Rome. Paris. New York City. Beijing. Some of the most powerful and beautiful cities are centuries old, with some having been built up and outwards for thousands of years. Many new, built-from-scratch cities may not be destined for the same success — in fact, hundreds of shiny, modern metropolises lay dormant in spite of high hopes and intelligent design.
With global urban population expected to rise to six billion by 2050 from 3.9 today, new cities will be essential for growing communities to form and thrive. Public and private projects around the world are aiming to design and build these idealistic cities of the future, but have been proven flawed in both approach and outcome.
Flawed planning, hazy results
A Hologram for the King, a Dave Eggers novel recently made into a film starring Tom Hanks, portrays a fictionalized example of how new cities can fail to get off the ground. In it, the protagonist Alan takes a trip to Saudi Arabia to present his company’s IT system, which he hopes will be adopted by the in-the-works King Abdullah Economic City. Throughout the course of the story the city remains in a state of limbo, likely never to live up to the King’s exaggerated claims or marketing promises.
King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC, pronounced “cake”) is real: though perhaps not as bleak as rendered in the book, the desert megacity has been underway since 2005 as one of four new cities proposed to control sprawl and congestion. The city is supposed to become larger than Washington DC, but remains only 15 percent completed, gaining only several thousand inhabitants over a decade post-conception.
Other Middle Eastern countries have traversed this road already to minimal success. The United Arab Emirates’ carbon-neutral smart city Masdar, though completed, remained virtually empty to this day. Built to house 50,000, the population is only 1,000, consisting mostly of students attending the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology there.
China is perhaps the posterchild for from-scratch cities: the nation has used more cement in the last three years than the US in the entire 20th century, and invested more time, money, and space into brand new cities than any other country. Called “overnight cities” by some, a fleet of metropolises have been popped up across rural land in anticipation of rapid population growth.
Roughly 600 new cities have been built since 1949, many in the 80s and early aughts. Hundreds of these remain empty or under-populated, often referred to as “ghost cities” or compared to dystopian fantasy settings. The buildings shine, but the streets echo; they are eco-friendly, but until they are people-friendly their sustainability is a moot point.
China’s top-down approach to urban planning is smart in theory but lacking in practice: you can plan a city all you want, but over half the appeal of cities are their community and culture, which are inherently organic. Even the best marketing plan can’t disguise the deficit.
In spite of China’s struggles with the matter, down in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made smart cities a major goal of his administration. One of such cities is Lavasa, a completely privately-run metropolis. Like the others, it is unfinished. Visitors remark that it is more suitable for vacation than for living, as it lacks adequate hospital and schooling systems. And like many other new cities, it doesn’t solve problems like poverty because it’s too expensive to live there.
Other high-tech, eco-friendly city projects — like Portugal’s fully sensor-embedded PlanIT Valley — have halted construction over economic concerns.
Whether public or private, from-scratch cities face similar issues: attracting people, solving problems, and investing large sums into an uncertain fate.
People bringing promise
Why is it, exactly, that historic cities flourish while new ones flounder? Old cities face troubles of all sorts, especially as older infrastructure crumbles, populations fluctuate and architecture becomes outdated. Systems fail, buildings overcrowd, and yet they remain resilient in their complexity.
They say Rome wasn’t built in a day. This is obviously true: modern Rome was built over the course of two and a half thousand years, and is thusly one of the oldest continuously occupied sites in Europe. Even newer cities like New York have had a couple of centuries to develop character, layers and intricacy.
New cities may never have the chance to make it to that status, and it doesn’t help that they lack the appeal and vibrancy of old cities. As the architect of the still-budding city Loseva said in an interview, “soul is something that the city develops over time.” The older the city, the stronger the soul.
The location of age-old cities also reflects the cream of the crop in real estate: they are natural and ideal spots with the best weather conditions and access to water supply and trade. Their economies and communities have thusly developed both financial and cultural capital over the ages, not out of a goal of perfection but out of necessity.
This said, not all from-scratch cities in recent histories have or will necessarily falter. South Korea’s Songdo is among the most successful so far, whether by design or chance, it’s reached a population of 70,000, which is expected to triple by 2018. Though it’s largely a blank slate still, Koreans already accustomed to the high-tech slickness of cities like Seoul may be ideal adopters to fill it out with the color and energy it needs.
Songdo may be an outlier. Either way, the planet needs more cities. Perhaps people simply don’t want to live in cities of the future — not yet anyway.
What is the solution? Unfortunately, I don’t think there a hard and fast rule — it may be that time and population growth alone does the trick. Even so, the territory is uncharted and the variables are many. Knowing what we know about people, about culture, and urban planning, better practice should at least be in reach.
As Jane Jacob wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” Perhaps this is the core issue: city architects should plan and build alongside people rather than simply for them.
There must be room to go off the books, room for the unexpected, room for a little bit of chaos to seep between the buildings. If urban planners have to compromise their ideals to get there, it may just be worth it: without people, a city is simply a glorified diorama. With them — flaws and all — it can develop a spirit along with its skyscrapers.
The world’s cities are in constant flux, being built or built upon to accommodate fast-growing urban populations. The standard approach to urban design has changed, as it has countless times throughout the ages. Today, a new trend has dawned: sustainable design for greener cities, and ultimately a greener planet.
Sustainable design boils down to two main goals: conserving energy and reducing waste. There are many innovations that deliver these goals that are worth paying attention to. After all, they could be staples in the future of urban design, construction, and renovation. As a seasoned real estate entrepreneur, I find it useful to watch these developments carefully.
Here are seven innovations that, though not necessarily new, I believe may explode in popularity as cities are designed and developed with sustainability in mind.
