Five Big Takeaways on Creating Better Cities

In 2007, humanity reached a major, though largely overlooked, milestone: for the first time in history, over half of all humans lived in cities. Only a century before, a mere 15 percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas. The United Nations estimates that around 64 percent of the developing world, and 85 percent of the developed world, will be urbanized.

Needless to say, the world’s future lies in its cities, which are increasingly  the main drivers of everything from economic growth to cultural development. The science of cities has never been more vital: not only must we create urban areas that better promote human flourishing, but we must also take into account the impact on the environment, which is in an increasingly fragile state.

The City Lab column of The Atlantic reports on some of the findings by researchers involved in the growing field of “urban theory”, who over the years have gleaned some of these key observations and approaches:

Cities generate economic growth through networks of proximity, casual encounters and “economic spillovers.” The phenomenal creativity and prosperity of cities like New York is now understood as a dynamic interaction between web-like networks of individuals who exchange knowledge and information about creative ideas and opportunities. Many of these interactions are casual, and occur in networks of public and semi-public spaces—the urban web of sidewalks, plazas, and cafes. More formal and electronic connections supplement, but do not replace, this primary network of spatial exchange.

Through a similar dynamic, cities generate a remarkably large “green dividend.” It has long been known that cities have dramatically lower energy and resource consumption as well as greenhouse gas emissions per capita, relative to other kinds of settlements. Only some of this efficiency can be explained by more efficient transportation. It now appears that a similar network dynamic provides a synergistic effect for resource use and emissions—what have been called “resource spillovers.” Research is continuing in this promising field.

Cities perform best economically and environmentally when they feature pervasive human-scale connectivity. Like any network, cities benefit geometrically from their number of functional interconnections. To the extent that some urban populations are excluded or isolated, a city will under-perform economically and environmentally. Similarly, to the extent that the city’s urban fabric is fragmented, car-dependent or otherwise restrictive of casual encounters and spillovers, that city will under-perform—or require an unsustainable injection of resources to compensate. As Jacobs said, lowly appearing encounters on sidewalks and in other public spaces are the “small change” by which the wealth of a city grows.

Cities perform best when they adapt to human psychological dynamics and patterns of activity. Urban residents have a basic need to make sense of their environments, and to find meaning and value in them.  But this issue is not as straightforward as it may appear. Research in environmental psychology, public health and other fields suggests that some common attributes promote the capacity to meet these human requirements—among them green vegetation, layering, and coherent grouping. Wayfinding and identity are also promoted by iconic structures, and meaning is enriched by art. But for most people most of the time, evolutionary psychology is a more immediate factor to be accommodated. As Jacobs cautioned, a city is not primarily a work of art. That way of thinking is bad for cities—and probably bad for art too.

Cities perform best when they offer some control of spatial structure to residents. We all need varying degrees of public and private space, and we need to control those variations at different times of the day, and over the span of our lives. In the shortest time frames, we can open or close windows and doors, draw blinds, come out onto porches and informally colonize public spaces, or retreat inside the privacy of our homes. Over longer time frames, we can remodel our spaces, open businesses, build buildings, and make other alterations that gradually form the complex dynamic growth of cities.

Interesting stuff. What do you think?

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