Welcome to the urban (sustainability) century

Half the world now lives in cities, and by midcentury 75 percent of us will be urbanites. To make our cities sustainable, look to the 2012 TED Prize and a fascinating new documentary called Urbanized.

Photo courtesy of David Schenfeld/Flickr

By the middle of this century, there will be as many people living in cities worldwide as there are alive on the planet today. Sustainability, then, is first and foremost an urban project, and I’m always a little surprised to find that there’s a lingering divide between hardcore cleantechies and urban design geeks. You still meet renewable energy obsessives who obsess over the next generation of solar technology but have never given much thought to mixed-use development, and there remain complete-street fans and bike-lane zealots unaware that solar power’s now veering on cost-competitive with coal and nuclear. (And don’t get me started on the hardcore climate activists who don’t pay any attention to cities and how they work at all.)

Anyway, for all these reasons and more, I understood immediately why the good folks at TED decided to award their TED Prize to “The City 2.0” – the first time ever the $100,000 award has gone an innovative concept rather than an innovator. “The City 2.0,” the announcement explains, “is the city of the future . . . a future in which more than ten billion people on planet Earth must somehow live sustainably.”

The TED Prize folks have extended an invitation to the general public to “craft a wish . . . capable of igniting a massive collaborative project among the members of the global TED community, and indeed all who care about our planet’s future.” In order to get those wish-crafting juices flowing, there’s a movie you should watch: Urbanized, a gorgeously shot, thought-provoking documentary by Gary Hustwit. I caught a screening in Montreal a couple weeks ago, but if you can’t get to one where you are, then you can watch it in HD online for the cheaper-than-a-movie-ticket price of $6.99 right now.

Urbanized is the final chapter in Hustwit’s trilogy of documentaries on the world of design; the previous two looked at typography (Helvetica) and product design (Objectified). Urbanized is beautiful to look at, with a sharp but understated point of view – there’s no narration, only the juxtaposition of landscapes, buildings, streets and voices. Ultimately it is an impassioned argument in favor of smart, flexible human-scale urban design in the Jane Jacobs school. The film is not wholly dismissive of the top-down, masterplanned, starchitect-driven modernist approach to city building, but it definitely points out the many problems created by modernism’s excesses.

The film highlights a number of what I think of as the usual suspects in urban sustainability circles: Jan Gehl and Copenhagen’s best-in-the-world bike lanes; New York’s sublime High Line Park; Enrique Penalosa’s urban revolution by bus and bicycle in Bogota. I don’t mean this as a criticism – it was great to see them all so lovingly photographed, and there were some anecdotal details that were new to me in each chapter.

Several of the most inspiring sections of the film, though, were new to me, and so I’ll put my emphasis on those as the ones to check out, whether you decide to watch the whole movie or not. Here’s my Top Three:

1) The work of Alejandro Aravana and the architecture firm Elemental in Santiago, Chile:

Elemental has designed several low-income housing projects in “informal” squatter settlements around Santiago, all of them to similar design specs. The one featured in Urbanized is in the poor Santiago neighborhood of Lo Barnechea, where Elemental built a community of 150 simple townhouses at very low cost.

The real innovation is the way the limited financing influenced the design: Elemental figured out how much the prospective homeowners in the community could afford and how much the city could subsidize and then built to that budget by intentionally leaving the units unfinished. They built the units big enough for the families, in other words, but only partially finished the interiors, with the idea that the families can finance the final details over time. Elemental also pursued the revolutionary design concept of actually asking the people what they needed most, which is how the units at Lo Barnechea wound up with bathtubs instead of water heaters.

2) Violence Prevention Through Urban Upgrading (VPUU) in Cape Town, South Africa:

In Khayelitsha, a black township outside Cape Town, violent crime was endemic, and reducing it had to precede any broader discussion of urban sustainability. So the architecture firm of Jonker and Barnes joined with municipal officials in an innovative urban design study: they carefully mapped the main paths for pedestrians from the local bus stops and the crime hotspots along the way and consulted extensively with the locals themselves to identify their top priorities. Only then did they get down to infrastructure, building well-lit pathways leading between a series of urban oases, “safe node areas” marked by new community centers that provide safe space, community services and protected public space. Rather than solve the crime problem on its own and then get down to design, the VPUU program solves the crime problem with design – exemplary urban design, that is.

3) The “Single City Operations Center” in Rio de Janeiro:

In a great many cities, one of the biggest obstacles to design innovation is the “silo” mentality – the way each city department works in isolation from the others, often to conflicting ends. The traffic managers pursue goals that get in the way of street-level innovation, or the planning department obsesses over bylaw infractions without looking to broader sustainability goals. And on on and on.

The solution, in Rio – a city as hard to govern as any on earth, with one of the largest and fastest-growing “informal” housing sectors in its sprawling favelas – was to literally put dozens of the city departments into a single room, a huge new high-tech operations center where health officials, traffic trackers and police dispatchers can work together toward common goals (and anticipate how one department’s problem will soon become a headache for many others, thus reducing everyone’s headahces overall).

It’s well worth seven bucks and an hour and a half to watch the whole film, but to whet your appetite, here’s the trailer for Urbanized:

As I said off the top, the “clean tech” conversation is too often isolated. Solar panels are eyecatching – and essential to our sustainable future. But so is a more efficient house underneath, a complete street below, a smarter grid and neighborhood and city. There’s a bounty of low-hanging fruit on the urban design end of things, and many smart ideas already in use. The urban sustainability century is already underway.

Courtesy of  Mother Nature Network

About Lea G.

Leave a Reply