Planning better cities
Cities, the American-Canadian author Jane Jacobs once observed, are engines for national prosperity and economic growth. But in their current form, modern cities are also catalysts of inequality and environmental degradation. Today, the share of city dwellers in poverty is growing; 33% live in slums; and 75% of global carbon dioxide emissions originate in metropolitan areas. Statistics like these should give us pause: Are cities really the best way to organise human life?
They can be, but only with significant adjustments to how they are planned, built, and managed. For city-led growth to empower a sustainable, prosperous future, governments and developers must reintroduce a user-centred approach to urbanisation.
Today, most cities fail to include key stakeholders in the planning process, leading to exclusionary development. Consider the ubiquitous housing project on the edge of town, a characteristic of many poorly planned cities. Built in the middle of nowhere, these multi-unit eyesores are often cut off from public transportation and other services, compounding residents’ isolation from the urban core.
But design flaws like these, which have both economic and social implications, are just the beginning. Even more worrying to urban planning professionals like us is that in many places, the entire planning process – the way we think about cities, how they are used, and by whom – is flawed.
Even the world’s best-intentioned planning departments do not always put the public first. Part of this reflects uncertainty about who “owns” a city. Residents might call a city “theirs,” but government leaders often act in ways that suggest otherwise. For example, a government seeking to attract investment might equate economic interests with residents’ needs, and thus lower environmental standards or tax burdens for businesses. Such decisions might, however, lead to deurbanisation, with people leaving cities as they become less livable.
The gap between economic viability and environmental responsibility can be especially wide. Consider the production of traditional, gasoline-powered cars. Although this type of industry might power some cities’ growth today, the public’s growing concern about CO2 emissions from these vehicles is spurring changes in consumer demand.