Not unlike the habitats of the Hobbit’s Shire, green roofs are structures either partially or fully covered by vegetation. Why? The benefits are extraordinary. Green roofs limit the need for heating and cooling, filter pollutants from the air, insulate buildings, and offer extra square footage for agriculture. They also help mitigate the “heat island” effect in urban spaces — when cities are hotter than the surrounding land — by lowering temperatures.
The modern trend started in Germany in the 1960s and spread to other European cities, many of which are known for their sustainable initiatives. It’s an effective use of space that reduces energy consumption and adds new functionality to formerly barren roofs. North America also has a growing market for green roofs and other types of eco-friendly “living architecture.”
2. High-speed transport
Elon Musk’s future-forward Hyperloop has been in talks for years, and recently the much-hyped high-speed rail had its first public test. It could take many years to be fully realized, but it’s not the first of its kind: also known as bullet trains, high-speed railways can be found in Japan, China, France, Germany, Russia, South Korea, the US, among other countries.
Though expensive to build, high-speed rails are generally eco-friendly and save in greenhouse emissions by providing a speedy alternative to more fuel-intensive transport. Just look to California, where high speed rails run on electricity and reduce the need for cars. In future cities, mitigating the need for vehicular and air travel by implementing high speed rails instead will save dramatically on energy usage and mitigate pollution, too.
3. Floating buildings
With so much land overtaken by human activity, expanding onto the water could preserve greenery for agriculture and other uses. There are various of types of floating architecture designed precisely to be eco-friendly urban solutions.
Self-sustaining floating house units already exist: for example, the WaterNest 100 by EcoFloLife is made of 98 percent recyclable materials, with photovoltaic panels embedded in the rooftop for solar energy. This type of innovation could work for an entire city, in theory. In fact, various eco-friendly floating cities have been designed, including Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut’s Lilypad, proposed as a city for climate refugees, and Silt Lake City, which would float atop the Nile River.
4. Water recycling
Speaking of water, droughts and shortages are predicted to become increasingly common as populations grow, supplies dwindle and the planet warms. Americans in particular use 100 gallons per day, 95 percent of which is wasted. Certainly there is a more efficient way to conserve water, in and out of cities.
Greywater refers to water in sinks, showers, washing machines, etc: essentially all streams but toilets. Greywater, along with stormwater and even wastewater can be better managed and recycled for reuse in urban settings through large-scale systems and smaller-scale innovations like this high-tech shower that recycles water as you wash.
5. Solar solutions
Solar is one of the fastest growing forms of sustainable energy and one of the most promising too. But for all the hype, it faces some key problems: mainly, the fact that sunlight isn’t always a guarantee.
Even so, solar technology is becoming better and more efficient, and more easily stored for not-so-sunny hours. One Swedish company is able to power 24 homes with one dish, and Tesla now offers a solar battery at the most affordable price yet. Individual solutions like these could be scaled up for implementation in urban areas, like this solar road used in the Netherlands that generates enough power for a year’s worth of electricity.
Solar energy is great for easing reliance on the electrical grid, but grids will likely be necessary in powering cities for a long time. However, there are less wasteful ways to provide electricity, like the use of microgrids for example.
Microgrids are small, decentralized energy systems that collect, store and distribute electricity in an even and balanced way. Where large-scale power plants are often powered by fossil fuels, localized grids are better suited to sustainable energy sources like solar and wind, and can act as backup in case of blackouts. For cities, a network of microgrids would waste less energy and derive it from a variety renewable sources. The market for microgrids is expected to grow to $40 billion by 2020.
These are just several of the innovations that are likely to inform sustainable design in cities as we move into a more environmentally-conscious future. Whether all at once or a little at a time, the urban greening trend shows no sign of sunsetting anytime soon — which is why it’s smart for those in the real estate industry to take note and adapt.
As a real estate industry insider, I’ve felt compelled and delighted to follow the Urban Land Institute and its endeavors closely. An independent, global nonprofit, ULI dedicates time and resources to supporting the entire spectrum of real estate development and land use disciplines in order to strengthen communities across America.
The real estate industry as of late has been striving for sustainability and local empowerment; ULI is representative of the space where the real estate business meets private and public community betterment. One ULI initiative I feel has a unique potential is UrbanPlan, which brings hands-on curriculum into high school and college classrooms to help students learn about — and participate in — the forces that shape community development.
UrbanPlan has been servicing youth for over a decade in schools across the country, and recently even further. Since its founding in partnership with the Fisher Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics at the University of California, Berkeley in 2003, it’s reached over 27,000 high school and university students in about 140 classrooms every academic year. This latest year, UrbanPlan operated in 36 high schools, ten universities, and even a pilot program for 90 pupils in the United Kingdom.
UrbanPlan is run by 13 ULI District Councils, which deliver the ULI mission at a local level to provide industry expertise to community leaders.
In 2010, UrbanPlan was selected by the George Lucas Educational Foundation (yes, that George Lucas) as one of 20 programs running in the US to spread awareness on innovative and effective educational programs, emphasis mine. Since kids are the future of our cities and communities, this is exactly the type of program that influences future leaders to care about intelligent land use.
How it works
What I find most interesting about UrbanPlan is that it’s not your everyday lecture; there are no textbooks, powerpoints or pop quizzes. Instead, the curriculum is immersive, allowing students to fill various roles and negotiate to solve problems — and turn profit — in fictional communities.
I think most of us can agree that the most fun and interesting classes back in the day were the ones that let us learn in the act of doing, rather than simple note-taking. What better way to get students interested in real estate development than to let them experience it for themselves?
Here’s a description of the program, from ULI’s website:
Student development teams respond to a “request for proposals” for the redevelopment of a blighted site in a hypothetical community. Each team member assumes one of five roles: finance director, marketing director, city liaison, neighborhood liaison, or site planner. Through these roles, students develop a visceral understanding of the various market and nonmarket forces and stakeholders in the development process. They must reconcile the often-competing agendas to create a well-designed, market-responsive, and sustainable project.
