On Your Street | In Your Neighborhood | At Your Parks | Along Your Route | With Your Neighbors | In Your Community
We've scoured cities all around the world for small ideas with huge potential, and asked some of our favorite urban thinkers for tiny ways to make outsized transformations. And we divided them all up into six sections to help focus your efforts. We hope this serves as a resource for urban inspiration—and that you'll contribute your own thoughts in the comments.
On Your Street
1. Redesign a crosswalk. Last year, a handful of Seattle streets were reborn when a rogue designer painted colorful new crosswalks. Instead of wiping them away, the city made them a permanent part of the landscape, and even appropriated the idea, setting up a community crosswalk program so other neighborhoods could create their own colorful street art. Between promoting community pride and increasing pedestrian visibility and safety, it’s a quick, colorful step forward.
2. Green your parkway. Okay, there’s gonna be a ton of regional slang to fight through here: You know that little sliver of property between the sidewalk and the curb? Whatever you call it, replace whatever’s there with a stormwater garden that allows water to naturally percolate into the ground. It will not only alleviate flooding on your street, it will filter and clean the water on its way back underground.
3. Make a seat. "One small thing a person can do for your city is build an attractive bench and place it where it's needed. There is an urban seating deficit the world over and some of my favorite cities are those where people frequently build their own street seats. Here are bunch of examples we once catalogued in New York City." — Mike Lydon, The Street Plans Collaborative
4. Create a little free library. Libraries may change and evolve, but the pleasure and joy of reading a book remains. In Dallas, the Little Free Libraries/Libros Libres project helped construct and decorate makeshift shelves positioned across the community, part of a wider community literacy project. Inspired by the wider Little Free Libraries movement, it’s creating a real-life literary community on city streets.
5. Start documenting your street. Share the beauty of your surroundings, whether it’s through an Instagram hashtag or a personal photo project. Once you start snapping pictures of everyday life there’s no telling what you’ll find or who you’ll meet.
6. Add additional bike parking. While artful racks and bikeshare stations are sprouting up everywhere, popular roadways and sidewalks can still become overcrowded with riders angling to anchor a U-Lock. Small businesses can help make a difference by placing some DIY rackspace out front to make the parking situation more bearable. Here are some creative solutions.
7. Plant a tree. Shade, serenity, sustainability—trees add so much to the urban landscape and ask so little. Many cities give away free trees, have planting services, or require tree planting permits, so check your local rules before you start digging.
8. Pick up more poop. "I have the habit of trying to pick up someone else’s dog’s poop every time I pick up my own. I am talking about old poop, as opposed to ambushing another dog’s poop-in-progress." — Michael Bierut, partner, Pentagram
9. Forge a fancier garbage can. If there isn’t money in the municipal budget for murals or street art, there’s still creative ways to beautify the streets. Providence, Rhode Island, turned everyday urban hardware such as fences and trash cans into colorful creations with the help of a local nonprofit, The Steel Yard. By commissioning artists to create striking bike racks and railing, the city gets more exciting, eye-catching infrastructure.
10. Set up a small, interactive community art project on your corner. "Share your art with people in small ways. With our As You Wish project, our artists made versions of people’s wishes with cheap materials we had on hand. With Forensic Friends, people stopped by our artists on the street and described a friend like you would if you were doing a forensic sketch of a criminal. But, instead, the artist draws a portrait of a friend from the description. With Listening Booth, we simply have somebody sit and listens to anybody who wanted to talk." —Jim Walker, founder and director of the Big Car Collaborative
11. Hang some chandeliers. Need a way to brighten a blah block and add whimsy to a dark sidewalk? The Chandelier Tree in Los Angeles has become a local landmark for the dozens of lighting fixtures ensconced in a sycamore. Neighbors donate to the electric bill using a repurposed parking meter. In Vancouver, a spinning, LED-lit chandelier is being installed under an bridge underpass.
