Can Urban Design Create Smarter, Kinder Cities?

There is no one way to think about a city. But one thing, until recently, has been certain: cities aren’t thinking about you.

The idea of conscious cities challenges the assumption that cities are thoughtless spaces, or stationary backgrounds for busy urbanites to make their mark on. Cities make their mark on us in ways we don’t realize, and often unintentionally so. By adding intelligence to city design, urban planners have the opportunity to create smarter, kinder cities.

Like any sentient being, a conscious city affects how you feel and what you do. It is an active participant that can improve or worsen your health, your comfort, and your wellbeing. The concept was coined in a 2015 manifesto by Itai Palti and Moshe Bar.

“The foundation of consciousness lies in the city’s awareness of the motives, personalities and moods of its inhabitants,” the authors write. Though architects have long designed to elicit emotion, from Pyramids to monasteries, we now have the data to base these decisions— from small details to large-scale urban plans—on actual science instead of instincts.

This isn’t to say today’s cities weren’t purposefully designed. Most city streets are planned for efficiency; the same goes for buildings, which are designed for convenience, if not luxury or bravado. Concern for public health and comfort, though, has not always been high-priority, let alone backed by science. True, there was a brief moment in the 70s when psychologists teamed up with architects in an effort to encourage “environmental psychology.” Unfortunately, the idea fizzled quickly.

As urban populations surge, the first instinct of builders and planners may be to save and make space. This alone is not enough, especially considering the well-documented psychological effects of overcrowding. Planners need only utilize science and research to plan for happy, healthy cities. Otherwise, they may worsen the existing condition.

How Our Cities Change Us

Before planning for the future, it’s useful to understand what elements of urban design are impacting us today. We know, for example, that repetitive patterns like stripes and tiles can induce migraines or seizures, while more natural and visually interesting shapes and spaces can ease stress.

Then there’s the paradoxical phenomenon of loneliness in crowds. Ample evidence through MRI scans suggests that people who grow up in cities are more prone to mental health issues, and it’s likely that crowding is one of these reasons, as our brains are not conditioned for such environments.

Technology helps us understand the way our surroundings affect us in ways we may not understand on the surface. Social psychologist Colin Ellard conducted a study to examine the physical reaction participants had to building facades using EEG headsets and wristbands. He found that facades, in fact, played a large role in the comfort levels of the participants.

According to the BBC, “when he walked a group of subjects past the long, smoked-glass frontage of a Whole Foods store in Lower Manhattan, their arousal and mood states took a dive, according to the wristband readings and on-the-spot emotion surveys.” They sped up as if to escape a dead zone, then returned to a state of liveliness when passing storefronts.

Triangulation and public spaces foster community and reduce car accidents by implying that roads aren’t just for cars. Green spaces consistently correlate with higher levels of well-being in cities, even when taking other considerations into effect.

There are even worse ill-effects, planned or otherwise. The placement of highway systems and public transportation have led to segregation and poverty. Design features including spikes and high-pitched beeping discourage loitering at the expense of pedestrian comfort. Flashing lights and advertisements, especially at night, may induce anxiety and interrupt natural sleep cycles too.

Planning for the Future

Conscious cities, in theory, would use science and technology to optimize cities for the wellbeing of their inhabitants. This could—and should—go beyond just mental health by taking things like public health, ROI, and efficiency into consideration, too.

Take trees as an example. As a key component of “green space,” trees carry with them a number of psychological and physical benefits. A recent article by Vox outlined the findings of a recent Nature Conservancy report, concluding that “planting more urban trees, if done right, could save tens of thousands of lives around the world each year—by soaking up pollution and cooling down deadly heat waves.”

Besides these tangible, measurable effect, studies have found that simply viewing green space caused people to become happier and also changed their physiology, as their autonomic nervous systems showed strong signs of relaxation responses. Further research has shown that even simulated green space can have similar effects.

According to the Guardian, this type of research could be “the basis of a new and powerful discipline of experimental urban design based on sound principles of psychology and neuroscience,” perhaps utilizing virtual reality and other technology to simulate these types of responses. Neuroscience-based architecture and design could reinvent cities as we know them, or at the very least make little updates that pack a big punch.

After all, it follows that happier, more relaxed urban dwellers will be more productive, contributing to a happier and healthier economy. It’s a whole new way to think about cities, and ultimately a return on investment that can’t be ignored.

By |2018-10-31T19:15:11+00:00October 2nd, 2017|Culture, Urban Planning|

Why Many From-Scratch Cities Are Failing to Thrive

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.

By |2018-10-31T16:18:14+00:00July 7th, 2016|Urban Planning|

Dying Sustainably: What Greener Burials Mean For Big Cities

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.

 

By |2018-10-31T16:13:37+00:00April 18th, 2016|Culture, Technology, Urban Planning|

Smarter Urban Planning in an Age of Extreme Weather

 

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.

By |2018-10-31T16:03:06+00:00February 5th, 2016|Urban Planning|