Town centers have faced problems since the beginning of urban development. Even small towns and villages had to deal with issues such as waste management and resource sharing. Imagine the reality of trash and rats in London during the plague in the mid-1600s for historical reference. Modern 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 prevent them. mitigate these problems in balance with the needs of society. Looking ahead, what does the future of urban sustainability look like?
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Urban growth planning requires a multifaceted approach. With more migration than ever before, cities are expected to experience unprecedented growth in the years to come. However, these same cities are already the source of high resource consumption as well as carbon emissions. Building climate resilience, therefore, 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 in the southwestern United States. Restrictions are already in place in areas of Nevada and California where residents have set frequencies to water their yards. Eventually, local governments are expected to phase out lawns in favor of native plants to create landscapes that require less water.
In addition to how we use water, it is essential that we pay attention to how we source water. We will see greater investment in collecting rainwater from rooftops or directly from the sky. Stormwater runoff is another valuable water source 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 the understanding to implement all of these techniques. Now it’s all about economy and prioritization. As Plato’s saying goes, “Necessity is the mother of all invention”. As the water crisis spreads, more money and human resources will be put in place to manage these techniques and further develop desalination as an affordable option.
Trees and plants are essential 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 tops the list. Rooftop gardens offer passive temperature control and can easily be fitted with recirculated water systems for waste-free irrigation. Properly placed native landscaping is another way to use plants in passive design techniques that shade homes.
In addition to absorbing carbon from the soil and water where it can be stored, we must first minimize the carbon emissions we produce. In the case of the urban environment, cars are the main culprits. Public transport is essential to reduce the number of cars on the roads. Bonus points for cities that develop strategies to power public transport with electric vehicles and renewable energy.
As cities continue to grow, housing is increasingly in demand. The impact of operational and embodied carbon in construction already accounts for around 40% of the planet’s carbon emissions. Urban development accounts for about 70%. It’s not just in the materials used to build homes, businesses, and public spaces, but also in the resources used to heat, cool, light, and power the spaces once they’re complete.
Cities of the future must utilize existing buildings through sustainable renovations rather than unnecessary dismantling and rebuilding. New buildings must be held to a high level of energy efficiency. In addition, we need to tap into renewable resources on a regional scale. This means relying on solar panels throughout the south and in tropical regions. It means using the wind to create energy. This means tapping into geothermal energy in the appropriate regions. No form of renewable energy is suitable for all spaces, but there is a localized solution for almost every place on the planet. However, this requires a mindset that moves away from reliance on fossil fuels and the short-term cost savings of cheaper alternatives.
The good news is that as more sustainable materials and practices are introduced, demand drives down the prices of these “new technologies,” making them more affordable for everyone.
Recognize that everything is connected
Urban planners of the future are tasked with finding ways to provide access, protection, safety, health, convenience, efficiency, and equity to the growing population. With all these areas of concern to address, adding climate change mitigation requirements often takes a back seat. But the missing piece of the puzzle in creating resilient cities is recognizing that climate, social and economic goals are all linked. We need to have a stable economy to provide services and maintain infrastructure.
It is equally important that we take care of all levels of this society, including marginalized communities. Otherwise, the economic impact of repairing the damage will disrupt its budget. Likewise, if we don’t support biodiversity in the natural world, even in cities, the food system will fail, our efforts to reduce global warming will fail, and humanity will fail.
The urban centers of the future have an enormous responsibility, not only vis-à-vis the inhabitants of the cities but vis-à-vis the environment. We have work.