City centers have been fraught with issues since the beginning of urban development. Even small towns and villages had to deal with concerns such as waste management and shared resources. Imagine the reality of garbage and rats in London during the plague in the mid-1600s for historical reference. Modern-day urban issues still focus on waste management and health, but now we have the added burden of water shortages, floods, natural disasters, global warming, raging temperatures and finding ways to mitigate those issues in balance with the needs of society. Looking ahead, what does the future of urban sustainability look like?
Planning for urban growth requires a multi-faceted approach. With people migrating more than ever, cities are expected to see unprecedented growth in the years to come. However, those very cities are already the source of high resource consumption as well as carbon emissions. Therefore, building climate resistance means addressing how we source and use resources from water and energy to building materials and transportation options.
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Some communities are already acutely aware of water shortages, especially those throughout the southwest portion of the United States. Restrictions are already in place in areas of Nevada and California where residents have outlined frequencies for watering their yards. Eventually, it’s expected to be commonplace for local governments to phase out lawns in favor of native plants to create landscapes that require less water.
In addition to how we use water, it’s critical we pay attention to how we source water. We’ll see a greater investment in rainwater collection from roofs or directly from the sky. Stormwater runoff is another valuable source of water we can expect to hear about. Recycled water is yet another way to make the most of the resources we already have.
We have the technology and understanding to implement all of these techniques. Now, it comes down to economics and prioritization. As the saying from Plato goes, “Necessity is the mother of all invention.” As the water crisis spreads, more money and human resources will be put into place to manage these techniques and further develop desalination as an affordable option.
Trees and plants are critical to the success of any ecosystem, and a city is an ecosystem. Urban designers must continue to prioritize public and private green spaces as a way to clean the air and reduce global warming trends. From parks to balcony gardens, the benefits of plants are too numerous to count, but carbon sequestration is near the top of the list. Rooftop gardens offer passive temperature control and can easily be equipped with recycled water systems for irrigation without waste. Properly placed native landscaping is another way to use plants in passive design techniques that shade homes.
In addition to absorbing carbon into the soil and water where it can be stored, we need to minimize the carbon emissions we produce in the first place. In the case of the urban environment, cars are a primary culprit. Public transportation is key to reducing the number of cars on the road. Bonus points for cities that strategize ways to power public transport with electric vehicles and renewable energy.
As cities continue to grow, housing is in increasing demand. The impact of operational and embodied carbon in construction already accounts for around 40% of carbon emissions on the planet. Urban development accounts for about 70% of that. It’s not only in the materials used to build homes, businesses and public spaces but also in the resources used for heating, cooling, lighting and powering the spaces once they’re complete.
Cities of the future need to make use of existing buildings through sustainably-minded renovations rather than wasteful teardowns and rebuilds. New buildings need to be held to a high standard of energy efficiency. Plus, we need to tap into renewable resources regionally. This means relying on solar panels across the south and in tropical regions. It means using the wind to create energy. It means tapping into geothermal energy in appropriate regions. No single form of renewable energy is right for all spaces, but there is a localized solution for nearly every place on the planet. However, this requires a mindset that steps back from a reliance on fossil fuels and the short-term cost savings of the cheapest alternatives.
The good news is that as more sustainable materials and practices are put into place, the demand drives the prices of these ‘new technologies’ down, making them more affordable for everyone.
Recognize it’s all connected
Urban planners for the future are tasked with finding ways to provide access, protection, security, health, convenience, efficiency and equitability to the growing population. With all these topics of concern to address, adding in the demands of mitigating climate change often takes a back seat. But the missing piece of the puzzle in creating resilient cities is to recognize that climate, social and economic objectives are all connected. We must have a stable economy to provide services and maintain infrastructure.
It’s just as important we care for all levels of that society, including marginalized communities. Otherwise, the economic impact of repairing damages will throw its budget off kilter. Similarly, if we don’t support biodiversity in the natural world, even in the city, the food system will fail, our efforts to reduce global warming will fail and humanity will fail.
Urban centers of the future hold a massive responsibility — not just to the inhabitants of cities but to the environment. We have work to do.
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