This story originally appeared in our May 19th, 2011 e-magazine. Click here to subscribe

Although today’s cities face many challenges, they also posses the potential to be socially inclusive, environmentally sustainable and economically thriving.

By Prathima Manohar

The 21st century is the age of cities. Earlier this decade, we reached a historic milestone when over 50% of humanity started living in cities. Urbanization may be at the heart of some of the world’s most pressing problems today from climate change to poverty, but if leveraged appropriately, urbanization can be at the heart of the solutions. Cities can offer a remarkable way to create a socially inclusive, environmentally sustainable and economically thriving society.

In the coming years, policymakers face difficult challenges of balancing environmental concerns, promoting robust economic growth, safeguarding social justice, as well as ensuring good quality of life. Clearly, cities are complex systems and we need to embrace a wide variety of innovative strategies at macro and micro levels to bring alive the visions of the ideal city that is green, equitable, vibrant and pleasant. But the principles of urban planning based on dense, walkable, mass transit driven, mixed use communities integrated with high performance buildings and infrastructure can lead to transformative change.

Green City
Over 50% of any city’s energy use is owed to the transport sector and this ecological footprint of a city is linked to urban form, density and transport. According to estimates, the resident of a high density, mass transit driven European city produces 10 tons of carbon dioxide pollution a year, compared with 20 tons produced by his North American counterpart in a standard auto-centric, low-density city.  So in many ways we don’t have to re-invent the wheel or invent new technologies to address the climate crisis, we simply need to draw inspiration from the past and build cities that are walkable with good public transport.

Inclusive City
The inspiring former Mayor of Bogota Enrique Penalosa once said to me: “Quality of life distribution is more important than income distribution. In developing world cities, most of people don’t have cars, so I will say, when you construct a good sidewalk, you are constructing equality. A sidewalk is a symbol of equality.” We need to emphasize that density is key to a walkable city and a walkable city is an inclusive city.

A sprawled low-density city doesn’t fundamentally allow social interaction and tends to create divisions based on income. Auto-centric and mall culture also make for a socially exclusive city. This could be one of the reasons why sprawled cities have higher rates of crime than dense ones.

The success of a city in the 21st century is going to be determined by the human capital that it is able to attract and nurture. Cities today are competing for the best talent that can augment the productivity of their economy. Cities have aggressively started to invest in vibrant public spaces to boost their community’s quality of life. Experts like Jane Jacobs and Richard Florida have also argued that dense cities are key for interaction and aid innovation which are key to a successful economy.

Visions of a better place
These solutions may not be easy to implement politically, but they are the need of the hour. Some cities have already shown leadership in embracing these principles. New York closed down some of its major thoroughfares to cars and has turned lanes of Broadway in Times Square and Herald Square into pedestrian zones. London levies a congestion charge on private car use in the inner city. Seoul demolished an expressway to reclaim an old river and transformed it into a great public space.

Prathima Manohar is the founder of The Urban Vision.

Photo credit: Flickr user Ivan Walsh

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