Once again, the emphasis is mine. With students taking on different roles, conflict, collaboration, and creativity can organically unfold. All the while, team members work together to design a project that fits the needs of the community and the market.
Teams present their final projects to “city council” of ULI members, who question teammates, deliberate, and award a “contract” to the winning proposal as a council would in reality.
The course is typically six weeks and a total of 15 hours long. And while it’s not designed to create a future generation of real estate developers — the skills go far beyond that, into general teamwork, marketing and economics — for those that may choose professions in this area, a robust understanding of the industry will be instilled.
While this sounds pretty interesting in theory, you may be wondering how it comes together in reality. The press has covered several cases, which report on how the UrbanPlan curriculum operated in real classrooms.
According to Paula Blasier director of San Francisco-based UrbanPlan, the program allows students that may not be top performers under traditional education models to excel. “All of a sudden, a kid discovers a whole new world, maybe even a possible profession, that requires a skill set they thought had no value,” Blasier said. This is because the activities require human skills that aren’t always used in classrooms.
Berkeley High School student Sofia Haas noted that the program helped her understand the complexity of development and the political trade-offs involved. “It was definitely challenging to have to make a profit on our product and try to keep true to our beliefs,” she said. “But those are the problems that face people who do this in the real world.”
Now, Haas is careful to take note of the little things in neighborhoods that were likely implemented carefully behind the scenes.
In Colorado, high school students found UrbanPlan was helpful for team building. It was also a great fit for Littleton High School’s curriculum, because it fit into the economic portion of students’ social studies requirements.
“When we first started, none of us really liked each other, but as time went on, we all stepped up and took on our roles,” student Ashley Winters said of the experience. “Everyone helped everyone else know what they were doing and what they were supposed to be talking about.”
Why it’s important
Since the US population is forecasted to grow by 60 million people in the next two decades, programs like UrbanPlan are critical in educating the next generation to be informed citizens able to handle population and community demands.
Blasier admits that one of the key benefits of UrbanPlan is preparing young people to be called upon for active roles in their communities — and that the forces that come into play in these decisions aren’t often taught in schools. “We wanted to provide the most realistic experience possible, but we also wanted a model that could be embraced by public schools nationwide,” she said. “We knew we had to make it not only engaging for the kids but teacher friendly as well.”
Ultimately, I believe that UrbanPlan is an innovative and highly useful educational approach that helps students understand the reality of the public, private, and political aspects of real estate and land development. The town in question may indeed by hypothetical, but the lessons are not. At the end of the day, immersive projects like this are the ones that stick and teach kids some of the most important responsibilities of adulthood.
Featured image: Sony Abesamis via Flickr
The world’s cities have a grave problem. With limited space and growing populations, the dead outnumber the living in packed cemeteries that occupy valuable real estate, cost families exorbitant fees, and strain the environment to boot.
While land is abundant in more rural areas to respectfully bury the deceased, in cities like London and New York City space is increasingly scarce. Because cemeteries aren’t inherently profitable — the dead do not pay rent, after all — existing sites must grapple with an influx of demand without much chance at horizontal expansion.
So what is the solution? Pushing bodies further underground? Building mausoleum towns? Creating floating cemeteries and skyscrapers? As radical as these ideas may seem, they have all been explored and implemented in cities attempting to make room for the dead.
With 50 million people passing away every year, afterlife accommodation is as much a real estate issue as it is an environmental one. Just as the real estate industry has moved toward a more ethically and environmentally conscious ethos, the funeral business is doing the same for deceased tenants. Some say as many as one in four older Americans are likely to opt for sustainable burial options in the future, given the growth of environmental awareness.
Though challenges lie ahead, especially in cities, many sustainable and space-saving burial options exist. It may take an extra dose of creativity — and maybe even some cultural change — but new earth and community-friendly burial solutions could do the world a great good.
A costly problem
Even if they want to, many city residents can no longer bury their loved ones the traditional way. Inground plots in Manhattan are in the single digits with six-figure costs. Even a burial outside of cities can cost upwards of $10,000, considering the price of coffins and other funeral services.
In US cemeteries alone, 30 million feet of hardwood caskets are buried, along with 90,000 tons of steel caskets, 14,000 tons of steel vaults and over 2,500 tons of copper and bronze. That’s a huge wealth of trees and minerals buried beneath the earth, unable to be recycled or put to use. Embalming chemicals can also be incredibly toxic to humans, animals and wildlife. Even cremation takes its toll: it’s an energy-intensive process that emits mercury from burnt teeth fillings.
With baby boomers aging, 76 million Americans are projected to reach life expectancy between 2024 and 2042. To give each a standard burial, an area about the size of Las Vegas would be required. This won’t be an issue for the many people living in rural locations, but with city populations growing there will no doubt be problems among denser populations. In fact, there already are.
City residents and urban planners are in perhaps the perfect positions to pursue sustainable alternatives, for the sake of space, money and the planet.
The Green Burial Movement
The concept of green burials is not a new one — in fact, it was once the norm, with burials often occurring at home in wooden boxes. At the turn of the 19th century, when deaths moved from homes to hospitals and funeral parlors, the post-death rituals we practice today became widely adopted. Embalming began during the Civil War to help preserve the bodies of soldiers during their transport, and though not legally mandated continues to be the standard practice.
The green burial movement, which began in the early 90s, seeks to return to the style of natural burial. Biodegradable caskets made of bamboo, cardboard, or wicker are less expensive and easier on the earth; for those that want to go the cremation route without the detriments, an alternative method called resomation is less toxic and energy exhaustive.
Today, people who want green burials need only consult with the Green Burial Council (in North America) to find a certified green burial provider, the number of which has increased from just one in 2006 to over 300 today. Unlike other services bearing the “organic” label, green burials tend to be even cheaper than traditional ones.