In Your Neighborhood
12. Fight crime with neon. Especially in a city strapped for cash, streetlights are low on the priority list as they’re expensive to install, maintain, and keep powered. But they’ve also been proven to deter crime. Two Philadelphia artists took it upon themselves to brighten a dangerous South Philly block with a "neon mural." The illuminated work of art has become a social-media destination after dark, putting eyes on the street at a time when the neighborhood needs it most.
13. Begin a guerrilla garden uprising. Green thumbs often have private plots and backyards to grow, but they can also get on the front lines. Surreptitiously filling in unkempt lots or small patches of untendered land with plants and flowers, or tossing a "seedbomb" at a hard to reach patch of land, turns lost space into lush greenery. Richard Reynolds, one of the leaders of the movement, maintains a blog with invaluable tips on how to reclaim "unloved public spaces."
14. Look underground. "So much of what happens at the city surface is impacted by what happens underground. From sewer systems to bedrock geology to culverts, what happens below the urban crust can highlight the history of a place, revealing why and how a city develops. In Lexington, SCAPE recently went subterranean, tracing the historic buried stream channel of Town Branch, and creating a podcast tour that describes this forgotten waterway and how it shapes the city's past and future." — Kate Orff, landscape architect, principal at SCAPE, author of Toward An Urban Ecology, New York City
15. Make an alley into a public art studio. Back in 2004, Detroit homeowners frustrated by people tagging and vandalizing their property decided if their garages were going to be canvases, they might as well benefit the community. Now, those alley-facing doors have become public galleries thanks to The Alley Project, which works with more than 100 young artists to showcase their work, hold art classes, and beautify the neighborhood.
16. Get lit. Sometimes it only takes a few spotlights to completely transform a city block. Casting light on a forgotten building can bring a renewed sense of appreciation and community. Boston’s new strategy to light its city hall has enlivened its famous adjacent plaza, even for those who hate the "Brutalist punching-bag" of a building.
17. Turn infrastructure into t-shirts. It’s a simple way to achieve instant street cred. German art group Raubdruckerin uses a "pirate printing" technique that, in essence, screenprints manhole covers, a process that creates graphic T-shirts with a clever connection to different European cities.
18. Fix up your porch. "In a city like New York it's easy to burrow inside your house and ignore the outside. But I have a neighbor with a stoop who has plants on every step, and a neighbor with a tiny vestibule who has managed to fit in one pretty copper pot by her front door. Both of their houses look brighter and friendlier, like they bothered to accessorize." — Alexandra Lange, architecture critic, Curbed
19. Don’t despair; depave. Working under the banner "free your soil," the Portland, Oregon-based group Depave has been kicking asphalt for a decades, turning unused parking and abandoned lots into community gardens and parks. If you discover an opportunity to literally reclaim your streets, the group has a guide on its website to help get started.
20. Make faces. German graphic designer Timm Schneider believes there’s nothing a pair of googly eyes can’t fix. By crafting pairs of eyeballs out of styrofoam and placing them on inanimate objects around his hometown of Gau-Algesheim, he’s adding a bit of Muppet-like merriment to his environment. How can you be in a bad mood when the garbage can is giving you a goofy grin?
21. Go chairbombing. Public benches and seats have been removed in many cities due to fears of loitering, which often has the sad side-effect of discouraging community interaction (cue Forrest Gump). To encourage people to sit, share, and socialize, Brooklyn group DoTank started chairbombing, upcycling discarded pallets into street furniture they set up on empty sidewalks, reclaiming the corner for the public.
22. Design fake signs. The frighteningly official looking faux signage installed by Michael Pederson stops people in their tracks and engages citizens with their cities, as they look around to see if anyone else noticed the caution sign placed next to a sidewalk crack or a rating system for the quietness of a local park. If you’re aiming to make a bigger splash, you could always take it upon yourself to fix an incorrect sign, like artist Richard Ankrom did with a spot-on replica of a Los Angeles freeway sign in 2001.
