In 2006, for the first time in history, the world’s urban population surpassed three billion, reaching 50% of the world’s population. This fact demonstrates the important role that cities play in this era of not only globalization, but also urbanization and decentralization. Indeed, cities are the physical locations in which the most important economic, social, and ecological challenges currently take place. Specifically, the phenomenon of accelerated urban growth has led to an era of increased consumption and environmental degradation, positioning cities as the key issue of any agenda for sustainability. I believe that the future city-world will have to deal with sustainability as the main agenda issue if it wants to survive, and therefore I will focus this article on the relation of urban form to the global challenge of sustainability.
It is widely acknowledged that cities have sizeable ecological footprints. As a result, a new movement encouraging sustainable urbanism has emerged. It is assumed that traditional urbanism cannot solve the issues facing today’s growing cities, and new approaches are needed to address these cities’ actual social, economic, and ecological challenges. Politicians, professionals, and academicians from around the world have promoted innovative and sustainable proposals and designs for their cities during the last decade. Consequently, modern eco-cities designed to minimize energy consumption, waste, and pollution have appeared across the globe. However, these proposals have frequently become nothing more than a collection of high-tech buildings and green corridors, responding more to political agendas than to an eco-revolution. Urban designers should address this global challenge from a deeper understanding of the lifestyles that have lead us to this situation and propose new physical forms for the city that can help us to achieve our goals.
For example, the city of Malmö in Sweden has developed an integrated plan for a new urban area wherein the main objective is to create a climate neutral city. In order to evolve from its industrial past, the city of Malmö redefined itself as a sustainable urban development that addresses the three dimensions of sustainability: environmental, social, and economic. Thus, since the 1980s, Malmö has developed several sustainability proposals that have positioned it as one of the most important eco-friendly regions in Europe. Although the city has demonstrated its success in decreasing energy consumption and gas emissions, it does not offer a new approach to city life or an alternative cityscape. The predominance of the car as a mode of transport and the high number of luxury freehold flats with outstanding views over the ocean –which have led to evident social segregation—are some examples of how Malmö has failed in addressing this global challenge.
Some views of the architecture in Västra Hamnen, Malmö. [Source: The City of Malmö – Environmental Department. "Guide Western Harbour." Malmö: The City of Malmö, 2009]
On the other hand, projects such as the Smart City by Studio 8, presented at the Quangming Urban Design Competition in 2005, have proposed a new approach to community life, in which farms, recreation, and technology are integrated. This approach takes into consideration the flow and use of water, the production and consumption of food; the management of waste; and identity and place aspects, in order to generate a self-sustaining city. Although the scheme borders on utopian, the project offers an urban design structure that could make possible the city-world of the future.
Model and Perspective of Smart City, Studio 8, Quangming Urban Design Competition. [Source: CJ Lim Studio 8 Architects. CJ Lim Studio 8 Architects. http://www.cjlim-studio8.com/ (accessed 05 07, 2010)]
Today the ecological crisis is unavoidable, but a social and cultural diversity crisis also exists that needs to be addressed. The rapid population increases in urban settlements has entailed a rise in social segregation and poverty. Globalization has also encouraged a fragmented city in which the extremes are becoming more and more pronounced. The shift toward ecologically responsible urban development must also address the other side of the dialectical couplet that constitutes acceptable development: cultural sustainability. In that sense, the future city-world should reflect the global issues related to the physical nature of our earth (pollution, global warming, poles melting, etc), as well as address our unsustainable lifestyles, the cultural heart of the matter, which is also globalized. The city-world of tomorrow will be an urban settlement that respects the ground on which it develops and considers it a common good for all the inhabitants. Moreover, it will shelter all people by shaping spaces for coexistence and promoting social integration.