The Green Burial Council estimates that about one-quarter of older Americans want green burials — an opportunity to take the trend from niche to mainstream. Because city residents face the biggest dilemma and tend toward progressive social leaning, it’s no surprise that New York City boasts great green options like Brooklyn’s Greenwood Heights Funeral & Cremation Services.
Saving space and memories
Just making the switch from steel to straw caskets won’t solve space issues, however green they may be. With the last open cemetery in Manhattan selling vaults for $350,000, it’s worth wondering if there’s a better way to die without shipping yourself to faraway fields a day-trip away from family.
Other cities have tackled this problem, some to great success. Countries like Belgium, Singapore and Germany practice grave recycling, through which families get a free public grave for the first 20 years or so, after which they can either pay for renewal or allow the cemetery to move the body to make space for another. Locations without this practice balk at the idea of disturbing the dead.
Some Asian cities have decided upon large, mechanized columbariums, which store thousands of urns that can be retrieved with an electronic card. Hong Kong has plans for a columbarium island called “Floating Eternity,” and other cities are considering vertical cemeteries. A Norwegian student won a design contest with his vision of such a skyscraper, which would house coffins, urns, and a computerized memorial wall.
As our virtual selves gain credence during life, digital memorializing has become more popular. A Japanese company offers virtual cemeteries for descendants to tour, while Hong Kong’s government created a virtual social network for families unable to.
Designing for the future
How do we negotiate respect for the dead with respect for the planet? And how do we negotiate these with cemetery real estate deficits and cost concerns? We don’t want to do away with cemeteries, after all. Like schools and hospitals, graveyards add a layer of emotional and cultural intelligence to neighborhoods. In cities, they are more akin to history museums and monuments — housing century-old skeletons instead of people more recently warm.
Moving forward, city residents will have to make tough choices, and urban planners will have to make smarter ones. As the number of people living in cities grows, the number of those dying there will too. Real estate developers may not be directly responsible for accommodating the dead, but one a larger scale urban planners may be wise to do so.
Grave as the situation may seem, so long as there are both private and public efforts to solve space and environmental issues, cities and their residents will grow to adopt the most efficient and green burial processes possible.
The structure and a design of a city is integral to the way in which communities come to use its space. This is true of the basics — like recreation, work and residential — but it’s also true of art: where it thrives, where it’s created, and how it’s consumed. From music venues to street art and theater districts, there are reasons why certain cities and spaces spawn cultural renaissances.
You see, the size and layout of homes and public places impact what people choose to do there. So if a building is conducive to creative activities, the area will develop to reflect it. Then, as the location begins to adopt creativity into its ethos, the art has it’s own impact, and may affect urban planning moving forward. This cycle of environment and art is something often considered overtly.
For people interested in art, culture, urban design or all of the above, the cause and effect of environment on cultural innovation is a topic worth exploring. With this knowledge, urban planners can design spaces that organically spark creation, and artists can choose spaces that serve their needs based on both historic accomplishments and future goals.
Art & culture
Artistic movements are induced by time, attitude, persons and place. The importance of environment in art-making cannot be overstated — just think about the classic pastoral, impressionism, and expressionism, all inspired by nature.
The natural world has always been impactful for artists, but so have cities in a different way. Urbanisation has birthed its own art movements based on factors like the city layout, population, and the social and political realities of the times. The symmetry and tight design of a cities contrasts greatly with nature, so it makes sense this the art that comes from it characterizes more grit than greenery; more angles than angels.
For example, modernism as an art form was shaped by the rapid growth of cities and industrialization in the late 19th and early 20th century. When people began to move into cities to seek their fortunes, the environment inspired a new outlook that rejected the certainty of enlightenment and the limits of traditionalism. Modern cities, defined by order and the promise of enlightenment, inspired art, literature and philosophy that affirmed human power to create with the aid of science, technology, and practical experimentation.
In this way, modernism was a reflection of urban environments: their stoicism, their nihilism and their promise. It’s a testament to the functionality of city design during the industrial revolution: when machines and manufacturing were introduced via factories and plants, economic growth and innovative thinking flourished. In fact, modernism inspired a new era of urban design that followed the logic of mass production by implementing large-scale solutions citywide.
Around the same time, city design that prioritized industrialization faced artistic pushback in the form of the Arts and Crafts movement. Due to anxieties over the prominence of industrial life, handcraftsmanship surged in the early 20th century to prove the value of human creativity and design.
But in the wake of two world wars, cities and cultural attitudes would change. Times of hardships and the inability of cities to keep urban spaces safe and clean made clear that even modernism had its faults: in city planning, architecture, and in philosophy. Postmodernism emerged as a result of these failures, exemplified by the decline of American cities. It rejected the totality of modernism in favor of a more contextual and skeptical approach less devoted to perfection.
But even in times and places in strife, art has thrived: as it turns out, abandoned warehouses served the needs of artists as well as they did mass production. In Williamsburg, Brooklyn, large abandoned factories proved ideal for artists seeking cheap rent and ample, light-filled spaces. The town was revived as a hub for creative types, and remains one of the hippest neighborhoods in the city.
Another key example of how our designed environment shapes culture is music, which has developed in garages, living rooms, churches and garages. The distinct personality of different genres has in part to do with the history of the space through which they first emerged.
1960s Detroit, it’s argued, gave birth to MoTown for several reasons: first, the northern migration of African Americans from the South for factory jobs, and second, because single-family houses had ample space for pianos. A musical heyday was relinquished even in the face of the city’s imminent decline because African American residents used this extra space to gather and make music.
“What this suggests is that cities shouldn’t despair too much about their existing built form, even if in many cases they are struggling with it,” wrote Aaron Renn on this phenomenon. “The question might be, what does that form enable that you can’t get elsewhere?”
