What is a city of the future?

  • The choice:  Will they use the money to become cities of the past or cities of the future?
  • The question:  What is a city of the future, anyway?

The choice should be simple. A city official’s first responsibility is to ensure the health and safety of the people in his or her community. Insofar as stimulus funds are available to repair failing bridges, dams, roads and vital infrastructure, that’s where they should be invested.

But as more funds are available — for example, the $100 billion earmarked in the stimulus package for energy grants to states and localities, or the $6.3 billion targeted for clean energy grants, or the $17 billion for transit or part of the $40 billion for roads, bridges and other infrastructure — a high priority should be to begin putting each city on the road to the future.

That means building communities that are secure from energy supply disruptions and crippling energy prices; free from the air pollution that threatens the health of 186 million Americans today; laced with safe routes for people to walk and bicycle; able to provide a variety of mobility options so that everyone – including the young, old and disabled – has access to vital services. Cities of the future condemn no neighborhood to be the dumping ground for waste, pollution or traffic; conserve vital resources such as water; prepare to withstand the anticipated impacts of climate change, including heat waves and extreme weather; protect and restore natural places so that kids of all ages have contact with nature; foster social interaction; and avoid urban sprawl, to name a few criteria.

If the benefits of building for the future are not clear, the urban leaders should think of it this way: If they plan to invest in buildings, transit systems, streets or infrastructure and those improvements are meant to last more than a decade, they are not building the city for themselves. They’re building it for their children. The goal should be to create a community that remains competitive for generations to come as a wonderful place to live and do business.

A more interesting way to define a city of the future is to see one. For example, check the work of Jonathan Arnold, an architect turned computer artist in Kansas City. Arnold shows how his home town could evolve to become greener and better in the not-too-distant future.

Or take a look at the animations for the greening of Manchester, England, produced by the global development firm Arup — the company that designed Dongtan, China, which when it’s built will become one of the most sustainable cities the world has ever known.

Or check out this animation of a new transportation system being built at London’s Heathrow Airport – a technology that may soon come to a street near you. Or look at this image of a vertical garden – a farm within a skyscraper, growing food without producing those nasty CO2 emissions that come from fertilizers and soil disturbance.

If you’d like to redesign your own street, check out Good magazine’s site. If you want to explore the features of a green home, go to the site created by Global Green and Yahoo. If you want to learn the features of a carbon-neutral neighborhood, check out the graphic by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

As these visuals demonstrate, becoming a city of the future is not out of reach. The necessary designs, tools and technologies already exist to make each community in the United States a thriving and sustainable member of the emerging clean energy economy.

To better empower cities, Congress and the Administration can do more than stimulus money. If and when if finally emerges from Congress, the Waxman-Markey climate bill should empower rather than preempt the power of urban leaders and citizens to innovate.

The climate scientists within the Administration should make sure their work is translated into terms that business and community leaders can understand and factor into their planning. Among other things, federal climate science must pay more attention to the expected local impacts of climate change so that communities and companies can prepare and adapt. That translated knowledge also will help define new markets for green and carbon-reducing goods and services, new niches for business to fill.

Let’s make sure our scarce taxpayer dollars are investing in the future rather than the past. That means de-subsidizing carbon in federal policy in favor of support for clean energy, resource conservation and the restoration of natural systems — in other words, America’s natural capital.

If you are a local leader deciding how best to invest your city’s stimulus dollars, I encourage you to contact and partner with some of the outstanding people and organizations that can help you build for the future. Among them:

  • Global Green is the U.S. affiliate of Green Cross International, the organization created by Mikhail Gorbachev to promote a more sustainable world. Run by Matt Petersen, Global Green has helped design homes for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, operates a green building resource center, and runs programs on green cities and schools, climate action, water conservation and other critical elements of a sustainable future.
  • PlaceMatters is a fascinating nonprofit operated by Ken Snyder, formerly an expert in the Department of Energy’s Center of Excellence for Sustainable Development. PlaceMatters offers a toolbox of cutting-edge software that enables more intelligent community planning and more civic engagement in urban design. Those tools include iCommunityTV – a program that allows citizens to post local news videos about developments in their communities.
  • I mentioned ICLEI U.S. in Part 1 of this post. Led by Michelle Wyman, it is the California-based U.S. affiliate of the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives. Among other sustainability offerings, ICLEI operates one of the nation’s best programs to help communities prevent and deal with global climate change. Its Climate Resilient Communities Program trains local officials on adaptation; its Climate Mitigation program coaches cities through a five-milestone program that starts with an inventory of local greenhouse gas emissions and ends with the implementation of greenhouse gas mitigation plans.
  • Another important ICLEI initiative is the STAR Community Index, a national system to help cities develop sustainability indicators and to certify their progress. The U.S. Green Building Council and Center for American Progress have partnered with ICLEI on this new tool, which is scheduled to be available next year.  Three new cities are joining ICLEI every week — but there are nearly 20,000 cities in the United States, and more of them should be working with ICLEI.
  • Speaking of the U.S. Green Building Council, its internationally popular LEED rating system now involves not only green buildings, but also green neighborhoods. The USGBC has built a national network of local chapters and local green building experts, including some that may be near your city.
  • In its 2030 Challenge, Architecture 2030 has rallied key organizations in the U.S. building industry around the goal of making all new and renovated buildings carbon-neutral by 2030. Its leader, Ed Mazria, has developed guidelines for communities to modify their building codes to meet this goal, as well as dramatic visualizations of how much of the nation’s coastal areas will be lost with climate-related sea level rise.
  • Rails to Trails Conservancy, led by Keith Laughlin, who helped guide environmental programs in the Clinton White House, works with communities to build hiking and biking trails. One of Keith’s goals is safe routes for children to walk or bike to and from school.