23. Turn utility boxes into civic canvases. In Philadelphia’s Washington Square West neighborhood, industrial metal utility boxes line the streets. Instead of seeing them as a mandatory, unusable part of the landscape, a group of local art students wrapped them in colorful artwork. This simple, striking beautification project, co-funded by the University of the Arts and Washington Square West Civic Association, turned more than a dozen aesthetic afterthoughts into colorful neighborhood symbols.
24. Turn a freeway overpass into a coworking hub. LA writer Kailee McGee was inspired to change up her work routine while on the road. Or more accurately, over the road. With the help of a handful of friends, McGee set up school desks on the apex of a pedestrian bridge over the 5 Freeway to create a pop-up, open-air coworking hub, complete with Wi-Fi and LaCroix (but of course). Nothing beats a change of perspective.
25. Network your alleys. Reinventing an alley can turn a dark, scary space into a vibrant place. An even better idea is to combine several alleys into a network of public spaces that stretch on for blocks. In Vancouver, the project More Awesome Now, is turning alleys (they call them laneways) into assets with basketball courts, foosball tables and shady cafes. And they’ll all be connected with a wayfinding system using bright paint and eye-catching graphics.
26. Create a fit path. As part of the Market Street Prototyping Festival, a San Francisco celebration of creative urban intervention, one design team decided that activating the sidewalk required a different kind of action. The City Fit Path proposal, a simple-to-set-up series of exercise stations and prompts, encourages easy and equitable workouts, no gym membership required.
27. Create a community sign initiative. Many marquee streets in American cities share a certain edge, history, and a organic form of verbal branding that helps draw attention, pedestrians, and customers. The CoSign project in Cincinnati’s Northside neighborhood used visuals to makeover a neglected block, commissioning artists to transform staid storefronts with arresting, original signage. After redecorating another street in Covington, Kentucky, the project is poised to hang a shingle, so to speak, in cities nationwide.
28. Remake an underpass into an art space. Los Angeles has hundreds of pedestrian underpasses originally built to help students get across busy streets. But most of the underpasses have been sealed off to discourage illegal activities. In the Cypress Park neighborhood, coffee shop owner Yancey Quinones fought to reopen a nearby tunnel and fill it with art. The monthly openings spill out into the streets, activating the entire block.
29. Start a parking lot diary. Lexington’s plans for the Town Branch Commons, a linear park system that would thread together different areas downtown, is a game-changer. Part of that new system will run through the Transit Center, a huge, bland parking lot that could be put to better use. To come up with a new use for the space, the city will set up a parking lot diary and let resident feedback determine the shape and function of their new urban park.
30. Open a gallery in your living room. If you think your apartment is cramped, maybe all it needs is a few paintings on the wall: Paul Soto turned his 300 square-foot apartment in Los Angeles into a functioning gallery.
31. Take over an empty storefront. Closed for business doesn’t need to mean closed from the community. Numerous neighborhood groups, artists, and local business groups have turned empty commercial spaces into canvases and economic catalysts. From Project Pop Up, which hosted an array of displays and shops in abandoned Pittsburgh Storefronts (some of which have become permanent tenants) to initiatives such as Chashama and SmartSpaces in New York, creatives are breathing new life into these underutilized spaces.
At Your Parks
32. Fix up your local park. Does barely functional equipment take the fun out of your local playground? Would new basketball courts or equipment make the park next door more enticing? To help guide those seeking to get their public parks in tip-top shape, the Center for Urban Pedagogy created a guide for building coalitions, activating the community, and petitioning local government for change. It’s New York-centric, but the lessons can be applied everywhere.
33. Build a pop-up playground. "Explode the static notion of the playground. No city resident is too old to play, and no city space is too small to become a playscape, even if just for a few hours. Gather loose parts (wood scraps, old tires, cardboard boxes, stones) and sponsor a session of Pop-Up Adventure Play. When people of all shapes, sizes and colors come together to play in unexpected ways, communities grow stronger." — Kate Tooke, Sasaki Associates
34. Start an urban orchard. This is more of a long-term solution to supporting parks and local agriculture. But isn’t the idyllic vision of sitting under an apple tree a few blocks from your apartment worth the wait? The Chicago Rarities Orchard Project (CROP) will literally take root in the city’s Logan Square neighborhood, in a lot adjacent to one of the area’s main intersections. The planters/planners also have plenty of additional fruit trees growing in a nursery, ready to be spread, Johnny Appleseed-style, to different sites across Chicago.