The Detroit-Motown connection prompted journalist Ian Wylie to explore how urban planning shaped other music scenes in an article for the Guardian. When considering the grunge scene in Seattle, Wylie writes, both architecture and weather contributed to its cultivation. The inclusion of garages in local homes gave musicians a place to practice, and the damp, moderate climate convinced them to spend more time there making music, regardless of season.
Wyle also writes of how tower blocks in London made ideal transmission spots for illegal radio stations promoting grime music: the towers were fortress-like labyrinths that concealed the pirate stations from police, allowing the widespread broadcasting and popularization of grime music.
Then there are Berlin’s abandoned warehouses, which gave rise to electronic music. Not unlike Williamsburg’s abandoned factories, these large spaces provided ample from for experimentation and dance parties.
“DJs enjoyed the liberation of making music in places where previously they might have been jailed or even shot for trespassing,” Wylie writes. “The large warehouses of cold war-era Berlin also became spaces for artists and musicians to convert into studios.”
Lastly, New York City’s community centers played a part in the growth of hip hop: DJs and other hip hop artists held shows at sponsored community talent shows and dances more often than they did on the streets. The existence of these centers allowed a blending of generations and cultures, which contributed to hip-hop’s unique and eclectic sound.
What it all means
Where there are cities there are humans, and where there are humans there is art. Whether the city as a whole inspires a political and artistic movement, or simply certain elements of its design, environment will always play an important role in cultural evolution.
Many of the world’s cities tell the stories of the complex relationships between buildings, communities, and art. When the space informs the artist, the art informs the community, and then the community informs the future of the space. It’s a known phenomenon that when art flourishes, it invigorates neighborhoods, and invites the further development of both art and business.
Both urban planners and artists can take this information into stride in their future endeavors. It’s a common goal of developers to build spaces that are hospitable to young, artistic individuals and communities. Building spacious community centers, rooms, and public spaces where collaboration can happen could prompt the artistic renaissances of the future.
For young creatives, cities continue to offer the inspiration and flexibility to kickstart new projects, movements, genres, and works of art. Whether or not urban planners intend it — and as evidenced by abandoned spaces, perhaps especially when they don’t — creativity finds a way to fill in both cracks and canals.
Featured image: Vincent Anderlucci via Flickr
With every population, urban or otherwise, carbon footprints collect like dirty clouds in the wake of human movements. Ironically, these footprints are often more like wheel tracks: roughly a third of America’s emissions caused by the transport of people and goods, 80 percent of which can be attributed to cars and other road vehicles.
The world’s cities are far from immune to travel’s impact on the planet, as many densely populated metropolises are crammed with vehicles. These cars, which zip between skyscrapers and line narrow streets, often belong to commuters that travel significant distances each day and emit Co2 all the while. Even idling cars are problematic, as emissions increase the more time is spent on the road accelerating and decelerating.
With urban populations growing, the opportunity to make city transport greener is one worth a deep dive for urban planners. Cities already have a leg up when it comes to sustainability: with robust public transportation systems in place, cities have lower footprints than their suburban counterparts. As downtown revitalization attracts a greater number of residents into cities that can live, work, and shop locally, cars may be rendered an unnecessary luxury in due time.
The rise of eco-friendly transport
The US is home to several cities considered eco-friendly; because of its public transportation and commitment to green initiatives, New York City is one of them. But it wasn’t always this way — in fact, many of America’s cities were influenced by the 1939 New York World’s Fair imagining of an ideal, car-based city. This utopic roadway concept took the States by storm post-war, after which car ownership skyrocketed and roadways sprawled.
Cities in Europe, on the other hand, were never designed based on the assumption that private cars are the pinnacle of urban mobility. Countries far older than the US boast more compact and walkable city streets. We know now that the World Fair was wrong, and author Jane Jacobs was right: “Traffic congestion is caused by vehicles, not by people in themselves,” she wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Cities that invested in car-based infrastructure have proven to be less environmentally sustainable, among other issues.
As a result of this knowledge, cities across the world, no matter their original design, are striving to decrease their reliance on cars. The financial incentive for this is also clear: city residents without cars save money on automobile-related costs, and have a heightened ability to boost the local economy.
The planet likes bikes
Some cities are ahead of others in this regard, and when it comes to transportation innovations, it’s worth looking to some of the planet’s greenest urban spaces for solutions and ideas.
One prime example is Copenhagen, Denmark, sometimes called the bike capital of the world. 55 percent of citizens here ride a bike every day — it’s estimated that for every kilometer cycled, society enjoys a net profit of 23 cents. Bikers also save the city 90,000 tons of Co2 emissions annually.
Copenhagen’s bicycle culture has been over a century in the making; photographs show Danes in early 20th century biking to and fro enthusiastically. This culture was challenged mid-century by cars, but in the 1960s it became apparent that their prominence was leading to traffic accidents and congestion. To counter this, Copenhagen put energy and investment into extensive cycling infrastructure and branding campaigns.
With over 390 kilometers of bike lanes, Copenhagen’s cycling is not only a healthy, green alternative to driving, but a well-defined symbol of freedom and personal energy. The Danish city continues to expands their bike culture with new policies, marketing initiatives, projects, pathways and more.
Other cities look to Copenhagen as an example, and the idea is certainly catching on — and not only in Europe. Buenos Aires in Argentina has become a latest poster child for urban biking, and Chinese city Hangzhou boasts the largest bike share in the world with a 78,000 fleet.
Have feet, will travel
Cites that are pedestrian friendly also tend to be much greener than car-centric ones. When urban space is made walkable — a task that may take development and beautification — residents rely less on cars and more on their feet. Some cities have even closed down roads to cars to create public walking spaces. You can see examples of this in New York City, where Times Square has been transformed into a shiny, commercial pedestrian paradise.
