Looking around at modern cities, it can be hard to tell whether they’ve embraced the need to for efficient, clean, and data-driven development, or whether we are all still at the beginning of a long road...
For every green city initiative and clean-fuel city bus there seem to be ten cities struggling with smog, water pollution, and congestion. As Special Consultant for the Sustainable Cities Collective, David Thorpe has spent years deciphering where our urban areas are headed, and spoke with us to outline what he sees as the major steps for the future.
A major key to modern urban planning is short-distance transport, since it’s what most city-dwellers encounter daily. “There is more and more awareness of the need to plan for walkability and cyclability in cities,” says Thorpe, which benefits health, congestion, and air quality. “As cities spread, we need to think of hubs, and how local services can be provided at these hubs. This reduces the need to commute or travel in the first place.” Commuting distances, congestion tolls, and electric vehicle charging stations are examples of how we can evolve to the next stage.
Ultimately, the complex systems that characterize dense cities require efficient linkages which reduce friction, and thus waste. These smaller and more specialized transit options are greatly enhanced by today’s collaborative, or sharing, economy.
“It reduces the difference and the distance between consumers and producers since, in truth, every one of us embodies both. As consumers we are not passive, we are active and we want to participate in our world. Whatever we do, we produce value. A collaborative economy harnesses this value and makes the most of it,” explains Thorpe.
In fact, crowdsourcing is one of the recent trends in urban planning that has Thorpe most energized, he calls it the ‘wisdom’ of the crowd. “We should be asking them: how can we make the best of what we've got? This is especially true in developing countries, where there is a danger of favelas and shantytowns being bulldozed for unsustainable developments, instead of helping the people who live there to help themselves and supporting them in what they need. They are no different from the rest of us in wanting to improve their community and quality of life, and having the skills to do so.”
Thorpe is also excited about urban farming, saying that since it’s the biggest source of carbon emissions after energy consumption, all of the flexible farming arrangements coming into vogue - CSAs, rooftop gardens, school gardening programs - have the potential to make a huge difference. On the high-tech end, dye-sensitized photovoltaic building wraps are paving the way for more design-conscious solar power.
There are communication hurdles to be overcome on the road to a green future; when city departments have different goals and reporting structures, bureaucracy can overwhelm the project. “Departments need to talk to each other, and life-cycle analysis needs to be applied across the board so that there are overall environmental, carbon and cost savings.” He gives the example of a public finance department, which should add in the real value of better public health, more jobs, and other benefits when making the case for investors to commit to projects. “Successful sustainable projects happen when those at the top, in government, and those at the grassroots work together instead of against each other.”
It appears that the most pressing challenges in green development are not technological ones, but organizational. “We already have all the ideas and inventions that are needed to make cities sustainable,” says Thorpe, going on to offer some advice to the younger generation, who may be considering taking up the mantle. “Everywhere that you see successful projects, it's because charismatic individuals have been able to bring people together with an inspiring vision. Young people also need to bring rigour, so they can use proven established standards to establish baselines and measure progress accurately. It's no good saying or assuming that something is sustainable, you have to prove it objectively.”
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