35. Build swing sets for adults. With the value of play proven to be a source of stress relief and inspiration, there’s no reason grown-ups can’t get in on the fun. An increasing number of cities and designers are providing adults with places to relax, recreate, and workout. The 21 Swings project by Tous les Jours transforms a busy median in Montréal into a highly visible space for fun.
36. Plan a pop-up dog park. If your neighborhood doesn’t have a place for dogs to run free, that’s nothing that a few yards of temporary fencing can’t fix. A pop-up dog park that’s become part of a weekly Sacramento farmers market became so popular it inspired a permanent park for pooches to be built nearby.
37. Ask kids to help design their own playgrounds. Participatory design shouldn’t have an age limit. Involving children in the creative process for local parks and playgrounds not only guarantees the end results will be more engaging to the end user, but it fosters an early appreciation for design. Firms such as Public Workshop are renowned for working with a much younger set of client when making playspaces a reality.
38. Turn a parking space into a park. Bustling streets can do much more than handle automobile traffic. That’s the idea behind Park(ing) Day, a worldwide event that encourage artists and designers to turn metered parking spots into temporary community installations. The concept has even become city policy; the Pavement to Park program allows sponsors in San Francisco to test similar projects and turn some into permanent public spaces, as does the People Street initiative in LA.
Along Your Route
39. Slow down. Driving just 5 mph slower might save someone’s life. A famous 2011 AAA study looked at 422 crashes involving pedestrians and determined that a person is twice as likely to die if they’re struck by a car traveling at 30 mph instead of 25 mph. Better yet, petition your city to implement a "20 is plenty" zone for dense urban areas—98 percent of pedestrians hit at that rate of speed will live.
40. Give directions to your entire city.With a mission to get more "feet on the street," the Walk Your City project promotes more conversational, community-oriented wayfinding. Community groups can visit the site, create a set of custom signs (with messages such as "It’s a 2-minute walk to the library"), and get them shipped and ready to install. The concept has already played out in cities such as Mount Hope, West Virginia, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.
41. Map a 40-minute walking circle around your house. Measure and draw a two-mile radius circle around your house to determine your "walkshed," the places you can easily walk. You’ll realize how many local amenities are closer than you think—most people can walk two miles in about 40 minutes—and you’ll be more likely to hoof it and support local businesses.
42. Don’t forget the suburbs when building bike lanes. Making your neighborhood safe for cycling is important, but shifting suburban commutes can make a massive difference in safety and larger transportation patterns. Initiatives like the Family Friendly Bikeways program in Chicago help connect riders across local cities and towns.
43. Paddle to work. Bikeshare and ride share have become commonplace. But paddling to work is another thing entirely. A recently announced kayak share concept in Minneapolis would let commuters ride the Mississippi, traveling between two stations on the mighty river. Since the boat docks would be connected to the city bikeshare system, it suggests a future where both modes of transportation could be part of your morning ride to work.
44. Organize a local car-free day. Every September 22 (that’s today!) cities around the world participate in a global Car-Free Day, showcasing the possibilities of a more progressive commute and the advantages of walkable streets and biking infrastructure. It’s not too late to join the annual celebration this year—leave your car at work and walk home!—then start planning for 2017.
45. Paint a pop-up bike lane. Rather than talk about the impact of new bike lanes on the Macon, Georgia, transportation network Better Block went ahead and brought the vision to life with the help of 498 cans of paint (and support from the city and the Knight Foundation). The pop-up paint job, which linked together existing bike lanes, may be a precursor to expanding the city’s cycling infrastructure.