There are many big cities cutting down on cars, including London, Madrid, and Hamburg, in addition to already mostly car-free cities like Venice, Freiberg, and Groningen. Cities like Istanbul and Mexico City are also embracing the importance of people-oriented mobility to incredibly promising results.
Pedestrianization has been touted as a great necessity in urban design: it preserves the health and safety of city residents, reduces pollution and noise while improving tourism, and heightens retail income and community involvement.
Air, land and sea
Part of reducing reliance on cars means finding alternative ways for people to travel. This goes much further than biking and walking: there are many other complex systems of transport including travel via bus, tram, boats and more.
Perhaps the quintessential example of a carless city is Venice, which was built with canals instead of streets. Though some boats there are indeed pollutants, the city is accessible by foot and gondola.
Medellin, Colombia takes the concept of gondolas to a new level, literally: the city implemented gondola lifts called metro cable that go up and down the city’s steep mountainside. This is part of a greater metro system called Metro de Medellin, which saves 175,000 tons of Co2 every year along with saving $1.5 billion in respiratory health costs. Areas that were once violent and dangerous have been utterly transformed due to the modern ease of mobility.
Share or beware
Lastly, the share economy is a growing trend in transportation and travel that has proven to be a green alternative to cars and hotel rooms. By renting space in an existing cars and homes, travelers don’t contribute to excess energy consumption.
Carsharing in particular is on the rise everywhere from the US to China, India, Brazil and Mexico. If people share rides, theory has it, car ownership decreases and complements a growing array of public transportation options. Car ownership is already declining, and the Ubers and Googles of the world are knee-deep in plans for a future of automated ridesharing.
Gilles Vesco, a politician that switched the city of Lyon to a sustainable model, agrees that sharing is the future: “Sharing is the new paradigm of urban mobility,” he said. “Tomorrow, you will judge a city according to what it is adding to sharing. The more that we have people sharing transportation modes, public space, information and new services, the more attractive the city will be.”
But non-sharing car-owners should perhaps beware, because the other side to encouraging alternative transportation is discouraging car use. Tolls, gas taxes, high occupancy fast lanes, no-car days and other measures that bar cars can make driving unpleasant and expensive. Maybe this isn’t the fairest way to push sustainable transport, but seems to be working in cities like Portland, where congestion charges have been implemented to cut down on traffic.
100 percent green transport may still be impossible, and the organic dissuasion of excess car use certainly won’t happen overnight. But as we all become more aware of our collective carbon footprints, it wouldn’t hurt to gradually relax our wheels. Instead, we can push for a future of mobility that elevates both community and the environment. The trick is prioritizing these elements over the luxury of plush leather interiors.
Historically, cities around the world have practiced urban planning methods to improve communities for both residents and governing bodies. Those methods differ by region, but are consistent in the initiatives they support — land use, environmental protection, and public welfare.
However, weather patterns have recently become unusually extreme, sometimes disastrous, due to global warming. In order to protect our urban environments, we need to account for these dramatic weather fluctuations through smarter, preemptive urban planning.
The Current Landscape
Altering a city’s physical infrastructure is not fast or easy, which means cities must prepare beforehand to defend against certain weather conditions. Natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy are unfortunate reminders of the potential consequences.
Of course, no two locations feel environmental effects in quite the same way. California has succumbed to extreme droughts while the Northeastern region of the country is visited regularly by severe storm weather. Meanwhile, rising temperatures melt polar ice, warm ocean bodies, and lessen mountain snowpacks. As a result, coastal areas are feeling the consequences of rises in sea level.
Weather patterns may differ by location, but their massive impact on city life and urban planning is undeniable. The cost for a city’s unpreparedness can multiply itself in damage repair.
The Effects of Extreme Weather In Urban Places
One of the more dangerous and consistent results of global warming and inadequate urban planning is flooding. Not only can water disasters lead to loss of life, but their effects on agriculture can also be substantial, often with international ripple effects.
In urban environments, flooding causes damage to residential properties, businesses, subway infrastructure, and roads. In order to prevent those massive repair costs, urban planning must be approached as a preventative measure.
The largest global disaster of 2012 was Hurricane Sandy with an astounding cost of $65 billion. Hurricane Sandy and the year-long Midwest/Plains drought accounted for almost half of the world’s economic losses, according to USA Today.
Even when the damages of extreme weather don’t amount to this astronomical figure, flooding still poses both economic and environmental problems on a smaller scale. Snowfall and drought also can be damaging in extreme cases.
Finding New Methods
Just as weather patterns are changing, so should preparation efforts. Self sufficiency — a common community approach when it comes to anticipating severe weather — is an element that urban planning can easily incorporate. That is, urban planners will help make it easier to retain the resources that become scarce in times of natural disasters.
For example, many buildings are beginning to harvest their own rainwater and residential households are filtering their rainwater for utility usage. With cities allowing designated space for water storage area or tools to help water and energy conservation, the communities are in a much better place if their resources are ever strained.
Architects are also looking to implement responsive living materials into traditional buildings so that they are more adaptive and environmentally suitable. It is not uncommon to find corporate buildings using green energy and filtered air, and architects are now seeking to make residential buildings just as environmentally conscious. Engineers have started to create amazing materials, such as self-repairing concrete, a substance that uses sunlight and bacteria to repair any cracks that appear in the concrete to prevent water infiltration.
To persuade cities to be more proactive outside of their traditional urban planning methods will take some time. But just as urban planning helps us adapt to busy environments, it needs to adapt to the extreme weather conditions as well. Finding new ways to approach the urban planning process can help minimize the damaging effects of severe weather conditions and create a better, more prepared city environment.
