and is constantly recycled. I would encourage all city planners and developers to take a long, hard look into the ways in which ecosystems behave. It is the model for how we should be handling things like water management, energy utilization, and the recycling of waste into usable resources.

In an ecosystem, assemblages of plants and animals are linked together by a common thread: the sharing of nutrients, the transfer of energy from sunlight to plants and then to animals, and the recycling of all the elements needed to ensure the survival of the next generation of those living within the boundaries of that geographically defined area. With available technologies, we can now bio-mimic an ecosystem’s best features. If cities learned to take advantage of these new technologies, then we would be well on our way to sustainability into the next millennium.

From In the markets of the meta city
By Robert Neuwirth

Most of the urban centers in these fast growing meta-cities have one very visible trait in common. Each is ringed by dense, ever-expanding squatter communities where large portions of the city’s population—and economy—reside. Squatter communities and shantytowns are now home to 800 million people and are projected to grow by 16,000 people every day for the foreseeable future.
Is this a vision of a planet gone haywire, of cities grown so big that they cross over to the dark side? What will the quality of life be like in these high-density, low-infrastructure environments? How will these increasingly dense and unnatural cities allocate resources, define development, or manage the environment? How big can they grow?

To answer these questions, it’s important to understand that it’s not size, density, or material conditions that are the true issue. The future will be determined by the extent to which these massive agglomerations take the idea of democracy seriously. Squatter cities and informal markets will represent an increasing portion of the population and the economy. It will simply not be possible to ignore them as in the past.

As S’bu Zikode, leader of the courageous South African squatter organizing group Abahlali baseMjondolo put it in a recent speech: “One cannot begin any meaningful discussion of the urban crisis while the poor continue to be excluded form the conversations that are meant to build the very new urban order that is for all. This discussion can only begin once the dispossessed, those who do not count, count.” In a DIY environment, the urban future calls for deep democracy. Only then will the slipknot issues of development, land, and the environment be confronted with diligence, justice, and equity.


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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.