46. Take the bus. "Get lost in your city. Often times we avoid certain areas or simply stay within our comfort zone, but the true city dweller should attempt to reach all areas of the place they call home. You'll be surprised to find that not everything you read—both positive and negative—is true." —Germane Barnes, architect, designer, and city planner, Opa-Locka, Florida
47. Obey traffic laws. Cars that swerve into bike lanes or don’t watch out for two-wheeled commuters definitely deserve to be called out and ticketed. Bikers who ignore rules don’t help the cause for better bike lanes and better enforcement. Pedestrians should pay attention while crossing busy streets. Everyone: Follow the rules of the road.
48. Bicycle to new parts of your city. Slow Roll, a community bike ride series that started in Detroit, gathers riders to interact and explore new parts of the city, promoting riding in new neighborhoods, as well as expansions of bike lanes and bikeshare systems into underserved areas.
49. Form a bicycle-friendly district. The city of Long Beach, California didn’t just want to encourage cyclists to frequent local stores and restaurants, it wanted to prove that people on bikes were good for small businesses. The bike-friendly business districts provide amenities for two-wheeled patrons like racks and discounts, and serve as hubs for the city’s growing bike network.
50. Protect your bike lanes with plants. Vancouver took the protected bikeway one step further, turning the typical painted lanes into a planted greenway. Using self-watering planters instead of utilitarian poles not only safely separates bikes from cars, it improves the streetscape for all its users.
51. Fix up your bus stop. Is there a more bland and boring seat than a typical urban bus stop, a functional, feckless box of plastic? These key parts of urban infrastructure desperately need an upgrade; community groups met that call to action with sharp redesigns, from Bus Stop Moves in Cleveland, which covers station walls with fitness instructions, or Ride, Rally, Ride in Memphis, which transforms transit stops into cycling hubs.
52. Build your own bridge. Nobody is suggesting that you try to one-up Robert Moses. But even a small span can make a difference. New York artist (and chief engineer) Jason Eppink often walked beneath the leaky Hell Gate Bridge Viaduct which flooded the sidewalk with a large puddle of dirty water. His satirical remedy, the Astoria Scum River Bridge, a miniature elevated wooden walkway, earned plaudits from locals, and eventually shamed the bridge owners into fixing the leaky pipes.
53. Host a transportation hackathon. Pedaling meets prototyping at the worldwide innovation workshop Cyclehack, which gathers designers and riders in cities around the globe to build and test new concepts for a better bike tech. Transportation Camp is an annual "unconference" for tackling tough transit problems.
54. Just ride a bike. Yes, riding a bike really can save the world. According to a 2015 study by the University of California at Davis, shifting more urban trips to bicycling, and cutting car use accordingly, could reduce urban transportation CO2 emissions by 50 percent worldwide by 2050. That seems especially feasible when you consider that half of all urban trips are a very bikeable six miles or less.
55. Organize a park-and-pedal. David Montague, the owner of a Boston company that makes foldable bicycles, wanted to encourage cycling in an area where many faced long commutes, and hit upon an ingenious hybrid solution: organize a cycling-based version of the park and ride systems utilized by city commuters. His Park&Pedal system, which utilizes existing parking lots and trails to encourages people to split their commute between biking and driving, now includes 19 lots around the Boston area.
56. Swim your local waterways. Urban rivers, lakes, and harbors are being revitalized at an astounding rate. Organizing events where people can use waterways for recreation—even for one day!—helps visualize change. In Boston, the annual swimming events sponsored by the Charles River Swimming Club have bolstered restoration efforts for the once-polluted, now-swimmable river.
With Your Neighbors
57. Organize a bar crawl. Phoenix’s Meet Me Downtown functions as a weekly after-work mixer as well as a fitness event that gets people out on the streets and into local bars and restaurants. A variety of routes send participants into new neighborhoods and participating businesses offer deals for those who walk or run.
58. Bake some pies. Small businesses struggled to stay open in the economically depressed downtown of Greensboro, Alabama. PieLab started as a pop-up shop to create a neutral space for food, community, and conversation, and, working with a local housing nonprofit, quickly evolved into a job-training center and full-service restaurant that all Main Streets need.