In the minds of many, smartphones and narcissism go hand in hand, in pocket. From selfies to social media, mobile technology has become a digital extension of the physical self, or a means through which to carefully curate one’s personality and values. For some, this means mirror shots at the gym, brunch photographs, or vaguely political articles and memes. For others, it’s photos of missionary work, Kickstarter campaigns and philanthropy apps. Almost always, the aim is the same: to promote and enable an identity to be admired. Whether that identity is generous or conceited is up to the choices we make with the power of a million apps at our fingertips.
Where does charity fit into the smartphone experience, and does mobile technology actually encourage people to be more giving? It would be easy to assume that smartphones promote vanity above all else, an argument many have made while sneering at Snapchatting youngsters. Just consider the breadth of tools dedicated to selfies, the weight of likes and upvotes, and the shallow mentality of viral news trends.
At the same time, smartphones make donating easier than ever, to more causes than ever. This ability has been wildly impactful, if not only because the availability and simplicity of the tools that enable it.
The truth is complex — a little of this, a little of that, and a lot of speculation. It may just be that humans are both more charitable and more self-absorbed, and that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. It may just be that the effects of smartphone ubiquity can steer us toward a greater good.
Cell phones and selfishness
We all can picture the stereotype of a grumpy teenager texting at the dinner table, oblivious to both conversation and food. This negative image isn’t completely without warrant: studies have shown that those that spent more time with smartphones were less socially minded. They are also less inclined to volunteer for community service compared to those without their noses in screens. The feeling of connectivity a phone provides, in theory, may in the moment feel like enough to replace physical connection. And so, when we’re digitally connected to our closest friends and family, the impulse to engage with or help outsiders diminishes. We remain glued to Instagram, instead of donating gifts to homeless shelters or building schools for kids.
This effect is called “virtual distance” by some analysts, and it has measurable impacts. The greater the distance, researchers have found, the more separated we become from those around us. We are less inclined to share our ideas, especially in the workplace. Smartphone usage also may prevent us from engaging with and helping others, whether out of distrust or isolation.
The point is, when technology is used as a default for human relations, it can be harmful to their ability to produce real-world benefits. The key is to step back from the digital distance and re-engage with the world, including strangers. For children growing up in the golden age of smartphones, this may be more difficult task than it is for today’s adults, who grew up in a less tech-driven era.
Because mobile apps let users create their own worlds with like-minded individuals and friends, people have a tendency to become more insular in their beliefs and interests. Within a carefully curated social group, there is little room for discovery or new ideas. This can make people less empathetic, and block access to new social causes. While the availability to expand our minds and hearts is greater with smartphones, there’s also just enough information to reinforce complacency.
That’s not to mention the instant gratification of smartphones, which can breed mindsets unwilling to embark on new and potentially difficult journeys without immediate returns. The ease of mobile technology makes delaying gratification harder; the gratification of charity, in comparison to a tangibility of a Seamless delivery, appears more abstract in value.
Whatever the cause, interest in volunteering and charity has seen a precipitous decline in America. Volunteering hit its lowest rate in a decade in 2013.
The case for mobile charity
Every factor that might contribute to a perceived selfishness and detachment among smartphone users can also be used to the benefit of charities worldwide. The trick is in the delivery and expression.
Giving is a social act. Mobile technology can fuel anti-social behavior, as detailed above, but in the digital realm it begets a whole new type of social behavior: social media. Online networks can have enormous reach, and facilitate the constant sharing of thoughts, ideas, and content. When this content is philanthropic in nature, the reach alone can prompt awareness and drive donation.
Researchers say there are three reasons people give: one, because they want to; two, because they think it’s valuable to do so; and three, as a form of showing off. The third reason is a significant one when it comes to mobile donation, which has in many ways become a form of social performance. Think of the ALS Icebox Challenge, which had participants pour icy water on their heads, or the no-makeup selfies for cancer awareness. Neither explicitly required donation, but both raised huge funds along with stroking the egos of the people that jumped on the bandwagon.
Instant gratification works in the favor of charity, too — mobile technology makes donating as easy as one or two taps. When Facebook implemented a “Donate Now” button for nonprofit pages, they positioned themselves to become a hub for online fundraising. Mobile-responsive crowd-funding also lets users get involved in peer-to-peer donation projects. These easy social options have been hugely successful so far on all digital platforms, including mobile.
Text message donations can also be made by smartphone owners — for example, in 2012, the Red Cross launched a donate-by-text initiative, generating $46 million in relief funds after a deadly earthquake in Haiti. Now, there are various SMS processes and campaigns people can use to text pre-set micro-donations to different causes.
Lastly, mobile technology opens completely innovative ways for people to donate to causes that catch their interest. Mobile app Instead let users make small donations in lieu of daily expenses like coffee; One Today showcases a different cause every day; and Tinbox donates money from corporate sponsors in exchange for ad placement on your phone.
What’s the verdict?
By numbers alone, people are more charitable than ever. As the planet’s overall wealth amasses and spending increases, statistically more of this money goes to charitable causes (every year, more of these are made on mobile phones.) Americans give about 3 percent of their income to charity, and this figure has not changed in the decades before or after the smartphone’s rise.
Generally speaking, then, it’s rather dubious to claim that smartphones have changed our charitable virtues for better or worse. More accurately, they have changed not what we do, but how we do it. It just so happens that smartphones have the ability to amplify our actions ad infinitum.
That’s not to say that mobile technology doesn’t have its pitfalls in terms of the behavior it can bring out in users. It sometimes seems as if people have traded in working to help their actual communities in favor of their digital ones, at a loss to psychical spaces in need of extra hands. I think that we should all be careful to engage more with real people and their needs than we do with front-facing camera phones — this said, there is a lot of value behind screens in terms of reach and convenience.
