Nearly 50% of Earth’s population lives in urban centers. This percentage keeps on growing. Two-thirds of global carbon emissions come from cities. These cities provide economic opportunities and social interaction as they also create unique challenges. American cities are full of avoidable problems. Sprawling suburbs with few inhabitants, pollution created by traffic, and social segregation by wealth are a result. At the same time, in some urban areas, people lack access to fresh produce, parks for recreation, and have high crime rates. The pandemic has exacerbated the problems of poor planning. A burgeoning tiny house culture and the van life movement are American rebukes to contemporary urbanization. As the developing world creates new cities, progressive thinkers are searching for new models of city development.
We can look to complex systems theory for solutions to the challenges of urban life. At the heart of complex systems theory is an appreciation for the interconnectedness of our ecological, social, and economic systems. City planning can bring together environmental awareness, social consciousness, and intelligent use of data to serve broader public goals. Using knowledge from real estate, understandings on governance, and with the goal of the public good, we can create better cities with democratic governance. Strategic public-private partnerships in city planning can meet the goals of businesses and work toward better human well-being. By applying principles of well-governed organizations, cities can improve citizen involvement through democratic participation and consultative community building.
Current city design often isolates individual communities and stratifies economic isolation. Abroad, when China adopted a car-focused city, it backfired. Urban towers on streets without sidewalks created dense air pollution and greater social isolation. Car-dependent cities leave people in the suburbs surrounded by similarly minded individuals. Car-focused city planning has also shortened lifespans and increased noise pollution.
The day-to-day lives of city-dwelling can get better in many ways. Ecological solutions can reuse organic waste and recycle it into community gardens. Applications for ‘tokenization’ of property interests can provide investment incentives to community members. In Denmark, for example, pro-cycling city planning helped reduce Copenhagen’s carbon emissions while attracting new residents to the city.
Transparency and collaboration can help build healthier cities. Collaborative governance projects are being trialed in Spain, Germany, and Brazil. This field, inspired by ideas of collective intelligence, can bring new approaches to city planning. For example, these projects integrate information from the citizenry to identify utility service needs, determine the location of pollution emissions, and target problematic traffic patterns.
Modern approaches to city planning can integrate complex systems science, progressive waste management approaches, and social sciences to make sustainable cities economically and socially vibrant. Well-planned, sustainable cities can proactively address the challenges of urban life: traffic congestion, social stratification, and environmental degradation. Pluralistic societies with mixed-use developments bring together environmentalists, urban planners, and businesses. Finally, integrated cities, based on mixed-use properties and mixed economies can diminish social problems rooted in xenophobia and ‘othering.’
I wonder how else we can re-imagine city life?