59. Get to know your neighbors. "We bring the trash cans out every Monday for our 85-year old neighbor and keep an eye out for him generally. We swap our lemons for another neighbor's superior kale. My husband bartered with our house painter neighbor: he designed the painter's website and the painter painted our house! We are on a first-name basis with all the store owners in our little 'downtown,' from bakery to bookstore. Our neighborhood has a Yahoo group—so old school—and through it I've found my daughter's preschool, a new dog walker, numerous babysitters and first learned about the hood's fabulous 4th of July parade. A neighborhood feels pretty special when we know we're all looking out for each other." — Allison Arieff, editorial director, SPUR
60. Provide dignity. Extend basic services to help your city’s most marginalized residents feel more welcome. Mobile showers and easily accessible public restrooms give people a moment of privacy and peace.
61. Start a YIMBY group. Across the country, pro-development, pro-housing fans are organizing against NIMBYs with unified YIMBY—that’s "Yes In My Backyard"—movements. This year the first national YIMBY conference was held in Boulder.
62. Launch an oral history project. From Studs Terkel to StoryCorps, there’s a rich tradition of storytelling as a time capsule of modern life. Documenting your neighbors’s stories preserves the fabric and history of a neighborhood, giving context to why this place and its people matters.
63. Don’t eat so much meat. A 2016 Oxford University study showed reducing the amount of meat in Western diets by half could significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save over $31 trillion (trillion, with a T) in healthcare costs. The #MeatlessMonday movement has gotten governments and schools all over the world pledging to stick to veggies one day of the week. (If you already don’t eat meat the rest of the days of the week, you’re ahead of the game.)
64. Volunteer. There are dozens of groups in your neighborhood doing their part to make your city a better place. Spend a few hours pitching in.
65. Share your idea with your neighbors
The urgency of urban planning today
Within a few decades' time, we can expect the planet to become more crowded, resources more precious, and innovative urban planners increasingly important. By midcentury, the global population will likely top nine billion, and more than half will live in cities. What will these cities look like? Will we have the resources to power them and comfortably provide for their residents? Will global urbanization harmonize with efforts to curb climate change and secure a sustainable future, or are these forces hurtling towards a head-on collision?
The TED speakers featured in Ecofying Cities underscore the urgency, but also suggest that some optimism's in order as they outline the issues and offer imaginative solutions.
There's no single reason for or response to the complex environmental, economic and social challenges that are part of our future in cities. They call for multiple approaches, originating from different sources — individuals, communities, governments, businesses — and deployed at different levels — in the home, the neighborhood, the city, region, nation and across the globe — to respond to the challenges at hand. As Alex Steffen reminds the urban planners, architects, designers, elected leaders and others involved in the effort, "All those cities are opportunities."
Urbanism and the environment: A brief history
For centuries, successful city-building has required careful attention to the environmental consequences of urban development. Without this, as Jared Diamond demonstrated in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, a city inevitably ended up fouling its nest, thus entering a spiral of epidemics, economic hardship, decline and, ultimately, oblivion. Civilizations evolved different ways of dealing with environmental considerations — some with more success than others. For example, thanks to elaborate aqueducts and sewer systems, the Romans were able to build and sustain for centuries large cities that featured a reliable public water supply and state-of-the-art public health conditions.
In other civilizations, however, residents simply abandoned cities when they could no longer rely on their environment to supply the resources they needed. Often this was a direct result of their own activities: for example, deforestation and the attendant erosion of fertile soil, epidemics due to contaminated water and, with the advent of coal-fired industrialization, air pollution.
Urban planning got its start as a profession largely dedicated to averting different types of crises arising from urban growth and providing conditions for public health. This was particularly true in the many 19th century European and North American cities transformed by industrialization and unprecedented rates of population growth. Rapidly deteriorating air and water quality made it necessary to introduce regulations to protect the health of the residents of these cities.