There’s no lack of vision or help for cities that want to build for the future. With the stimulus package, there’s also some money. And with the imperative that we reduce our reliance on foreign oil and our greenhouse gas emissions, there is no shortage of critical milestones.

The cities that help America create its new energy economy will be tomorrow’s prosperity places, where people will want to live and businesses will want to build.

Bill Becker

9 Responses to What is a city of the future?

  1. Chris Winter says:

    This is only tangentially relevant, but I don’t see a better thread to post it in.

    Tonight at 9 (8 Central time), ABC TV will present “earth 2100,” described as a “graphic novel” recounting the life of a 91-year-old woman named Lucy who was born on 1 June 2009. (The name of the planet is not capitalized in their teaser.)

    Interleaved with this narrative, I am given to understand, will be mini-lectures by real scientists.

    I have my doubts about how good this will be, but it’s probably worth watching.

  2. paulm says:

    What the future looks like
    As the planet faces the most dangerous century in its 4.5bn-year history, astronomer royal Martin Rees looks into his crystal ball

    [JR: Not dire enough by far!]

  3. Rick Covert says:

    Here’s another look at the future and it airs tonight on ABC 9:00 PM eastern time and 8:00 central time. It’ takes a look at what is in store for civilization if we do nothing and if we take effective action. You can already play some of the video.

    Earth 2100:

  4. Alex says:

    The Village Homes development in Davis, CA deserves a mention. A great situation.

  5. Jonathan Arnold’s animation is outstanding. The short video Built to Last is a hoot and just about as good. For more along those lines, check out Steve Price’s visualizations.

    I’m afraid NREL’s vision of a carbon-neutral neighborhood leaves a lot to be desired. It’s almost completely devoted to local alternative fuels production, with very little attention paid to the neighborhood planning and design elements that will reduce energy demand. Nothing wrong with local alternative fuels production, but the priorities should be better balanced. Energy-efficient neighborhoods have great access to a wide mix of land uses and jobs, compact layout, comprehensive walkability, extensive transit and bike networks, and lively and active streets. Also, not unimportantly, the NREL vision is so ugly that no one would voluntarily live there.

  6. Sam says:

    Is it politically helpful to talk about the coming century as “the most dangerous in [the earth’s] 4.5 billion history”? I ask that not as a skeptic who doesn’t appreciate the dangers of methane bubbling up from the permafrost and methane clathrates in the ocean. I am asking it because most of the people who don’t read blogs like this one but who have a vote just like we do may take it as typical “extremist” hyperbole, and simply dismiss it, just as they dismiss talk about the Rapture or other apocalyptic scenarios. Some of them who do read will also point to other “natural” extinction events, and say something like “Que sera, sera,” these things happen and there’s not much we can do about them. Snowball Earth was a pretty dramatic example, although it didn’t happen in a century or two, as was the Permian Extinction. In fact, I have had people point to those events or events like them. When I reply to them that it wasn’t human activity that caused those earlier events, they tell me that it is the height of “arrogance” for me to suppose that human activity can have such a drastic effect on the earth. And of course that climate doesn’t change that quickly, it will be thousands of years before such things might happen, if they happen at all. I try to tell them about evidence of abrupt climate change, but they appear to be incapable of digesting the possibility (as, to be fair, was most of the scientific community until the last couple of decades).

    Just ruminating here, I guess. I’m rarely sure of how to talk to skeptics who are not so much bound and determined to have that mind set, but who are (usually sensibly) conditioned to dismiss apocalyptic chatter, and are turned off by it.

  7. I am a big fan of this One Planet Town being literally recycled out of an industrial park in Northern California to house a few thousand Americans in a one planet lifestyle.

  8. Justus says:

    Tons and tons of info and interesting leads on the city of the future on – one of the most widely read sustainability blogs in the world. (Executive Editor Alex Steffen is interviewed in the Earth 2100 show.)

  9. steve raney says:

    I research the places with the world’s highest per capita driving, US suburbs. Here’s a “city of the future paper” I put together. This was an output from a US EPA “collaborative sustainability network” grant:

    Title: Efficient Edge Cities of the Future

    ABSTRACT: A “story-format” roadmap is provided to reduce edge city per-capita energy consumption by 50%. The roadmap provides an integrated vision combining: multimodal transit, ridesharing, demand management, land use, market forces, policy, technology, and paradigm re-thinking. Changing away from an autocentered, petroleum-based lifestyle represents a lifestyle change, but not a sacrifice.

    Web and GPS cell phones help create a “comprehensive new mobility” system to make green transportation seamless and hassle-free. “Paid smart parking” reduces solo commuting by 25%. “Low Miles residential communities” foster green culture, where residents help each other to reduce carbon dioxide. This green culture is created using the same powerful sociological marketing principles that drive consumer society. Housing preference policies are used to select new residents who will travel less and use green transportation. Two-car families sell one car. As the real-estate gradually changes, asphalt-dominated superblocks are transformed into walkable, New Urbanist locales. Walking, biking, electric scooters, and Personal Rapid Transit enable more than 50% of trips (commute, errands, recreation, etc.) to be made without driving alone. Each of the nation’s 200 35,000-employee edge cities can be transformed into huge transit villages of two square miles or more. Through this simple step-by-step plan, you’ll save money, shed pounds, meet neighbors, hang out in more lively places, and pay lower taxes.

    Full paper:

    Oh, and I work for the company building the London Heathrow ULTra PRT system:

    Note also that Arup designed the ULTra Heathrow guideway.