Urban development and sustainable city planning caught my eye recently. And I am only scratching the surface of a very exciting evolution in what could be the most significant solution to climate change and resource scarcity, in both developed and developing countries. I am hoping to use this space to help organize what I am learning and thinking, and to invite discussions on this highly complex topic. (Read: this is to warn you that it might be a fluff piece. My mind is all over the place right now. But I do want to know what you think!)
WHY IS THIS MY NEW OBSESSION?
Right now, about 50 % of the world’s population lives in urban areas. By 2050 this will increase to 80%. What that means is: the number of people residing in cities will increase from 3.5 billion to 7.68 billion in less than 4 decades (assuming that the world population will grow to 9.6 billion in total, according to the UN)! Where are people going to live? Will the healthcare system and transportation network be able to support the needs? Where will cities find the funds for the necessary infrastructure, especially if the cities face the risk of more frequent and intense storm surges and flooding? This subset of questions points to a bigger web of serious challenges – and opportunities for careful planning and investment in the national and international agenda. Urban issues are all encompassing because they are inherently multifaceted, and linkages between the energy, water, transport, air pollution, health, education, housing and you-name-it require cutting-edge analyses, that need to be constantly updated and developed. Am I starting to sound boring? My point is, urban development is important (and interesting!) for the prosperity of the nations and the well-being of the population, given the staggering trend I just mentioned.
Another source of inspiration is a book by Edward Glaeser, an economics professor at Harvard University, who argues that cities make us richer, smarter, greener, healthier and happier. That is no small claim! Besides being a delightful read, his book, Triumph of the City, has also captured my attention by highlighting the centrality of human interactions and innovations that is made possible by our proximity to each other in cities. Where do you find the best restaurants, museums and theaters? Cities. Where are the offices of big companies and banks located? Cities. Whether it is the impact of productive peers (you run faster if you are competing with someone, for example), or more effective communication in face-to-face interactions, we cannot deny the value of proximity to other people. What does that mean when we think about policies that incentivize or disincentivize the movement and connection of people?
That same question is addressed by Jan Gehl, a Danish architect, from a design perspective. He spent 40 years studying how modern cities shape human interactions, and how the human needs for inclusion and intimacy should be seriously considered in how cities are built. His work has been used by the New York City Department of Transport to transform streets and public space that most of us remember and notice. One of the key elements of the face-lift is the creation of public spaces, in parallel to the bike lane, in the area between Times Square and Herald Square. Not only did that ease congestion and improve air quality, it has facilitated the interactions between people, and between people and their spaces.
WHY SHOULD A CHRISTIAN CARE ABOUT THIS?
I realized the common thread that runs through things that intrigue and excite me is: people. It’s all about the people and their relationships. As incarnational beings and stewards of this planet, our flourishing is critically determined by cities and spaces, more than we realize at least. Where we live, work, worship and play matters, even with the advancement of technology. (I personally think face-to-face interactions and online communication complement each other, but they don’t substitute for one another. The latter definitely does not replace the former.) What are your thoughts? Do you like the city you live in, and why? Does your faith affect how you see your city, or space, or urban policies?