by Jared Green, Author, Designed for the Future, published by Princeton Architectural Press (2015) //
In Designed for the Future: 80 Practical Ideas for a Sustainable World, I asked 80 leading urban planners, architects, landscape architects, and artists the same question: What gives you hope that a sustainable future is possible?
Many of these planning and design leaders pointed to cities as the answer.
There are a few reasons why cities give them such hope:
First, dense, walkable cities are sustainable – they are the most resource-efficient and low-carbon environments we have. They become even more sustainable when they provide a high quality of life, eliminate pollution, and offer access to nature, affordable housing, and reliable public transportation systems.
Second, these sustainable cities are the product of decades, or even centuries, of discussion, collaboration, negotiation. Through their existence, they show these processes can actually produce sustainable outcomes – and, therefore, can possibly resolve global crises related to the climate, environmental degradation, and inequality. Sustainable cities, and their leaders, in this sense are role models.
Here are three excerpts from Designed for the Future in which cities are role models for sustainability. Each contributor points to one city’s efforts that gives them hope for our future.
In Medellín, Colombia, the city has built libraries for kids in subway stations. This shows me that everywhere, all the time, the city is trying to educate their children.
The library I saw is found right on the platform, as you go from one track to another. This library is in a station that connects to the metro-cable system that takes people up into the hills surrounding the city, where poor people live. This isn’t a nice area.
The library is about 215 square feet (20 square meters). The interior of the library was full, and there were about ten kids in line to get in.
The subway is the most urban environment we have—it can be so impersonal, even dangerous. The library in the station is like a pearl. It’s just for kids. It completely changes the tone.
This library gives me hope for the future because it puts more good things in these kids’ heads and hearts. They will now look at the city and their environment differently. They are being taught there are other ways to see the world. These kids are our future mayors.
Medellín initiated a program of remaking the city just eighteen years ago, building a new subway and creating a network of parks and libraries. In the life of a city, eighteen years is nothing. In that time, they went from a narco-city ruled by drug lords to a model city. I wish more cities in Latin America had their spirit.
This is a model for other cities in Latin America. While each city is different, they share many of the same problems. These kids waiting in line to get into the library give me the hope I often don’t have.
Ana Lucia González Ibáñez is the director of Taller Patrimonio & Metrópoli in Mexico City.
London, United Kingdom
A game-changing urban policy for me was congestion fees in the central business district of London in 2003. This policy redefined how people perceive the true costs of transportation, and allowed them to make more informed choices about their modes of travel.
The initially unpopular policy was implemented by Mayor Ken Livingstone under his manifesto of “getting London moving.” The goal was to manage heavy congestion in the London Central Business District (CBD). Traffic had led to gridlocked streets, negative impacts on the urban environment, and lost economic productivity. The congestion is caused by many travelers driving cars at peak hours without realizing that they in fact cause the congestion that imposes delays on themselves and fellow travelers, so the policy essentially charges a fee to drivers in the CBD during periods of high traffic.
This form of pricing is also called area-wide pricing. The fee may vary by time of day or vehicle type. Although congestion reduction is often the primary objective, cities also seek to reduce emissions, noise, and traffic accidents, and to improve pedestrian access and enjoyment of public spaces and businesses.
In London, travel times decreased by 14 percent after implementation, peak period bus ridership increased by 40 percent, and there was a 20–30 percent reduction in private vehicles entering the charging zone as people shifted to other travel times or routes. The revenues from the congestion charge help fund public transportation, creating improved travel alternatives for the majority of people, rather than the minority who actually use cars in London.
Area-wide pricing has existed in some form in Singapore since 1975. In 2007 area-wide pricing was proposed in New York City, but was not approved by the state legislature.
Political will makes the London example extremely important. It was the first time that a major city with a democratically elected government implemented a relatively radical policy that has sustained for over a decade, through successive changes of government. Other city leaders around the world have followed suit.
In Asia, where vehicle fleets are doubling almost every seven to ten years due to increasing urbanization and economic growth, a policy like this is much needed to avoid the severe costs of growing motorization that people don’t perceive.
Anjali Mahendra is the strategy head for research and practice at EMBARQ India, the sustainable transport and urban development program of the World Resources Institute in India.
San Francisco, USA
Gaspar de Portolà discovered the San Francisco Bay in 1769. The map had just been a straight coastline because the first mapmakers of the west coast couldn’t see the entrance to the bay from the sea. San Francisco Bay was an estuary then, rich with plant and animal life. Only 5 percent of that is left today. The rest has been eradicated by civilization.
The missionaries who came with de Portolà wrote about the Ohlone tribe of Native Americans who lived there. In the missionaries’ writing, the Indians were described as primitive because they had no permanent houses. Everything was makeshift. They didn’t need much and didn’t even practice agriculture. They lived off the land.
By the 1960s, when so little of the original ecosystem was left, the prognosis was that the bay would be totally filled in by 2020, with only a shipping channel left. Filling in parts of the bay had started in the 1800s. The San Francisco Marina was made of landfill, as was Treasure Island, which used to be used by the military.
The idea to fill the bay was completely reversed by an organization called Save the Bay, founded in 1961 by three women—Kay Kerr, Sylvia McLaughlin, and Esther Gulick.
Their goal was to revive the bay and make it as clean and natural as possible, which was very difficult; for decades industries had been pouring oil and chemicals into it, and waste facilities had been routinely dumping trash into it.
Bit by bit, waste deposit into the bay was stopped. With the creation of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, run by the National Park Service, much of the bay shoreline is now preserved. Some estuaries have been re-created and natural habitats have been re-established.
The first time I visited Crissy Field, a part of the San Francisco Bay, in the late 1980s, it was an inaccessible, fenced-off military wasteland. Now, it’s one of the most popular and beautiful recreation sites along the shoreline.
The protection and restoration of the San Francisco Bay gives me hope because this could happen everywhere. Former military and waste sites can be brought back. We can reestablish the original ecosystem, but perhaps not in its original state. We can use our land in a more protected way, instead of abusing it.
Sonja Hinrichsen is an artist whose immersive video installations and interventions examine urban and natural environments through exploration and research.