The planners' first-generation improvements included sewers, water treatment and distribution, and improved air quality through building codes and increased urban green space. It's especially remarkable today to think that these interventions were adopted in response to observable health consequences, but without knowledge of the contamination mechanisms at work: germ theory didn't arrive on the scene until Louis Pasteur published his work in the 1860s. From the late 19th century onward Pasteur's findings bolstered the case for even more urban sanitation improvements, particularly those designed to improve water quality.
Starting in the 1950s, however, planners no longer narrowly targeted immediate health effects on urban residents as their chief environmental concern. Their work also absorbed and reflected Western society's deeper understanding of, and respect for, natural processes and growing awareness of the long-term environmental impacts of cities from the local to the planetary scale.
Rachel Carson is often credited as the first to popularize environmentalism. Published in 1962, her landmark book Silent Spring sounded a warning call about how pesticides endanger birds and entire ecological systems. Soon after, air pollution became a rallying point for environmentalists, as did the loss of large tracks of rural and natural land to accelerated, sprawling development. Today, sustainable development and smart growth, which largely overlap and address multiple environmental considerations, enjoy wide currency; most urban planning is now based on these principles.
Today, as we reckon with population growth, advancing rates of urbanization, and widespread recognition of climate change, we know that the cities of the future share a common destiny. The choices we make about how we build, inhabit and maintain these cities will have global and long-term effects.
Sustainable development: Two schools of thought
In modern urban planning, there are two general categories of sustainable development. The first doesn't challenge the present dynamics of the city, allowing them to remain largely low-density and automobile-oriented, but still makes them the object of measures aimed to reduce their environmental load (for example, green construction practices). Ian McHarg spearheaded this approach as a way to develop urban areas in harmony with natural systems; the planning principles he formulated gave special care to the preservation of water and green space. His lasting influence is visible in many of the more enlightened suburban developments of recent decades which respect the integrity of natural systems. Today, the Landscape Urbanism movement promotes these same ideas.
A second school of urban development focuses on increasing urban density and reducing reliance on the automobile. This approach advocates transit-oriented and mixed-use development along pedestrian-friendly "complete streets." On a regional scale, it aims to reduce sprawl by creating a network of higher-density multifunctional centers interconnected by public transit. Today, it's common for plans with a metropolitan scope to follow this approach.
Studying the city: About these materials
Cities are arguably the most complex human creation (with the possible exception of language) so it's not surprising that we study them at multiple scales and from diverse perspectives. We can approach cities through a narrow focus on an individual building or a neighborhood, expand the investigation to consider a metropolitan region in its entirety, or study the global system of cities and its interconnections. What's more, we can think about cities as built environments, social networks, modified ecologies, economic systems and political entities. Aware of the multiple ways that we engage with cities, the Romans had two words to refer to them: urbs referred to the physical city with its wall and buildings, and civitas, the city as a collection of residents.
Ecofying Cities explores urban areas at different scales. In some cases, the TED speaker focuses on a neighborhood project, like The High Line in Manhattan; others describe city-wide transformation, as in Curitiba, Brazil, or a regional or national initiative like China's plan for a network of eco-cities to house its growing urban population. Likewise, the talks explore cities from different disciplinary perspectives including urban planning, urban design, transportation planning, architecture, community organization and environmental science. What unites them all? A commitment to sustainability and a belief that sustainability is more about creating positive effects rather than reducing negative impacts.
The message emanating from Ecofying Cities is one of complexity, optimism and uncertainty. We can't be sure that the changes these speakers suggest will be enough to help us balance supply and demand in the sustainability equation. But we can expect that their ideas and efforts will improve the built environment — as well as quality of life — in cities, thereby providing hopeful perspectives for a sustainable future.
Let´s begin with writer and futurist Alex Steffen´s TEDTalk "The Sharable Future of Cities" for a look at the interplay between increasing urban density and energy consumption.
Right now, our economy operates as Paul Hawken said, "by stealing the future, selling it in the present and calling it GDP." And if we have another eight billion or seven billion people, living on a planet where their cities also steal the future, we're going to run out of future really fast. But if we think differently, I think that, in fact, we can have cities that are not only zero emissions, but have unlimited possibilities as well.Alex Steffen