Around the turn of the 20th century, public imagination turned to what life would be like in the year 2000. In newspapers and magazines, writers and artists illustrated visions of a society replete with personal flying machines, pneumatic tubes, moving sidewalks, entire cities enclosed beneath glass domes. From today’s vantage point, these predictions are all too cliché. But take a step back from these specific predictions and you’ll discover a unifying assumption that these futurists got right: the future would be urban.
That future is here. For the first time in history, more than half the world’s people live in cities. By the end of this decade, it’s estimated that three out of five will live not only in cities, but in megacities, metropolises with over ten million people.
This rapid urbanization is affecting — and being affected by — a confluence of interrelated factors: climate change, resource scarcity, biodiversity loss. We’ve reached the point where, as curators of the recent Istanbul Design Biennial aptly observed, “the planet itself has been completely encrusted by design as a geological layer.”
Although cities are responsible for almost two-thirds of the world’s energy consumption and almost three-quarters of all greenhouse gas emissions, — buildings alone consume more than half the world’s non-industrial energy — they can provide environmental benefits not afforded to their rural counterparts. With their compact urban form situating people in close proximity to infrastructure and amenities, cities can consume fewer resources per-capita, while contributing to higher per-capita economic and cultural activity. This explains why some hail the trajectory towards urbanization a boon for global sustainability, as if its environmental advantages are a foregone conclusion.
But cities may not be the sustainability saviours they’re often made out to be — at least not yet.
Much in the same way a biologist examines the metabolism of a cell or animal, engineers can quantify a city’s complex exchange of energy and matter with its surroundings. By measuring this flux — “urban metabolism” — a surprising discovery arose: megacities can consume more than their fair share of natural resources, even on a per-capita basis.
What happened? Over time, as cities become more prosperous, city-dwellers begin consuming more stuff, using more energy, and creating more waste, often at a rate that outpaces population growth. As this culture of hyperconsumption grows, additional inputs are required, often from surrounding areas found on the lower end of the sustainability spectrum: industrial lands, ports, and suburbs. The environmental benefits of a megacity’s dense urban core were outweighed by the corresponding development on its periphery. They’re two sides of the same coin.
If cities are to become more sustainable, focusing on new buildings will only take us so far. Additional aspects of urban reality must be considered.
First, we’ll need to contend with existing buildings. In 2050, half the world’s building stock will consist of those standing today; for older cities like New York and London, it will be closer to 80 per cent. This is good news, for the most sustainable building is the one that already exists. There’s an environmental cost for continually replacing old buildings with new, whereas an existing building’s environmental performance can improve over time if well operated and maintained.. As futurist Stewart Brand notes in How Buildings Learn, “A building is not something you finish. A building is something you start.”
Second, a more humanistic approach to sustainable urbanism is required. A city, after all, doesn’t exist in some Platonic realm. It’s made up of people. But too often, we blindly idolize technology as an end in itself, rather than a means to an end. The social psychologist and humanist philosopher Erich Fromm recognized this had the capacity to cannibalize even our best intentions, like a snake eating its tail. “While becoming the master of nature,” Fromm wrote in Man for Himself, “he has become the slave of the machine which his own hands built.”
One such machine — hyperconsumption — is manifest in cities due to a psychological feedback loop: As consumerism erodes relationships, communities and the ecological fabric, the more we try to fill the void with stuff. Engineers, architects, and urban planners are discovering that an understanding of environmental psychology and neuroscience coupled with smart technology that responds to the needs and well-being of citizens can overcome this tendency, improving sustainability.
Urban sustainability issues are complex. The cities we create, maintain, and humanize today will end up influencing us, and ultimately the entire planet. You can bet the future on that.
[Note: This originally appeared in New Philosopher magazine, Issue #15: The Future.]