Nonprofits should definitely lean into mobile donations and campaigns that jive with what’s shown to drive progress. It’s simple: Make it a selfie. Make it instant. Make it social. Heck, make it a game. These are the new vehicles of charity — and though may never replace soup kitchen style volunteering, they do work. We can only keep faith that the desire to give back remains part of the human DNA, not to be overwritten by iPhone coding.
Featured image: Jon Fingas via Flickr.
The nonprofit industry has been growing exponentially over recent years but Effective Altruism programs have found a way to add a element to the historic practice of charitable giving.
The movement focuses on charitable giving guided by data meaning they measure where the most impactful organizations are and what causes need the most attention from a statistical standpoint.
The effect altruism approach has reached a handful of peaks that have amounted in bettered lives and helped established communities globally. Accomplishments like raising over $10 million dollars in funds for direct cash transfers to individuals living in impoverished countries are just an example of this movement’s collective impact Effective Altruist programs work in coherence to deliver amongst the values of this movement through their philanthropy. All programs that support this vision practice core beliefs like open-mindedness, critical thinking and global empathy in route to scale change to a larger level and measure the difference being made. A few organizations under the effective altruism movement include:
Started in 2007, GiveWell specializes is on identifying the most promising causes and charities to donate to. GiveWell is a part of the effective altruism movement and it’s been majorly effective in putting finances and useful attention towards notable causes with productive organizations. In August 2014, GiveWell announced “Open Philanthropy Project” for exploration of more speculative causes. The Open Philanthropy Project is the collaborative bridge between GiveWell and Good Ventures, a philanthropic foundation founded by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife.
Giving What We Can
Founded in November 2009, Giving What We Can is a community of people interested in maximizing the good they can do implement in emerging markets specifically for global poverty. GWWC largely banks on the research done by organizations like GiveWell that evaluate the actual effectiveness of nonprofits.
80,000 Hours is a UK-based organization that conducts research on careers with positive social impact. The name represents the 80,000 hours a healthy person will work in their career lifetime.
The group emphasizes that the positive impact of choosing a certain occupation should be measured by the amount of additional good that is done as a result of this choice. It considers indirect ways of making a difference, such as donating via your job’s salary, but direct giving is still a focus of theirs as well. 80,000 Hours is run by the charity the Centre for Effective Altruism. There are more effective altruist organizations to fill the roster and each has contributed to the amazing accomplishments that this movement stands by.
It’s hard to believe that such a community of nonprofits only began a few years ago but the positive impact has reached very monumental goals. Over $350 million dollars pledged to evidence based global poverty interventions via GWWC. GWWC, in efforts with SCI, also helped deworm over 4 million school children by way of funding through their platforms. GiveWell and Against Malaria Foundation provided financing for over 1 million bed nets to protect against malaria in needing places.
These causes have been identified by effective altruist supporters as global problems that need positive change and this movement allows such organizations to do said things at a massive level. With such large donations for direct impact, the change being implemented is clearly being scaled to a more macro approach.
These achievements are thanks to the many effective altruism teams across the world. The community includes the founders of Paypal and Skype; over 20 companies and a global network of prestigious educational communities – including students and professors students from institutions such as Harvard, Cambridge, Yale, Oxford and Stanford. Effective altruist organizations have done a spectacular job standing behind a vision of impactful giving to the most needing causes and collaboratively they’ve done that at a bigger scale.
Philanthropic organizations have been put under the microscope lately as people who actively donate want more transparency into where their donations are going. Direct giving is a practice that approaches philanthropy with that exact purpose and, naturally, more and more foundations are starting to participate.
The premise behind GiveWell and other like organizations is that they provide transparency to the donation process. GiveWell vets charities who may receive their grants through a strict application process. Not only has GiveWell created a library of worthy charities, it also helps donors decide where they’ll contribute based around GiveWell’s analysis.
Effective Altruism doesn’t only create a positive trend just for impoverished communities, it also does so for the entire business of philanthropy.
How GiveWell got started and established
GiveWell is arguably the most prominent nonprofit involved in the development of emerging markets and a notable proponent of effective altruism. GiveWell specializes in giving contributors the best opportunities and details so that they can donate where they see the best fit. Their organization has put a priority on conducting deep research into the impact of programs; measured by the lives they’ve saved and communities they’ve changed per dollar spent. But GiveWell only deals with the most notable charities so that donors give to the best of the best.
GiveWell’s intent is to analyze charities by quantifying their effectiveness so that donors have the most insight when giving. Started as a group of donors, this nonprofit began with giving founders who wanted their charitable efforts to be put towards good use.
The organization’s top charities influence some of the most effective initiatives – Against Malaria Foundation, GiveDirectly, and Deworm the World Initiative are just a few under GiveWell’s direction. These charities allow GiveWell donors to contribute towards different causes or through different methods of donation. Take GiveDirectly for example, their charity allows cash transfers to households in developing countries through a mobile phone payment service. But GiveDirectly is only one of the many effective programs under the umbrella.
Although GiveWell is one of the founding fathers of this type of nonprofit, it supports a much bigger cause in effective altruism.
The quickly growing social movement, effective altruism, is a household name in the nonprofit community. The ideology focuses on charitable giving guided by data. Effective Altruist organizations & projects have the goal of making a massive and efficient impact, something that GiveWell and other nonprofits perpetuate well.
The effect altruism approach has reached a handful of peaks that have amounted in bettered lives and improved communities worldwide. Over $10M in funds raised for direct cash transfers to individuals living in impoverished countries via GiveWell and GiveDirectly’s services. That accomplishment is matched by five others of that caliber that attend to funding for deworming of school kids, global poverty interventions and more honorable causes.
EA organizations fight to make charitable morality more effective and impactful. Bringing a data analysis approach to charities shows donors where their money is actually impacting the causes at hand. The philanthropic landscape is moving more towards this method as it presents a better use of funds in a more streamlined process.